Chapter Seventeen – Methods of Persuasion

Developing the Persuasive Speech: Appealing to an Audience

Persuasion only occurs with an audience, so your main goal is to answer the question, “how do I persuade the audience to believe my proposition of fact, value, or policy?”

To accomplish this goal, identify your target audience—individuals who are willing to listen to your argument despite disagreeing, having limited knowledge, or lacking experience with your advocacy. Because persuasion involves change, you are targeting individuals who have not yet changed their beliefs in favor of your argument.

The persuasive continuum (Figure 17.1) is a tool that allows you to visualize your audience’s relationship with your topic.


Figure 17.1


The persuasive continuum views persuasion as a line going both directions. Your audience members, either as a group or individually, are sitting somewhere on that line in reference to your thesis statement, claim, or proposition.

For example, your proposition might be, “The main cause of climate change is human activity.” In this case, you are not denying that natural forces, such as volcanoes, can affect the climate, but you are claiming that human pollution is the central force behind global warming. To be an effective persuasive speaker, one of your first jobs is determining where your audience “sits” on the continuum.


+3 means strongly agree to the point of making lifestyle choices to lessen climate change (such as riding a bike instead of driving a car, recycling, eating certain kinds of foods).
+2 means agree but not to the point of acting upon it.
+1 as mildly in favor of your proposition; that is, they think it’s probably true, but the issue doesn’t affect them personally.
0 means neutral, no opinion, or feeling uninformed enough to make a decision.
-1 means mildly opposed to the proposition but willing to listen to those with whom they disagree.
-2 means disagreement to the point of dismissing the idea pretty quickly.
-3 means strong opposition to the point that the concept of climate change itself is not even listened to or acknowledged as a valid subject.

Since everyone in the audience is somewhere on this line or continuum, persuasion means moving them to the right, somewhere closer to +3.

Your topic will inform which strategy you use to move your audience along the continuum. If you are introducing an argument that the audience lacks knowledge in, you are moving an audience from 0 to +1, +2, or +3. The audience’s attitude will be a 0 because they have no former opinion or experience.


Thinking about persuasion as a continuum has three benefits:

  • You can visualize and quantify where your audience lands on the continuum
  • You can accept the fact that any movement toward +3 or to the right is a win.
  • You can see that trying to change an audience from -3 to +3 in one speech is just about impossible. Therefore, you will need to take a reasonable approach. In this case, if you knew most of the audience was at -2 or -3, your speech would be about the science behind climate change in order to open their minds to its possible existence. However, that audience is not ready to hear about its being caused mainly by humans or what action should be taken to reverse it.

As you identify where your target audience sits on the continuum, you can dig deeper to determine what values, attitude, or beliefs would prohibit individuals from supporting the proposition or values, attitudes, or beliefs that support your proposition. At the same time, avoid language that assumes stereotypical beliefs about the audience.

For example, your audience may value higher education and believe that education is useful for critical thinking skills. Alternatively, you may have an audience that values work experience and believes that college is frivolous and expensive. Being aware of these differing values will deepen your persuasive content by informing what evidence or insights to draw on and upon for each audience type.

Once you’re confident about where your audience is on the continuum and what values they hold, you can select the appropriate rhetorical appeals – ethos, pathos, and logos—to motivate your audience toward action. Yes, we’ve discussed these rhetorical appeals before, but they are particularly useful in persuasive speaking, so let’s review again.

Persuasive Strategies


Man holding a sign that says Don't believe anyone, including me.

“Danny Shine Speaker’s Corner” by Acapeloahddub. Public domain.


In addition to understanding how your audience feels about the topic you are addressing, you will need to take steps to help them see you as credible and interesting. The audience’s perception of you as a speaker is influential in determining whether or not they will choose to accept your proposition. Aristotle called this element of the speech ethos, “a Greek word that is closely related to our terms ethical and ethnic.[1] He taught speakers to establish credibility with the audience by appearing to have good moral character, common sense, and concern for the audience’s well-being.[2] Campbell & Huxman explain that ethos is not about conveying that you, as an individual, are a good person. It is about “mirror[ing] the characteristics idealized by [the] culture or group” (ethnic),[3] and demonstrating that you make good moral choices with regard to your relationship within the group (ethics).

