Persuasion and Rhetorical Definition

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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“People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive" (Blaise Pascal, On the Art of Persuasion, 1658). (Erik Dreyer/Getty Images)

Persuasion is the use of appeals to reasons, values, beliefs, and emotions to convince a listener or reader to think or act in a particular way. Adjective: persuasive. Aristotle defined rhetoric as the "ability to discover the available means of persuasion" in each of the three kinds of oratory: deliberative, judicial, and epideictic.

Persuasive Writing Techniques

From the Latin, "to persuade"

The Art of Literary Persuasion

  • "Character [ethos] may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion."
    (Aristotle, Rhetoric)
  • "Oral delivery aims at persuasion and making the listener believe he has been converted. Few persons are capable of being convinced; the majority allow themselves to be persuaded."
    (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
  • "[F]or the purposes of persuasion the art of speaking relies wholly on three things: the proof of our allegations, the winning of our hearers' favors, and the rousing of their feelings to whatever impulse our case may require." (Cicero, De Oratore)
  • "There is nothing in the world like a persuasive speech to fuddle the mental apparatus and upset the convictions and debauch the emotions of an audience not practiced in the tricks and delusions of oratory." (Mark Twain, "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg." Harper's Monthly, Dec. 1899)
  • "He who wants to persuade should put his trust not in the right argument, but in the right word. The power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense." (Joseph Conrad, "A Familiar Preface." The Collected Works of Joseph Conrad)
  • "The best way to persuade people is with your ears--by listening to them." (attributed to Dean Rusk)

The Persuasive Process

  •  "When we try to persuade, we use the arguments, images, and emotions most likely to appeal to the particular audience in front of us. Rhetoricians who teach the art of persuasion have always instructed their students to treat different audiences differently, to study their distinctive and peculiar commitments, sentiments, and beliefs." (Bryan Garsten, Saving Persuasion: A Defense of Rhetoric and Judgment. Harvard University Press, 2006)
  •  "All language can in a sense be regarded as persuasive (cf., e.g., Miller 1980). However, in this context we limit the definition of persuasion to all linguistic behavior that attempts to either change the thinking or behavior of an audience, or to strengthen its beliefs, should the audience already agree. Yet the audiences--visible and invisible, actual and implied, interlocutors and onlookers--also contribute to the process of persuasion." (Tuija Virtanen and Helena Halmari, "Persuasion Across Genres: Emerging Perspectives." Persuasion Across Genres: A Linguistic Approach. John Benjamins, 2005) 
  •  "Technology has made the audience a prominent feature in the persuasive process. Audiences play an active role in the co-creation of meaning. Persuaders use audience analysis to understand their audiences and adapt their messages. At the same time, technology makes it possible for audiences to circumvent the messages of persuaders and communicate directly with other audience members. In short, the audience for today's media is potentially large, anonymous, and able to circumvent the persuasive messages of producers." (Timothy A. Borchers, Persuasion the Media Age, 3rd ed. Waveland Press, 2013)

Persuasion in Advertising

  • "The real persuaders are our appetites, our fears and above all our vanity. The skillful propagandist stirs and coaches these internal persuaders." (attributed to Eric Hoffer)
  • "If you're trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think. We try to write in the vernacular." (David Ogilvy, Confessions of an Advertising Man, 1963)
  • “V&V's NoCoat campaign . . . did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase.” (David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest. Little Brown, 1996)

Persuasion in Government

  • "[I]n a republican nation, whose citizens are to be led by reason and persuasion, and not by force, the art of reasoning becomes of first importance." (Thomas Jefferson, 1824. Quoted by James L. Golden and Alan L. Golden in Thomas Jefferson and the Rhetoric of Virtue. Rowman & Littlefield, 2002)
  • "Men are not governed by justice, but by law or persuasion. When they refuse to be governed by law or persuasion, they have to be governed by force or fraud, or both." (Lord Summerhays in Misalliance by George Bernard Shaw, 1910)

The Lighter Side of Persuasion

  • "A man in Phoenix calls his son in New York the day before Thanksgiving and says, 'I hate to ruin your day, but I have to tell you that your mother and I are divorcing; forty-five years of misery is enough.'

"'Pop, what are you talking about?' the son screams.

"'We can't stand the sight of each other any longer,' the old man says. 'We're sick of each other, and I'm sick of talking about this, so you call your sister in Chicago and tell her.'.

Frantic, the son calls his sister, who explodes on the phone. 'Like heck they're getting divorced,' she shouts. 'I'll take care of this.'

She calls Phoenix immediately, and screams at her father, 'You are NOT getting divorced. Don't do a single thing until I get there. I'm calling my brother back, and we'll both be there tomorrow. Until then, don't do a thing, DO YOU HEAR ME?' and hangs up.

The old man hangs up his phone and turns to his wife. 'Okay,' he says, 'they're coming for Thanksgiving and paying their own way.'"
(Charles Smith, Just Plain Funny. RoseDog Books, 2012)

Pronunciation: pur-ZWAY-shun

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Nordquist, Richard. "Persuasion and Rhetorical Definition." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Persuasion and Rhetorical Definition. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Persuasion and Rhetorical Definition." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).