Public Speaking Report 5: 7 Proven Ways to Persuade Your Audience

Public Speaking Report 5

We are exposed daily to persuasive messages designed to influence our behavior and attitudes. Some are small-scale. (“Would you like fries with that?”) Others are high-stakes requests. (“We hope we can count on you to once again pledge $250,000 to our grant program.”) Meanwhile, we send out persuasive messages of our own. (“Given your past performance, I know you’ll hit the new sales goal.”)

Persuasion is the art and science of laying out your case so that another person comes to your way of thinking. If done with respect and authenticity, along with an understanding of what has long motivated our species to act upon another’s request, you will succeed in realizing the simple truth of persuasion:

You can never convince anyone of anything, but you can persuade them to convince themselves.

So how do you nudge someone toward your way of thinking?

During the past several decades, social scientists and researchers have expanded our knowledge about persuasive techniques that are most effective at getting people to do what we want them to do. In this report, we cover seven.

7 Ways to Move Audiences to Action

1. One Good Turn Deserves Another

One of our more enduring social contracts is the idea that once a person has done you a favor, or given you a gift, you are expected to (and believe you should) return the favor. That’s because society depends on our belief that if we extend a hand, there will be a hand to grasp when we need it.

Robert Cialdini, a social psychologist and bestselling author of Influence: Science and Practice, calls this principle “Reciprocity.”  It’s a powerful trigger that moves us to action.

There are several aspects to this principle:

  • We don’t like to be in a state of obligation. So, we try to cash in our social IOU as soon as possible. We feel this obligation even if we didn’t expect the gift or want what the person is offering. Such behavior was revealed in a study by Cornell University professor and psychologist Dennis Regan. He tested how study participants would respond whether they received or didn’t receive an unexpected gift of a can of soda from their fellow participant (who was really a researcher). After the experiment, when the participant/researcher asked his fellow subjects to buy raffle tickets he was selling, the ones who received the soda were more likely to say yes.
  • When someone makes a concession to us, we feel an obligation to do the same.
  • It works best when the gift is genuine. The gift cannot be conditional upon getting an expected response. Mutual appreciation will lead to more lasting changes and acceptance than a relationship built solely on incentive and short-term reciprocity.

Reciprocity in action:

  • Months ago, your boss, unbidden, let you cut out early. This week, you see he is behind on a project. You offer, unprompted, to come in early to help him finish.
  • In Influence: Science and Practice, Cialdini tells the story of how a Boy Scout asks him to buy a $5 ticket to an upcoming event. When Cialdini declines, the Boy Scout asks whether Cialdini will buy a candy bar for only a dollar instead. Cialdini concedes. Cialdini, who claims not to like chocolate bars, buys two (!) bars in response to the young salesperson’s concession.
  • You are at a community festival and a local bank is giving away free coffee mugs. As you approach the table, you ask whether you must do anything to receive your gift. The volunteer says, “Yes, just enjoy it.” Months later, when you are shopping around for a home equity loan, your eyes fall upon that coffee cup. You set up an appointment at the bank to discuss options.

Here are ways to use reciprocity in your presentations:

Redeem your IOUs. You’ve run the IT department at your company for years and have always, and promptly, responded to coworkers’ requests and issues. This year, you are heading a company-wide community service project. Here’s how you might close your volunteer recruitment presentation session:

“As you all know, I genuinely like helping others and solving problems. Today, I’m hoping you will join me in doing the same. I’m passing around a sign-up sheet for our upcoming community service project. I’d love to see all of your names on the list.”

Preemptive rebuttal. As manager of a manufacturing plant, you are instituting changes that employees don’t like. You are giving a talk about the rollout of these new workflows. You know the workers will be running opposing arguments through their heads, so you open with a concession:

“I understand these changes are unpopular. I also concede these are going to be fairly disruptive as we roll them out. But what I ask you today is to hear me out. I will focus on three areas that I believe initially may be the most difficult to implement in the short-term but will lead to better working conditions within a year.”

Offer a gift. You believe in your product, so how will you convince others to, as well? Offer a free sample or gift – no strings attached. Maybe it’s a chapter to your book or a link to attendee-only information. Your gift also could be metaphorical – time, perhaps. For instance, you could point out that your audience is going to learn the secrets of how to go from chronic stress to chronic joy in 30 minutes, rather than the 20 years it took you.