While there are many things speakers can do to build their ethos throughout the speech, “assessments of ethos often reflect superficial first impressions,” and these first impressions linger long after the speech has concluded.[4] This means that what you wear and how you behave, even before opening your mouth, can go far in shaping your ethos. Be sure to dress appropriately for the occasion and setting in which you speak. Also work to appear confident, but not arrogant, and be sure to maintain enthusiasm about your topic throughout the speech. Give great attention to the crafting of your opening sentences because they will set the tone for what your audience should expect of your personality as you proceed.

I covered two presidents, LBJ and Nixon, who could no longer convince, persuade, or govern, once people had decided they had no credibility; but we seem to be more tolerant now of what I think we should not tolerate. – Helen Thomas

Logic and the Role of Arguments

Billboard that says Sharia Law threatens America.

“Sharia Law Billboard” by Matt57. Public domain.

We use logic every day when we construct statements, argue our point of view, and in myriad other ways. Understanding how logic is used will help us communicate more efficiently and effectively. Even if we have never formally studied logical reasoning and fallacies, we can often tell when a person’s statement doesn’t sound right. Think about the claims we see in many advertisements today—Buy product X, and you will be beautiful/thin/happy or have the carefree life depicted in the advertisement. With very little critical thought, we know intuitively that simply buying a product will not magically change our lives. Even if we can’t identify the specific fallacy at work in the argument (non causa in this case), we know there is some flaw in the argument.

In a persuasive speech, the argument will focus on the reasons for supporting your specific purpose statement. This argumentative approach is what Aristotle referred to as logos, or the logical means of proving an argument.[5]


Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end. – Leonard Nimoy


When offering an argument, you begin by making an assertion that requires a logical leap based on the available evidence.[6] One of the most popular ways of understanding how this process works was developed by British philosopher Stephen Toulmin.[7] Toulmin established a model that describes the structure of an argument or method of reasoning, explaining that basic arguments tend to share three common elements: claim, evidence, and warrant. The claim is an assertion that you want the audience to accept. Evidence refers to proof or support for your claim. It answers the question, “how do I know this is true?” For example, if I saw large gray clouds in the sky, I might make the claim that “it is going to rain today.” The gray clouds (evidence) are linked to rain (claim) by the warrant, an oft-unstated general connection, that large gray clouds tend to produce rain. The warrant is a connector that, if stated, would likely begin with “since” or “because.” In our rain example, if we explicitly stated all three elements, the argument would go something like this: There are large gray clouds in the sky today (evidence). Since large gray clouds tend to produce rain (warrant), it is going to rain today (claim). In this common situation, we often recognize the underlying warrant without it being explicitly stated. However, in a formal speech, having a clear warrant will increase the clarity of your argument.

To strengthen the basic argument, you will need backing for the claim. Backing provides foundational support for the claim[8] by offering examples, narratives, facts, statistics, and/or testimony, which further substantiates the argument. We discussed these kinds of support material in Chapter 8. To substantiate the rain argument we have just considered, you could explain that the color of a cloud is determined by how much light the water in the cloud is reflecting. A thin cloud has tiny drops of water and ice crystals which scatter light, making it appear white. Clouds appear gray when they are filled with large water droplets which are less able to reflect light.[9]


Claim, Evidence, Warrant

Arguments have the following basic structure:

Claim: the main proposition crafted as a declarative statement.

Evidence: the support or proof for the claim.

Warrant: the connection between the evidence and the claim.


Each component of the structure is necessary to formulate a compelling argument.

Evidence and warrants are the specifics that make your ideas, arguments, assertions, points, or concepts real and concrete by relating the information to your audience. Not all audiences are compelled by the same evidence, for example, so creating a well-structured argument also means being responsive to audiences.Consider going to lunch with a friend. Your friend suggests a restaurant that you have not heard of, so you request some additional information, proof, or evidence of their choice. We could map the argument like this:

Claim: “Let’s go to Jack’s Shack for lunch.”

Evidence: “I have been there a few times and they have good servers.”

