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How to be (and sound) persuasive

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Much of the time when you're giving a presentation, your objective is to persuade your audience about your point of view or proposal. There are a number of things you can do if this is the case, and I'm going to use Bill Clinton's speech at the Democratic Convention in 2015 to illustrate them. As usual, I make no comment about the content or his political argument; my interest is purely in the way he delivered it. What makes it stand out is that in an age when most political speeches are aimed at the party faithful and are full of hot air and stirring words but completely lacking in any informational value, his appeared to be a genuine attempt to persuade the audience of his point of view.

Bill Clinton

Part of the reason it was so well received is, of course, that he used many of the rhetorical techniques I recommend (you can click here to read a full transcript of the speech with all of the techniques identified and highlighted), but it's possible (in fact, it's extremely commonplace) to do this and still fail to be the slightest bit persuasive. The reason Clinton's speech was so effective is that he used a number of other very powerful techniques that you can use in your next presentation.

1. Use 'explainers'

When it comes to presentations, for the audience it's often the equivalent of entering “half-way through the movie.” Unless they're particularly knowledgeable about a topic, they may not have the necessary background information to understand what's being presented.

And presenters don't always give it, either because they don’t want to weigh things down with information they’ve given in previous presentations, or because they’re so immersed in their subject that they forget not everyone knows as much as they do about the subject. Just because you eat, drink, sleep and breathe a subject, it doesn't mean your audience does too.

Clinton recognized this, and used phrases like “here’s what it does” and “here’s what really happened.”

  • Now, look. Here’s the challenge he faces and the challenge all of you who support him face.”
  • “So the president’s student loan reform is more important than ever. Here’s what it does – here’s what it does.”
  • “Let’s take a look at what’s actually happened so far, when talking about healthcare.”
  • “Now what does this mean? What does this mean? Think of it. It means no one will ever have to drop out of college again for fear they can’t repay their debt.”
  • “Look, here’s what really happened. You be the judge. Here’s what really happened.”

2. Ask and answer questions

The fancy rhetorical name for this is Hypophora. This takes the questions that are probably flying around the audience’s heads, voices them aloud and then answers them for them. It's a good choice when you know the audience has some knowledge of your subject, e.g. “I think there are four basic questions we have to ask ourselves when looking at this issue. The first is . . . how much is this going to cost?"

  • "So who’s right? Well, since 1961, for 52 years now, the Republicans have held the White House 28 years, the Democrats, 24. In those 52 years, our private economy has produced 66 million private sector jobs. So what’s the job score? Republicans, 24 million; Democrats, 42."
  • "Why? Because poverty, discrimination and ignorance restrict growth."
  • "Now, why is this true? Why does cooperation work better than constant conflict? Because nobody’s right all the time, and a broken clock is right twice a day."
  • "Now, why do I believe it? I’m fixing to tell you why. I believe it because .........."
  • "So what’s happened? There are now 250,000 more people working in the auto industry than on the day the companies were restructured."
  • "Now what does this mean? Think of it. It means no one will ever have to drop out of college again for fear they can’t repay their debt."
  • "Well, are they right? Let’s take a look at what’s actually happened so far."
  • "Are we better off because President Obama fought for health care reform? You bet we are."

3. Signpost the important points

Clinton often told his audience to listen to what he was about to say next. This is especially effective on TV when people might be multi-tasking and reading the newspaper or surfing the net while the TV's on in the background (or during remote presentations when they might be checking emails while listening to you), or in longer presentations when the audience's attention might be wandering.

  • “And listen to this. Listen to this. … Now, finally, listen to this.”
  • "Here’s what it does. You need to tell every voter where you live about this."
  • "And so here’s what I want to say to you, and here’s what I want the people at home to think about."
  • "... you all got to listen carefully to this; this is really important."
  • “... this is getting serious, and I want you to listen. It’s important, because a lot of people believe this stuff. ”
  • "Now, folks, this is serious, because it gets worse. And you won’t be laughing when I finish telling you this."
  • "Think about this: President Obama’s plan cuts the debt, honors our values, brightens the future of our children, our families and our nation.
  • “Listen to me, now. No president — no president, not me, not any of my predecessors, no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years.”
  • "Wait, you need to know, here’s what happened. Nobody ever tells you what really happened — here’s what happened."