What Are You Waiting For? road sign

2. Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

We tend to want what we can’t have, particularly if it is something that once existed but will soon be gone. Fear of loss is a powerful motivator, says behavioral psychologist Susan Weinschenk in her book How to Get People to Do Stuff: Master the Art and Science of Persuasion and Motivation. We are more motivated to act based on fear of loss, rather than anticipation of gain. Cialdini calls it the principle of “Scarcity.”

As Cialdini, Noah J. Goldstein, and Steve J. Martin point out in their book, Yes!: 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion:

“We want things more when we learn that they are scarce, available in limited quantities, and for a limited time.”

Scarcity in action:

  • A restaurant offers a limited-edition menu item. There is such a run for the item that they run out, which increases demand even further.
  • You visit a store and express interest in a product. The clerk says it will soon be discontinued. You’re not sure you want it. But, having become aware of its future unavailability, you feel compelled to purchase it.

Here are ways to use the concept of scarcity in your presentation:

Highlight the loss, rather than gain. In framing your key message, put it in context of what audience members will lose, rather than what they will gain by their actions. You might say: “I don’t want you to miss this opportunity,” rather than “I hope you will accept this opportunity.”

Point out the unique. Stress what is rare. Perhaps you are the only doctor in the area using a certain procedure.

Reveal the demand. People also are swayed, conversely, when there is high demand for a product. The thinking is you better jump in now, before it’s gone (that’s where the scarcity comes in). Trumpet your own success: “We’ve already sold a thousand units, and we can barely keep up with demand.”

Stress the deadline. Make sure your audience knows the stakes. Say you head a land preservation organization that is fighting a development project in your town. Based on the scarcity principle, this call to action would be more effective:

“If we don’t come out in force at the next meeting, we will forever lose our opportunity to save the last remaining tract of open space in this town.”

This one says the same thing, but the wording isn’t as persuasive:

“If you seek a future that includes open space, we need to hear your opposition to the development plans at the next meeting.”

crowd of people In the form of a question mark

3. I’ll Have What They Are Having

One of our cognitive shortcuts is to look toward others for guidance, particularly when we are uncertain, or we face a situation where we don’t know how to act. Cialdini calls it the theory of “Consensus.” Weinschenk, meanwhile, sees this as a form of social validation: We follow the behavior of others, sometimes going against what we would do alone.

Consensus in action:

  • You come up behind a car stopped at a red light. After a couple of minutes, you realize the light appears to be stuck on red. The driver appears hesitant to go forward. The driver behind you is not having the same problem and zips by you on his way through the red light. You know it is potentially dangerous, but when the second person behind you also drives around you, you go through the light.
  • While staying at a hotel, you notice a sign in your room about towel recycling that says a high percentage of guests who have stayed in that very room recycled their towels during their stay. You decide to follow suit. In “Yes!” that very behavior was revealed during an experiment. Hotel guests tended to respond with greater compliance when an environmental protection message was teamed with how their peers had responded to it, rather than just the message alone.

Here’s a clip of “Yes!” author Noah Goldstein talking about that study, and what they learned:

Here are ways consensus can be used in your presentation:

Use influential statistics. Show your audience how many other people who are like them use your product, subscribe to your newsletter, follow your diet plan, utilize your investment tips, etc. For instance, if you’ve done market research, let your audience know how many people prefer your product over the competition. Or, say you are a doctor talking to a middle-aged, slightly overweight audience about your new research-based diet that reduces weight and bad cholesterol. Even if younger and fitter people have benefited, statistics and case studies about people who look more like your audience members are likely to be more persuasive.

Know your audience. If there is a wide gap – age, cultural background, political stance, education, etc. – between you and your audience members, you will more easily persuade them if you use examples, statistics, stories, and case studies with people and situations that are more relatable and similar to them. The important thing here is this: Rather than who or what you think is more persuasive, you should be viewing your choice through the lens of your audience. For instance, if you are a computer whiz who’s working with your computer-averse sales team to learn a new program, you may think the co-worker who aced it in minutes is an excellent case study. Well, no. It’s actually one of their equally technologically unsavvy co-workers who took a couple of days, but ultimately figured it out. The idea is: If he can do it, anyone of us can do it.

Show them the way. If you are pitching a product to an audience of small and mid-sized business executives and owners, the examples and testimonials you provide during your presentation should be from companies that are similar in size, industry, and day-to-day operations to their businesses. The thinking is this: Others who are like them have benefited, so it’s likely they could, too.

