Archives For persuasion

persuasionUsing reason and logic to counter Trump’s rhetoric — his tweets, off-the-cuff remarks, speeches — doesn’t work.

You can fact check his statements, and cite glaring errors. You can point to his tweets or video clips in which he made contradictory statements. You can punch gaping holes in the logic of his arguments.

All to no avail.

It’s as if reason and logic — the mainstays of traditional rhetoric — don’t apply to Trump. Nor do they sway his supporters.

Why not?

The knee-jerk response is to write off Trump and his supporters as illogical and irrational. Defective in some way.

But I don’t think that’s the case. And it doesn’t give us any insight into their behavior or how we might influence it.

For most of us — not just Trump and his supporters — reason and logic aren’t the main drivers that inform our thinking or guide our behavior.

At some primal level we function in a pre-rational — not an irrational — manner. We act not illogically, but without logic.

Logic is a mental discipline with its own rules and processes. Many of which are counter-intuitive.

Logic isn’t something we naturally pick up: it has to be learned. Usually later in life.

In our earliest, most formative years, our brains simply are not wired for logic.

There’s a reason why we use logic infrequently. It’s hard work. It takes time. It requires a detached, somewhat cool and calculating mind.

After all, it takes time and energy to think things through. To examine the evidence and weigh its validity. To make conscious our personal biases and account for how they influence our thinking. To formulate an argument and test its logic. To engage others in an open dialogue, with the willingness to change our thinking as a result.

Most of us don’t take the time, make the effort, or know how to think things through rationally and logically.

It is easier and faster to react to new people, events, or ideas reflexively, relying on a largely unconscious set of gut instincts, inherited beliefs, and deeply ingrained habits.

We can’t reason people out of beliefs, prejudices, erroneous assumptions that they didn’t reason themselves into.

If we want to influence people (like Trump supporters), if we want to change how they think and act, we have to take a different approach.

We can — and should — use reason and logic to develop our own positions, proposals, solutions. But in advocating for them, we need to present a message that speaks to people’s more basic, instinctual, gut-level fears, hopes, and attachments.

It’s fire in the belly that moves people, not the cold light of logic and reason.


persuasionWe can’t reason people out of beliefs, opinions, judgments, prejudices, and behaviors that they didn’t reason themselves into.

We can’t change people’s ways of thinking and acting simply by giving them new information and leading them step by step through a logical process of analysis and understanding.

We can’t, in short, persuade people to change by logic and reasoning.

There are two main reasons for this.

First, we form our basic beliefs and behavior patterns as children, when our ability to reason is underdeveloped, if not entirely lacking. For the most part we adopt, without thinking, the beliefs and behaviors of those around us.

When we question our beliefs and behaviors later in life—if we question them at all—we’re still inclined to give them credence. Reinforced by habit, they “feel” right, natural, proper.

And second, we aren’t rational beings. At least, rationality isn’t our primary way of understanding and relating to the world.

The process of reasoning—gathering and assessing information, questioning assumptions, forming opinions, analyzing them and revising them when necessary—doesn’t come naturally to us. It’s a skill we have to learn.

Reasoning takes time and effort. And in a world that comes at us like a Mack truck, at a thousand miles an hour, with horns blaring, demanding an immediate response, we tend not to reflect but to react.

We don’t say, “Whoa, hold your horses. Give me some time to think this through.” We don’t, in short, reason our way through each new situation. We fall back on our tried and true ways of understanding the world and of coping with its incessant and clamorous demands.

I’m not arguing in favor of abandoning reason and logic.

I am proposing that if persuasion is our goal—if we want to change how people think and feel and act—we have to develop strategies and techniques that build on something more than reason and logic.

The question, of course, is how? Any suggestions?

persuasionThe US presidential campaign dragged on seemingly forever. And it was–even by political standards–ugly, dirty, and mean spirited. I’m glad it’s over.

I wish I could draw some positive lessons about public speaking and persuasion from either of the candidate’s speeches, but I can’t. I was largely uninspired by Clinton’s speeches. I was appalled by Trump’s rhetoric.

What concerns me most–as a citizen and, more specifically, as a speechwriter–is how frequently and effortlessly misinformation, distortions, and flat-out lies were asserted, only to be refuted (by those pesky little fact checkers) and then repeated.

It’s no surprise that the Oxford English Dictionary selected post-truth as the international word of the year for 2016.

Post-truth: relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

“Appeals to emotion and personal belief” have always played a key role in persuasive public speaking. Over 2,500 years ago Aristotle identified three proofs of a persuasive speech:

  1. Ethos: The character and knowledge of the speaker
  2. Pathos: Appeals to the audience’s emotions, interests, and imagination
  3. Logos: The clarity of the message’s logic and the evidence put forth to support it

In this recent election pathos was the clear winner. Ethos and logos were almost nowhere to be found.

In future posts I’ll examine why pathos was so dominant. I’ll draw some lessons about the use of pathos in public speaking and persuasion. And I’ll point out why in non-political arenas pathos, divorced from ethos and logos, is not only ineffective, but calamitous.

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