So far, your friend is highlighting service as the evidence to support their claim that Jack’s Shack is a good choice for lunch. However, the warrant is still missing. For a warrant, they need to demonstrate why good service is sufficient proof to support their claim. Remember that the warrant is the connection. For example:

Warrant: “You were a server, so I know that you really appreciate good service. I have never had a bad experience at Jack’s Shack, so I am confident that it’s a good lunch choice for both of us.”

In this case, they do a good job of both connecting the evidence to the claim and connecting the argument to their audience – you! They have selected evidence based on your previous experience as a server (likely in hopes to win you over to their claim!).

Additionally, take this example: consider the claim that “communication studies provide necessary skills to land you a job.” To support that claim, you might locate a statistic and argue that, “The New York Times had a recent article stating that 80% of jobs want good critical thinking and interpersonal skills.” It’s unclear, however, how a communication studies major would prepare someone to fulfill those needs. To complete the argument, you could include a warrant that explains, “communication studies classes facilitate interpersonal skills and work to embed critical thinking activities throughout the curriculum.” You are connecting the job skills (critical thinking) from the evidence to the discipline (communication studies) from your claim.

Despite their importance, warrants are often excluded from arguments. As speechwriters and researchers, we spend lots of time with our information and evidence, and we take for granted what we know. If you are familiar with communication studies, the connection between the New York Times statistic referenced above and the assertion that communication studies provides necessary job skills may seem obvious. For an unfamiliar audience, the warrant provides more explanation and legitimacy to the evidence.

Using “claim, evidence, and warrant” can assist you in verifying that all parts of the argumentative structure are present.


Using Evidence

With any type of evidence, there are three overarching considerations.

First, is this the most timely and relevant type of support for my claim? If your evidence isn’t timely (or has been disproven), it may drastically influence the credibility of your claim.

Second, is this evidence relatable and clear for my audience? Your audience should be able to understand the evidence, including any references or ideas within your information. Have you ever heard a joke or insight about a television show that you’ve never seen? If so, understanding the joke can be difficult. The same is true for your audience, so stay focused on their knowledge base and level of understanding.

Third, did I cherry-pick? Avoid cherry-picking evidence to support your claims. While we’ve discussed claims first, it’s important to arrive at a claim after seeing all the evidence (i.e. doing the research). Rather than finding evidence to fit your idea (cherry-picking), the evidence should help you arrive at the appropriate claim. Cherry-picking evidence can reduce your ethos and weakened your argument.

The elements that Toulmin identified may be arranged in a variety of ways to make the most logical argument. As you reason through your argument you may proceed inductively, deductively, or causally, toward your claim.

Small ships blast water at an oil rig that is on fire.

“Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling unit on fire” by US Coast Guard. Public domain.


Defining Deduction

Deductive reasoning means moving from a general principle to a claim regarding a specific instance. In order to move from general to specific we tend to use syllogisms. A syllogism begins with a major (or general) premise, then moves to a minor premise, then concludes with a specific claim. For example, if you know that all dogs bark (major premise), and your neighbor has a dog (minor premise), you could then conclude that your neighbor’s dog barks (specific claim). To verify the accuracy of your specific claim, you must verify the truth and applicability of the major premise. What evidence do you have that all dogs bark? Is it possible that only most dogs bark? Next, you must also verify the accuracy of the minor premise. If the major premise is truly generalizable, and both premises are accurate, your specific claim should also be accurate.




For your argument to succeed, remember you must use evidence, not assumptions.

Deductive reasoning refers to an argument in which the truth of its premises guarantees the truth of its conclusions. The key focus in deductive arguments is that it must be impossible for the premises to be true and the conclusion to be false. The classic example is:

All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

We can look at each of these statements individually and see each is true in its own right. It is virtually impossible for the first two propositions to be true and the conclusion to be false. Any argument which fails to meet this standard commits a logical error or fallacy. Even if we might accept the arguments as good and the conclusion as possible, the argument fails as a form of deductive reasoning.

Another way to think of deductive reasoning is to think of it as moving from a general premise to a specific premise. This need for truth sets up deductive reasoning as a very rigid form of reasoning. If either one of the first two premises isn’t true, then the entire argument fails. The basic line of reasoning looks like this:


Let’s turn to world events for an example.