Sticky note on concrete wall, Refer a Friend

4. The friend request

Decades of empirical research have revealed something most of us know intrinsically: We are more likely to say yes to a request if we know and like the person who is making it. But the same principle that causes a friend’s request to be accepted also can be used by strangers. They need to find a way to get us to like them.

Here are some of those ways. They are:

  • Attractive
  • Look like us or in some other way are similar or familiar
  • Compliment us
  • Work with us to achieve a common goal

Cialdini says these factors go into the persuasion principle “Liking.”

Liking in action:

  • You typically ignore market research requests. However, you agree to fill out a survey because the young boy who asked you to participate looks like your grandson.
  • Your to-do list is quite full. So, when your friend seeks your help with a bake sale, you decide to tell her “not this time.” That is until she shares multiple compliments about your double chocolate fudge cookies. The next thing you know, you’ve promised five dozen.
  • It’s the first time you are meeting with a potential client. You’ve done your research and realize that you both attended the same college a few years apart. So, you mention that. Research has shown self-disclosure can be contagious. You both realize you have friends in common and participated in some of the same activities. By the end of the meeting, you have a new client.

Here’s how you can use the idea of likability in your presentation:

Dress smart. If you arrived at a cocktail party in business attire and everyone else was dressed in T-shirts and shorts, you might appear (and feel like) an “outsider.” If you want to increase the chance the audience begins to like you from the get-go, wear clothes that look like theirs. One caveat: You should still look like yourself. Nothing makes you look like even more of an outsider than trying too hard to fit in. If you know your audience is likely to be casual, ditch the formal threads and seek a business casual look that looks good on you. (If you are trying to appear more authoritative, which has its own persuasive pull as you’ll soon read, dress one step above your audience.)

Seek common ground. Point out the areas where you and the audience are genuinely similar – shared beliefs, lifestyles, experiences, or aspirations – as early as possible. In your introductory bio or your open, point out those intersections. This is particularly helpful if you are facing a crowd that largely opposes your message, or an audience who knows very little about you.

Here’s an example:

Say you are a prominent thinker on healthcare and you believe if regulations were slashed, it would become more affordable. A network of nonprofits, religious organizations, and fellow community members – not government – would help those who could not pay.

Just such a talk occurred many years ago, to an audience comprised primarily of high school students who fervently disagreed with the speaker’s message. Needless to say, his ideas and words were never heard as the audience stewed over his suggestions. By the time he asked for questions, the speaker and his audience were far, far apart.

Now, say he had begun his speech indicating that he believed everyone’s healthcare needs should be met, regardless of income (a similar and familiar message for the audience). What if he further said he understood that the audience had arrived at their opinions carefully and deliberately, even if they were not the same as his (compliment). And what if he then suggested that his only hope was to leave his audience with an alternative view. With all options on the table they could work to address one of the more challenging and critical issues that affects all of us (common goal).

The speaker may not have persuaded the audience to adopt his position, but he could have increased his chances he was more likeable. That shift alone might have meant the audience was more likely to consider his views rather than dismissing them outright from the start.

Self-disclose. Studies have found one person’s self-disclosure tends to encourage others to reveal details about themselves. Throughout your talk, offer some revealing details, such as: “The last time I was in this room, I was where you are now – wondering how on Earth the speaker was going to convince me to change my mind.” You also could share first-person anecdotes that reveal what led you to your conclusion. Further, share how you hope your experience will guide others to come to that conclusion. You may not entirely sway your audience, but you’ve likely increased your likability.

Doctor team with medical clinic background for nursing care professional teamwork and patient trust in hospital's hospitality concept

5. “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV”

As much as our peers can influence the way we behave and likability can build trust, audiences also are more likely to trust and be persuaded by people they believe are credible and knowledgeable. We trust that the information is valuable and vetted. It’s another of our cognitive shorthand strategies, given we don’t have the time to do in-depth research for every decision.

As we look to our peers for guidance in uncertain situations, we also look to experts for how to respond to situations that are beyond what our peers can provide.

Authority in action:

  • Your financial investor suggests you adjust the allocations in your retirement portfolio. You agree.
  • After your plumber comes out to check a leak, he suggests it’s time to replace the pipe. You agree.
  • You are casually talking to your financial investor about your plumbing woes, and he suggests you replace the pipe. Unless you knew he was a plumber before he became a financial advisor, or has a side plumbing gig, you might not be as persuaded. The same goes for your plumber. If he started giving you financial advice, you’d want to know the basis of his expertise before you followed his lead.

