Persuasive Language

Persuasive Language

As an educator and speaker, it’s my duty and interest to keep improving the way I speak and communicate to my audience. I’ve come across and read this book, “Persuasion in the Media Age” by Timothy A. Borchers. There is a chapter that really caught my eyes. It is “Persuasion and Language”. Companies and individuals (e.g. politicians, CEOs, speakers) use slogans, jingles and other persuasive language to create, transform and reinforce power relationships in society. I believe these slogans will be familiar to you: “Just Do It.”, “I’m lovin’ it”, “Think Different” and “It’s the Real Thing.”

The author talked about the 5 aspects of language use by persuaders:

  • Persuaders use language strategically.
  • Persuaders work within a culture in which the meaning of verbal symbols is contested.
  • Language is a powerful way of creating social reality.
  • Persuaders use electronic eloquence to form intimate relationships with audiences.
  • The relationship between language and power influences how persuaders and audiences identify with each other.

Language intensity refers to the degree of affect reflected in the persuader’s language, ranging from mild to intense (Hamilton & Hunter, 1998). An example of using intense words:

“As Americans, we want peace – we work and sacrifice for peace. But there can be no peace if our security depends on the will and whims of a ruthless and aggressive dictator. I’m not willing to stake one American life on trusting Saddam Hussein. Failure to act would embolden other tyrants, allow terrorists access to new weapons and new resources, and make blackmail a permanent feature of world events.” said President Bush.

However, language intensity does not benefit all persuaders equally. Hamilton and Hunter (1998) argued that language intensity influences attitude change only for discrepant messages delivered by credible sources.

Next, powerful persuaders do not use empty adjectives, they make strong statements instead of using questions, they do not use polite forms, and they use hedges less frequently than do powerless persuaders. Below are some features of powerless language:

  • Empty adjectives, such as “cute”, “sweet”, and “divine”.
  • Question forms or the use of questions – such as “right?” – at the end of statements.
  • Polite forms, such as the use of “please” and “thank you”.
  • Hedges, which modify the previous statement. Examples include “I guess”, “I think”, “kinda”, and “you know”.

Burrell & Koper (1998) found that powerful language is “not only more persuasive but also more credible than powerless language”. They advise persuaders to “use powerless language with great discretion/ caution!”. So avoid using the above examples.

Rhetorical figures have been used since the ancient Greeks. Here are several aspects of different speaking style:

  • Parallelism is the repeated use of similar words, phrases, or sentences in the same position in a grammatical construction. The repetition creates a sense of rhythm that invites the audience to listen and remember what is being heard or read. E.g. “But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”, said Martin Luther King Jr. (his use of “we refuse to believe”)
  • Alliteration is using words that start with the same first letter in close proximity to each other. E.g. “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.”
  • Antithesis is the use of contrasting ideas in the same sentence. E.g. “Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning.”, “One small step for a man, one giant leap for all mankind”, “To err is human, to forgive, divine.”
  • Repetition involves restating a key word or phrase to reinforce the point made. The most well-recognized use of repetition is King’s “I have a dream”.I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

    I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

    I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

    I have a dream today.

Jamieson (1988) explained that electronic eloquence has five characteristics: It is personified (illustrating through a person), self-disclosive (using your personal experience), conversational, synoptic, and visually dramatic (combining words and images or visual props). This is the way how persuaders establish this intimate style through their word choice.

Just need to spend some time to craft your very own powerful, persuasive, positive presentation or speech. Good luck & have fun.

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