In the debates over whether the United States should take military action in Iraq, this was the basic line of reasoning used to justify an invasion. This logic was sufficient for the United States to invade Iraq; however, as we have since learned, this line of reasoning also shows how quickly logic can go bad. We subsequently learned that the “experts” weren’t quite so confident, and their “evidence” wasn’t quite as concrete as originally represented.

Defining Induction

Inductive reasoning moves from specific examples to a more general claim. For example, if you read online reviews of a restaurant chain called Walt’s Wine & Dine and you noticed that someone reported feeling sick after eating at a Walt’s, and another person reported that the Walt’s they visited was understaffed, and another commented that the tables in the Walt’s they ate at had crumbs left on them, you might conclude (or claim) that the restaurant chain is unsanitary. To test the validity of a general claim, Beebe and Beebe encourage speakers to consider whether there are “enough specific instances to support the conclusion,” whether the specific instances are typical, and whether the instances are recent.[11]

Unlike deductive reasoning, there is no standard format inductive arguments must take, making them more flexible. We can define an inductive argument as one in which the truth of its propositions lends support to the conclusion. The difference here in deduction is the truth of the propositions establishes with absolute certainty the truth of the conclusion. When we analyze an inductive argument, we do not focus on the truth of its premises. Instead, we analyze inductive arguments for their strength or soundness.

Another significant difference between deduction and induction is inductive arguments do not have a standard format.

Let’s return to the world stage for an example. After the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, we heard variations of the following arguments:

  1. The terrorists were Muslim (or Arab or Middle Eastern)
  2. The terrorists hated America.
  3. Therefore, all Muslims (or Arabs or Middle Easterners) hate America.

Rubble of the World Trade Center.

“1993 Word Trade Center bombing” by Bureau of ATF 1993 Explosives Incident Report. Public domain.

Clearly, we can see the problem in this line of reasoning. Beyond being a scary example of hyperbolic rhetoric, we can all probably think of at least one counter example to disprove the conclusion. However, individual passions and biases caused many otherwise rational people to say these things in the weeks following the attacks. This example also clearly illustrates how easy it is to get tripped up in your use of logic and the importance of practicing self-regulation.


Your reasoning may also proceed causally. Causal reasoning examines related events to determine which one caused the other. You may begin with a cause and attempt to determine its effect. For example, when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, scientists explained that because many animals in the Gulf were nesting and reproducing at the time, the spill could wipe out “an entire generation of hundreds of species.”[12] Their argument reasoned that the spill (cause) would result in species loss (effect). Two years later, the causal reasoning might be reversed. If we were seeing species loss in the Gulf (effect), we could reason that it was a result of the oil spill (cause). Both of these claims rely on the evidence available at the time. To make the first claim, scientists not only offered evidence that animals were nesting and reproducing, but they also looked at the effects of an oil spill that occurred 21 years earlier in Alaska.[13] To make the second claim, scientists could examine dead animals washing up on the coast to determine whether their deaths were caused by oil.

To help stress the importance of it, the Foundation for Critical Thinking has set forth universal standards of reasoning. These standards can be found in Table 17.3.

Table 17.3
Universal Standards of Reasoning
All reasoning has a purpose.
All reasoning is an attempt to figure something out, to settle some question, to solve some problem.
All reasoning is based on assumptions.
All reasoning is done from some point of view.
All reasoning is based on data, information, and evidence.
All reasoning is expressed through, and shaped by, concepts and ideas.
All reasoning contains inferences or interpretations by which we draw conclusions and give meaning to data.
All reasoning leads somewhere or has implications and consequences.


While we have focused heavily on logical reasoning, we must also recognize the strong role that emotions play in the persuasive process. Aristotle called this element of the speech pathos. Pathos draws on the emotions, sympathies, and prejudices of the audience to appeal to their non-rational side.[15][16] Human beings are constantly in some emotional state, which means that tapping into an audience’s emotions can be vital to persuading them to accept your proposition.[17]

Nancy Brinker
Nancy Brinker. CC BY: Attribution

One of the most helpful strategies in appealing to your audience’s emotions is to use clear examples that illustrate your point. Illustrations can be crafted verbally, nonverbally, or visually. To offer a verbal illustration, you could tell a compelling story. For example, when fundraising for breast cancer research, Nancy Brinker, creator of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, has plenty of compelling statistics and examples to offer. Yet, she regularly talks about her sister, explaining:

Susan G. Komen fought breast cancer with her heart, body and soul. Throughout her diagnosis, treatments, and endless days in the hospital, she spent her time thinking of ways to make life better for other women battling breast cancer instead of worrying about her own situation. That concern for others continued even as Susan neared the end of her fight.[18]

Brinker promised her sister that she would continue her fight against breast cancer. This story compels donors to join her fight.