Here’s how you can harness authority to better persuade:

Answer these questions. Well before you appear before your audience, you should have answered “How will the they see me?” with another question: “Does my audience have the information it needs to assess whether I am credible, have the expertise, and would likely practice what I preach?” If there is any incongruity, highlight it early and explain any perceived discrepancies. You can do that by:

  • Providing biographical and professional information in your promotional materials that reveal your expertise.
  • Ask if you can provide the introduction that will be read. If, instead, organizers are creating the introductions, make sure the material you provide effectively lays out why you have the knowledge to offer the advice you are about to give.

Dispel doubt. If you think your audience is scratching their collective heads as to why you are at the lectern, identify what is creating that doubt and have an answer at the ready. Here are some examples:

“I may appear too old to be talking about this, but …”

“Why is a chemist talking about art? Well ….”

“You may be wondering why the president of a small network of local banks is being asked to talk about the global financial market. These days, the global financial market is the market, and banks large and small have to have a deep understanding of how money is moving around the globe.”

Focus on credible vs. knowledgeable. The audience may not have doubts about your credibility or overall expertise, but they may question your knowledge about the topic at hand. For instance, audience members listening to a podiatrist’s presentation would presumably be swayed by her suggestion on curbing foot pain. Despite her overall education and experience in health and medicine, it is less likely they would be persuaded to adopt her tip on improving cardio health. Or, you are an executive who runs a small to mid-sized business but are talking about issues that face much larger corporations. Make sure you are clear as to why you have the expertise to address this topic.

Cat looks at his reflection in mirror and sees a tiger

6. Is that in the script?

The stories we create about ourselves are some of the most influential motivators you can work with as a presenter. These storylines color our perceptions, decisions, and the way we interact with others – and, most importantly for a presenter, how we are influenced. In fact, self-identity is so powerful that a wide body of research finds people frequently act against their self-interest in order to maintain a consistent self-identity.

Who is in your audience? Executives, who believe they can tackle whatever challenge comes their way? Community members, who see themselves as crusaders against corruption? Teens, who are not about to let a grownup tell them what they should do?

The concept is this: As our own protagonist we can be rather rigid about following our own script. So, we are more likely to agree and act upon requests that align with the behavior, attitudes, and norms of the character we have created. We tend to feel discomfort – or cognitive dissonance – when our decisions or actions go against our personal storyline.

As a director might convince a playwright to change a few lines, an effective presenter knows how to get us to subtly shift that script and be happy with the changes we’ve made.

As Weinschenk notes in How to Get People to Do Stuff:

“Everything we do is related to a story we have about who we are and how we relate to others. A lot of these stories are unconscious. Whether conscious or unconscious, our stories about ourselves deeply affect how we think and behave. If you can change someone’s story, you can change behavior.”

How do you do this?

Stick to their script. Persuading an audience to think or behave differently is sometimes best done by tapping into their existing story. As a presenter, offer stories, statistics, or examples that remind your audience that your message is aligned with who they already are. Statements such as these play on our desire to maintain consistent self-identity:

“Given you have supported us from day one, I know you know your participation is crucial for the next step of our plan. It’s why I’m here today. I’m hoping we can once again count on you to make this dream a reality.” 

“You have always opened your wallets for the poorest among us.”

Here’s one of our case studies:

A young woman, a client, had to present her company’s social media strategy to her board of directors. They were primarily older men. They saw social media as something the younger generation used but wasn’t of great value to their company. At each presentation, she felt as if they didn’t understand or support her mission, which was to get them to see its value and to gain input.

So, we encouraged her to open her presentation with the theme “nothing has changed.” She pointed out that social media was just the latest incarnation of social networks. She said, in part: “The goal has always been the same: reach your customers where they are. If your customers read The New York Times, you’d ask a reporter from that newspaper to write about your firm. If they watched a Topeka TV station, you’d run an ad in Topeka. Social media allows us to do the same thing. It reaches our customers where they are. The names have changed: instead of reaching people primarily through daily newspapers, we’re reaching them through YouTube and Instagram. But the goal is exactly the same as it has ever been – reach ‘em where they are – and that’s why your input remains as critical as ever.”

Request a rewrite. If you want to shift opinion or get your audience to act on something that goes against who they think they are, offer stories in which people just like them decided to change their minds. You are giving them the “why and how” of how they too can change. In effect, you are exposing them to the kind of persona you want them to embrace.

