Powers of Persuasion

Powers of Persuasion

Politicians aim to give us something we desire—hope for better circumstances, guidance toward a better future, a sense of involvement in our destiny, a plan involving common goals, an example of leadership we can admire. How do politicians persuade us that they are satisfying our needs? Politicians learn certain techniques to strengthen their powers of persuasion and achieve their objectives. 

The famous Greek philosopher Aristotle identified three powerful modes of persuasion in rhetoric. The first is ethos, or the character of the speaker. Politicians want their audiences to view them as likeable people and trustworthy authority figures. President Barack Obama often appeals to ethos by aligning himself with his audience. In his second inaugural address, he stated, “My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it—so long as we seize it together.” 

The second mode of persuasion is logos, or the logic of the speaker’s ideas. Successful politicians provide clear arguments and convince audiences that they are knowledgeable. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, a widely acknowledged masterful speaker, uses appeals to logos and authority in many speeches and texts. He often highlights key points by asking the audience to “listen to this, because this is important.” He also relays statistics as if they were a sports score: “So what’s the job score? Republicans, 24 million; Democrats, 42 (million).” The message he tries to send with these appeals is “the facts and logic support my opinion, and you can trust me, because I know what I’m talking about.” 

The third mode of persuasion is pathos, or the ability to persuade through emotional appeal.Politicians know that emotions such as sorrow, anger, and joy are often powerful motivating forces. They often choose words that evoke an emotional response, to compel the audience to agree with their point of view. In Statement on the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy uses pathos to persuade American citizens to move forward with peace in their hearts. For example, he asks the audience to “return home, say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King,” using words that remind people of positive emotions such as love and faith. He also reminds the audience that he understands their feelings of anger, having lost his own brother to violence. 

While some politicians master the three modes of persuasion in rhetoric, others don’t have as much success exercising powers of persuasion. It’s up to the audience to decide whether or not to support a leader’s decisions and actions. 

How to Persuade an audience

  • Repetition – repeating words or phrases to strengthen an argument (Ex: “We must act with courage. We must act with conviction. We must act now.”)
  • Emotional appeal – using words that evoke an emotional response from an audience (Ex: “If we allow the enemy to possess chemical weapons, our children will lay in sleepless terror each night.”)n
  • Rhetorical questions – asking questions with obvious answers to engage an audience (Ex: “Do we want our elderly to suffer from a lack of health care funding?”)
  • Generalization – making broad or general statements applied to a large group of people or things (Ex: “All people want money, power, and fame.”)