Speakers can also tap into emotions using nonverbal behaviors to model the desired emotion for their audience. In the summer of 2012, the U.S. House of Representatives debated holding the Attorney General in contempt for refusing to release documents concerning a controversial gun-tracking operation. Arguing for a contempt vote, South Carolina Representative Trey Gowdy did not simply state his claim; instead, he raised his voice, slowed his pace, and used hand motions to convey anger with what he perceived as deception on the part of the Attorney General.[19] His use of volume, tone, pace, and hand gestures
enhanced the message and built anger in his audience.

Speech is power: speech is to persuade, to convert, to compel. It is to bring another out of his bad sense into your good sense. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

In addition to verbal and nonverbal illustrations, visual imagery can enhance the emotional appeal of a message. For example, we have all heard about the dangers of drugs, and there are multiple campaigns that attempt to prevent people from even trying them. However, many young adults experiment with drugs under the assumption that they are immune from the negative effects if they only use the drug recreationally. To counter this assumption regarding methamphetamines, the Montana Meth project combines controversial statements with graphic images on billboards to evoke fear of the drug (see the Montana Meth Project for some disturbing examples). Young adults may have heard repeated warnings that meth is addictive and that it has the potential to cause sores, rotten teeth, and extreme weight loss, but Montana Meth Project’s visual display is more compelling because it turns the audience’s stomach, making the message memorable. This image, combined with the slogan, “not even once,” conveys the persuasive point without the need for other forms of evidence and rational argument.

Appeals to fear, like those in the Montana Meth Project ads, have proven effective in motivating people to change a variety of behaviors. However, speakers must be careful with their use of this emotion. Fear appeals tend to be more effective when they appeal to a high-level fear, such as death, and they are more effective when offered by speakers with a high level of perceived credibility.[20] Fear appeals are also more persuasive when the speaker can convince the audience they have the ability to avert the threat. If audiences doubt their ability to avoid or minimize the threat, the appeal may backfire.[21]

I would rather try to persuade a man to go along, because once I have persuaded him, he will stick. If I scare him, he will stay just as long as he is scared, and then he is gone. – Dwight D. Eisenhower

David Brooks argues that “emotions are not separate from reason, but they are the foundation of reason because they tell us what to value.”[22] Those values are at the core of fostering a credible ethos. All of Aristotle’s strategies, ethos, logos, and pathos, are interdependent. The most persuasive speakers will combine these strategies to varying degrees based on their specific purpose and audience.

Ethics of Persuasion

A man addressing a crowd.

“Speakers Corner Speaker 1987” by Deborah MacLean. Public domain.


In addition to considering their topic and persuasive strategy, speakers must take care to ensure that their message is ethical. Persuasion is often confused with another kind of communication that has similar ends, but different methods—coercion. Like persuasion, coercion is a process whereby thoughts or behaviors are altered. But in coercive acts, deceptive or harmful methods propel the intended changes, not reason. Strong and Cook contrasted the two: “persuasion uses argument to compel power to give way to reason while coercion uses force to compel reason to give way to power.”[14]The “force” that Strong and Cook mention frequently manifests as promises for reward or punishment, but sometimes it arises as physical or emotional harm. Think of almost any international crime film you have seen, and you are likely to remember a scene where someone was compelled to out their compatriots by way of force. Jack Bauer, the protagonist in the American television series 24, became an infamous character by doing whatever it took to get captured criminals to talk. Although dramatic as an example, those scenes where someone is tortured in an effort to produce evidence offer a familiar reference when thinking about coercion. To avoid coercing an audience, speakers should use logical and emotional appeals responsibly.

The pendulum of the mind alternates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong. – Carl Jung


Understanding and Avoiding Fallacies

Persuasive speakers must be careful to avoid using fallacies in their reasoning. Fallacies are errors in reasoning that occur when a speaker fails to use appropriate or applicable evidence for their argument. There are a wide variety of fallacies, and it is not possible to list them all here, however, nine common fallacies are described below.

