Teaching and Learning Persuasion


In Professional Communication and Presentation, the largest chunks of lecture time will always be spent on 1) presentation anxiety/delivery, 2) slide design, and 3) persuasion.  While we have plenty of other mini-lessons, these are the largest because they require the most time and dedication.

Tomorrow, we will begin discussing persuasion in preparation for my students’ persuasive Ignite speeches at the end of the month.  What I like most about persuasion is that it is accessible to my students.  We start with Aristotle’s modes of persuasion, and then we look at how far we’ve come as human beings by examining persuasive advertising.  A few years ago, I read Chip and Dan Heath’s Made To Stick, and I came up with an in-class exercise to help us understand how these ideas tie into ethos, pathos, and logos…

Made To Stick: The SUCCESs Activity

SIMPLE: The Importance of a Clear Core Focus

During his campaign, one of Bill Clinton’s advisors wrote on a chalkboard, “It’s the economy, stupid!” in an effort to remind the staff of their core focus.  A presentation must have a clear and simple core focus, and we can learn quite a lot from the core focus a company communicates.  Consider the core focus of Wal-Mart versus Target.  Your task is to think of two companies who provide similar products or services.  Compare and contrast the core focus of each company.  Is that core focus communicated simply?  How does advertising help that simple message stick?

UNEXPECTED: The Importance of Breaking a Pattern

“Hello, my name is Alex Rister, and I’m here to talk to you about my Ignite presentation.  My argument is…”  The typical presentation follows a boring, bland pattern, and the typical presentation sucks.  Breaking a pattern is important because it jolts the audience awake and forces them to pay attention.  Your task is to find a presentation that displays unexpectedness – that breaks a pattern.  Explain what the presenter did to break a pattern, how he/she did it, and why it worked to engage the audience.  How does breaking a pattern help a message stick?

CONCRETE: From Abstract to Concrete

Concrete ideas are easier to remember.  Consider Jane Elliott, an elementary school teacher who taught the abstract concept of “prejudice” to her young students after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.  Your task is to consider one abstract concept (such as “love” or “pride”) and to explain how you could make that abstract concept more concrete.  If concrete messages are “stickier” than abstract messages, what tips could you give us on transforming abstract ideas to concrete ideas?

CREDIBLE: Developing Credibility

A presenter can develop his or her credibility through research and citing references.  Your task is to examine the difference between a credible source and a non-credible source.  How can you tell the difference?  How does a credible source work to increase the credibility of the presenter?

EMOTIONAL: Make Your Audience Feel Feelings

If a presenter makes the audience feel feelings, the speech is more likely to resonate.  We make people care by appealing to the things that matter to them.  Your task is to brainstorm a list of things most American audience members care about (for example, “patriotism” or “success”).  How can you use this list to connect with your audience on an emotional level during a presentation?

STORY: The Most Powerful and Effective Communication Medium

Chip and Dan Heath tell us that story is the most effective medium for communicating information because we remember and can repeat story easily.  Consider the story of Subway’s Jared.  Your task is to find another company that uses story to advertise a product or service.  Explain how the story is told through the advertisement.  What qualities of that story make it memorable?


The next thing we will do in class is examine Andrew Dlugan’s amazing “Three Pillars of Public Speaking” article series to help us study persuasion.  Finally, we will check out the work behind the fun, animated video I posted earlier this week.  I found “Harnessing the Science of Persuasion” by Robert B. Cialdini online, so we’ll look at this together to see what connections we can make between the Heath brothers’ work, Dlugan’s articles, and good old Aristotle.

How do you teach persuasion in your communication and presentation classes?


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