Identify the audience’s audience. Most public speaking training would tell you to put yourself in the minds of the audience and ask this question: What is their WIIFM?  In other words, when the audience members ask themselves, “What’s In It For Me,” what do you have to give them? If they can see a direct benefit to their lives – career advancement, more free time, better relationships, a healthier future – they are more likely to be persuaded to act. But your audience is also looking toward how others see them, not just how they see themselves. An individual motivator is not always as powerful as one that also taps a group persona.

For instance, you are trying to encourage a group of homeowners to consider a switch to solar panels. You could more narrowly appeal to individual personas:

“From what I can see, you are all here because each one of you wants to do your part to switch to more renewable energy.”

Or, you could appeal to their collective community persona:

“Just 12 miles away, in a community like yours, a similar presentation ended with about half the audience signing up for a consultation with one of our solar experts. They are well on their way to becoming a leading community in this area on renewable energy.”

7. What do you need me to do?

Passersby sign petition on second day of the Forty Eight Hour Strike in London in 2016

You’ve already learned that by drawing on the power of reciprocity, fear of loss, social validation, likability, your expertise, and your audiences’ group and self-identities, you can influence others to convince themselves. All these persuasive techniques, of course, are employed so that when you come to your call to action, your audience has hopefully been swayed to embrace your way of thinking – or, at the least, has considered what you have to say.

Now, you want to send them off with a plan and next steps, but you need to keep up your persuasive ways.

For our final tip, we offer some ways to inspire your audience to make a change:

Don’t ask for too much. Three requests or fewer are best. In general, people don’t do well with too many choices – a glut can create analysis paralysis.

Avoid vague requests. Concrete changes or actions are easier to imagine and, ultimately, carry out.

Help them overcome the opposition. If you are suggesting they embrace a plan that is unpopular, give them the counterarguments they can use when defending their decision.

Reduce the risk. Your request shouldn’t require your audience members to expend too much money or time.

Aim high. Be ambitious in your call to action but offer smaller steps the audience can take as well. Audience members new to the political scene may not answer a request to attend a protest, but they may be willing to sign a petition. Those who don’t make much money might struggle to donate funds but can offer their time. When you tailor your call to action to your audience’s needs and interests, you increase your chances they will comply.

Secure a commitment. Research has shown if we make a commitment – sign a survey, volunteer for a cause, raise our hand in support, etc. – we are on our way to rewriting that script of self-identity. That behavior or action will now be the basis for future behavior and actions. Since we have committed to a course of action, we will now remain consistent with that stand, Cialdini says. He adds that when our commitments are voluntary, active, made publicly, and put into writing, they are more likely to stick.

Start slow. To avoid cognitive dissonance, nudge the needle ever so slightly by suggesting changes to self-identity that are barely perceptible at first. A slight tweak in thinking, perhaps, or a small step to change an enduring habit. Know your audience, too. An audience full of thrill seekers might respond to a leap of faith in an entirely different way than an audience for whom such a leap is impractical given their professional and personal responsibilities.


The persuasive techniques you use will vary depending on your presentation and its goal. And, a persuasive appeal may likely include several of these techniques used simultaneously. You need to know what principle offers a more powerful motivation for compliance. That comes from knowing:

  • your audience
  • your topic
  • what you want the audience to do

Is this trickery?

Mini rex rabbit appearing from a top hat, isolated

You may be thinking of the ethics of this situation. Is this coercion? Are you tricking your audience into saying yes? Are you only thinking about your self-interests? In and of themselves, persuasive tools are just that – tools. Tools are agnostic. It’s the intent of the person using them that colors the meaning.

Ethically speaking, it’s OK to have an opinion and argue for it forcibly in front of those who are fellow advocates and those who oppose it. When you genuinely believe that your best interests will serve their best interests, too, it goes beyond mere manipulation. You are giving them the reasons and rationale they need to make their own opinion. The hope is that your goal goes to the top of their priorities, whether that is thinking differently about a complicated issue, becoming involved in a project, or getting motivated to seek their higher self.

You are not going to convince them to do what they don’t want to do. Strong-arm tactics fail in the end. Compliance comes about when the decision to follow is internalized, not imposed. This is what you want to hear:

  • “I’m sold.”
  • “Where do I sign up?”
  • “You have my support”
  • “Here’s my donation.”

Saying thank you also goes a long way. Thank them for listening, giving you their time, and considering what you had to say.

Speaking of which, thank you for reading.