False Cause

False cause is a fallacy that assumes that one thing causes another, but there is no logical connection between the two. In a false cause fallacy, the alleged cause might not be strong or direct enough. For example, there has been much debate over the causes of the recession in 2008. If someone said, “The exorbitant salaries paid to professional athletes contributed to the recession” that would be the fallacy of false cause. Why? For one thing, the salaries, though large, are an infinitesimal part of the whole economy. Second, those salaries only affect a small number of people. A cause must be direct and strong, not just something that occurred before a problem arose.

Slippery Slope

slippery slope fallacy is a type of false cause which assumes that taking a first step will lead to subsequent events that cannot be prevented. The children’s book, If You Give a Moose a Muffin, is a good example of slippery slope; it tells all the terrible things (from a child’s point of view) that will happen, one after another, if a moose is given a muffin. If A happens, then B will happen, then C, then D, then E, F, G and it will get worse and worse and before you know it, we will all be in some sort of ruin. So, don’t do A or let A happen because it will inevitably lead to Z, and of course, Z is terrible.

This type of reasoning fails to look at alternate causes or factors that could keep the worst from happening, and often is somewhat silly when A is linked directly to Z. Slippery slope arguments are often used in discussions over emotional and hot button topics that are linked with strong values and beliefs. One might argue that “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns,” a bumper sticker you may have seen. This is an example of a slippery slope argument because it is saying that any gun control laws will inevitably lead to no guns being allowed at all in the U.S. and then the inevitable result that only criminals will have guns because they don’t obey gun control laws anyway.

In any instance where you’re identifying potential consequences if action is or is not taken, credible evidence and ethical warrants are good checks against our tendency to slippery-slope to the audience.

Hasty Generalization

Making a hasty generalization means making a generalization with too few examples. It is so common that we might wonder if there are any legitimate generalizations. Consider this hastily generalized argument:

A college degree is unnecessary. For example, Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of college, invented Facebook, and made billions of dollars. As this example demonstrates, dropping out of college leads to great financial success, so a complete degree is pointless.

The key to generalizations is how the conclusions are “framed” or put into language. The conclusions should be specific about the limited nature of the sample.

Straw Person

straw person fallacy is a fallacy that shows only the weaker side of an opponent’s argument in order to more easily tear it down. The term “straw person” brings up the image of a scarecrow, and that is the idea behind the expression. Even a child can beat up a scarecrow; anyone can.

A straw person fallacy happens when an opponent in a debate misinterprets or takes a small part of their opponent’s position in a debate and makes it a major part of the opponent’s position. This is often done by ridicule, taking statements out of context, or misquoting.

Politicians, unfortunately, commit the straw person fallacy quite frequently. If someone states, “College A is not as good as College B because the cafeteria food at College A is not as good” is a pretty weak argument—and making too big of a deal over of a minor thing—for attending one college over another.

False Dilemma

False Dilemma is often referred to as the “either-or” fallacy. When you are given only two options, and more than two options exist, that is false dilemma. Usually in false dilemma, one of the options is undesirable and the other is the one the persuader wants you to take. False dilemma is common. “America: Love it or Leave It.” “If you don’t buy this furniture today, you’ll never get another chance.” “Vote for Candidate Y or see our nation destroyed.”

Appeal to Tradition

Appeals to tradition is the argument that “We’ve always done it this way.” This fallacy happens when traditional practice is the only reason for continuing a policy. Tradition is a great thing. We do many wonderful things for the sake of tradition, and it makes us feel good. But doing something only because it’s always been done a certain way is not an argument.

You’ve likely experienced this through politicians. For example, if a politician says that we should support coal mining because “it’s a great American tradition and we’ve coal mined for decades,” it certainly highlights values inherent within the speaker, but it’s a fallacy.


This fallacy, the bandwagon, is also referred to as “appeal to majority” and “appeal to popularity,” using the old expression of “get on the bandwagon” to support an idea. Bandwagon is a fallacy that asserts that because something is popular (or seems to be), it is therefore good, correct, or desirable.