4.The 'Rule of One'

I've spoken many times about the 'Rule of Threes', and how the human brain reacts to threes better than twos or fours. But it also reacts well to in'ividual words that are emphasized. Clinton emphasizes two words in particular by pausing before saying them, enunciating them carefully and repeating them.

  • “So here’s another job score. President Obama: plus 4 1/2 million. Congressional Republicans ... zero.”
  • “Here – here’s another job score: Obama, 250,000; Romney … zero.”
  • “What new ideas did we bring to Washington? I always give a one-word answer ... Arithmetic.”
  • “It was a highly inconvenient thing for them in our debates that I was just a country boy from Arkansas, and I came from a place where people still thought two and two was four. It’s ... arithmetic.”

5. Use figures selectively to support your argument

Many presenters throw reams of figures and statistics at the audience in the mistaken belief that 'more is better' (think Gordon Brown, ex-UK Prime Minister). There's often a tendency to think that the more information someone has, the better the eventual decision. More data is seen almost as an unqualified good.

This is especially true with predominantly left-brained people, who are logical and thorough and who like data, facts and information. So facts and figures and data and graphs and pie charts are thrown on to PowerPoint slides 'just in case' (see Analysis paralysis: how too much information can lead to worse decision-making). Instead of using a shotgun to blast them at the audience, hoping some of them will hit, effective presenters use a sniper's rifle to fire facts and figures selectively to enhance their argument. They recognize they're not an end in themselves, but a means to an end.

  • "So who’s right? Well, since 1961, for 52 years now, the Republicans have held the White House 28 years, the Democrats, 24. In those 52 years, our private economy has produced 66 million private sector jobs. So what’s the job score? Republicans, 24 million; Democrats, 42."
  • "When President Barack Obama took office, the economy was in free fall. It had just shrunk 9 full percent of GDP. We were losing 750,000 jobs a month."
  • "The recovery act saved or created millions of jobs and cut taxes for 95 percent of the American people. And, in the last 29 months, our economy has produced about 4 1/2 million private sector jobs. We could have done better, but last year the Republicans blocked the president’s job plan, costing the economy more than a million new jobs. So here’s another job score. President Obama: plus 4 1/2 million. Congressional Republicans: zero."

6. Use inclusive language

Although Clinton was speaking to dyed-in-the-wool Democrats, his real audience was undecided voters sitting at home and watching on TV. He spoke to the audience like he believed they were smart and would understand a well-reasoned argument, instead of just attacking the opposition (though he did some of that too) and used inclusive phrases throughout the speech like 'we', 'us', 'y'all' and 'my fellow Americans' as if they were already on his wavelength and thinking along the same lines.

  • “My fellow Americans, all of us in this grand hall and everybody watching at home, when we vote in this election, we’ll be deciding what kind of country we want to live in.”
  • "Now, there’s something I’ve noticed lately. You probably have too. And it’s this ..."
  • "And every one of us — every one of us and every one of them - we’re compelled to spend our fleeting lives between those two extremes, knowing we’re never going to be right all the time and hoping we’re right more than twice a day."
  • "One of the main reasons we ought to re-elect President Obama is that he is still committed to constructive cooperation."
  • "Now, we all know that he also tried to work with congressional Republicans on health care, debt reduction and new jobs."
  • "In Tampa — did y’all watch their convention? I did ..."
  • "Now, we all know that Governor Romney opposed the plan to save GM and Chrysler."
  • "We can’t let it happen. We can’t."
  • "And I hope you and every American within the sound of my voice remembers it every time they see one of those ads..."
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