Rhetoric and the art of persuasion

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IntroductionThe best speakers...

Rhetoric and the art of persuasion

Regardless of the form or reason for the presentation – a lecture, graduate seminar, undergraduate project presentation, tutorial, or job interview – all presentations attempt to persuade the audience to a particular point of view or argument, or engage the audience in a process of questioning and thinking.

Much has been written since Aristotle’s influential work on rhetoric, in which he described the interrelated elements of presenter characteristics + audience connection + the content or message.

The following material will help graduate and undergraduate students prepare and deliver oral presentations, and subsequent material will assist students manage presentation anxiety.

The best speakers understand persuasion

Elements of an effective presentation use the same components as those of a persuasive argument:

  1. Logos or message – Content must be internally consistent, logical, clear, understandable, structured, and supported. This is achieved through thoughtful planning.
  2. Ethos or credibility & characteristics of the speaker – Credibility as a speaker is established based on perceived motivations, trustworthiness, and level of expertise. These characteristics are demonstrated through one’s presentation style.
  3. Pathos or connection to the audience’s emotion and values – When you tap into the emotion and imagination, as well as the intellectual curiosity of the audience, they will be more fully engaged. In addition, they will feel connected to and understood by the speaker. This occurs when the content shifts from abstract logic to tangible stories.

The best speakers tell stories.

The best stories:

  • Have a plot,
  • Convey a central message, and
  • Avoid sidetracks.

A good story is interesting, easy to understand, and easy to remember.

The best speakers develop their skills.

Presenting is a learned skill that improves with practice and feedback.

Presentation anxiety will be reduce by doing presentations, i.e. with practice.  Start in a “safe” situation (alone, then with a friend, then small group) and build up.