You’ve probably heard that “Everybody is doing it” or “more than 50% of the population supports this idea.” Just because 50% of the population is engaging in an activity does not make that a wise choice based on sound reasoning. Historically, 50% of the population believed or did something that was not good or right. In a democracy we make public policy to some extent based on majority rule, but we also have protections for the minority or other vulnerable populations. This is a wonderful part of our system. It is sometimes foolish to say that a policy is morally right or wrong or wise just because it is supported by 50% of the people.

Red Herring

A herring is a fish, and it was once used to throw off or distract foxhounds from a particular scent. A red herring, then, is creating a diversion or introducing an irrelevant point to distract someone or get someone off the subject of the argument. When a politician in a debate is asked about their stance on immigration, and the candidate responds, “I think we need to focus on reducing the debt. That’s the real problem!” they are introducing a red herring to distract from the original topic under discussion.

Ad Hominem

This is a fallacy that attacks the person rather than dealing with the real issue in dispute. A person using ad hominem connects a real or perceived flaw in a person’s character or behavior to an issue he or she supports, asserting that the flaw in character makes the position on the issue wrong. Obviously, there is no connection. In a sense, ad hominem is a type of red herring because it distracts from the real argument. In some cases, the “hidden agenda” is to say that because someone of bad character supports an issue or argument, therefore the issue or argument is not worthy or logical.

A person using ad hominem might say, “Climate change is not true. It is supported by advocates such as Congressperson Jones, and we all know that Congressperson Jones was convicted of fraud last year.” This is not to say that Congressperson Jones should be re-elected, only that climate change’s being true or false is irrelevant to their fraud conviction. Do not confuse ad hominem with poor credibility or ethos. A speaker’s ethos, based on character or past behavior, does matter. It just doesn’t mean that the issues they support are logically or factually wrong.

There are some positive steps you can take to avoid these pitfalls of persuasive speaking and ensure that you are presenting your message in the most ethical manner. We have already discussed some of these, such as offering credible evidence for your arguments and showing concern for the audience’s well being. However, you should also offer a transparent goal for your speech. Even with a hostile audience, where you may wait until later in the speech to provide the specific purpose statement, you should be forthcoming about your specific purpose. In fact, be truthful with your audience throughout the speech.

It is appropriate to use fictional scenarios to demonstrate your point but tell the audience that is what you are doing. You can accomplish this by introducing fictional examples with the phrase, “hypothetically,” or “imagine,” to signal that you are making it up.[24] Additionally, be sure to offer a mix of logical and emotional appeals. Blending these strategies ensures that you have evidence to back up emotional claims, and that you are sensitive to the audiences’ emotional reactions to your logical claims. Attending to both aspects will help you be more ethical and more persuasive.

The most important persuasion tool you have in your entire arsenal is integrity.
– Zig Ziglar



  1. Campbell, K.K. & Huxman, S.S. (2009). The Rhetorical Act: Thinking, Speaking, and Writing Critically. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 
  2. Beebe, S.A. & Beebe, S.J. (2003). Public Speaking: An Audience Centered Approach (5th ed.). Boston: Pearson. 
  3. Campbell & Huxman 2009 
  4. Zarefsky, D. (2005). Public Speaking: Strategies for Success (Special edition for The Pennsylvania State University). Boston: Pearson. 
  5. Braet, A.C. (1992). Ethos, pathos, and logos in Aristotle’s rhetoric: A reexamination. Argumentation6(3), pp. 307–320. 
  6. Campbell & Huxman 2009 
  7. Herrick, J.A. (2011). Argumentation: Understanding and Shaping Arguments. State College, PA: Strata Publishing. 
  8. Herrick 2011 
  9. Brill, R. (2003, July 21). Why do clouds turn gray before it rains? Scientific American. Retrieved from: 
  10. Pollan, M. (2007, April 22). You are what you grow. The New York Times. Retrieved from: 
  11. Beebe & Beebe 2003 
  12. Donovan, T.W. (2010, July 10). 7 Long term effects of the Gulf oil spill. Huffington Post. Retrieved from: 
  13. Donovan 2010 
  14. Strong, W. F., & Cook, J. A. (1992). Persuasion: Strategies for public influence (3rd ed.). Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing. 
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  20. Beebe & Beebe 2003 
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