Persuading Your Audience, What the Science Says

By Lisa F. Geherin posted 09-09-2019 08:40


As lawyers, we often believe that because we speak authoritatively, we also excel at making persuasive arguments. But science seems to indicate that there is much more to the art of persuasiveness. Well-known psychologist Robert Cialdini identified six principles of persuasion over 30 years ago. Since then, others have taken those principles and put their own spin on the factors that help with persuasion.

How to Say It

For instance, the article Using the Science of Persuasion in the Courtroom suggests that to be believable, arguments have to be delivered from a credible source and credibility can be communicated through the type of language used. Thus, when lawyers used words like “umm,” “I mean,” and “you know,” they were viewed as less credible according to one study. Likewise, the concept of “mimicry” can be an effective persuasion tool because the more people perceive someone sounds and acts just like them, the more likely they are to like that person and believe what they are saying.

Know Your Audience

“Successfully persuasive people watch first. They understand the dynamics of a group, how people interplay off of one another,” comments Andrea Ayres in her blog. This principle plays out all the time in both large and small cases. The O. J. Simpson murder trial case is a perfect example of how the defense paid attention to the dynamics of the jurors and tailored its arguments and strategies around them. Just because an argument resonates with you, or even a mock jury, does not always mean it will translate to a different audience. Being able to quickly evaluate and adapt to your audience is an important skill in the persuasion tool box.


Borrowing an example from the business world is the idea of corporate storytelling. Harvard Business Review and screenwriting lecturer Robert McKee says that persuading someone on an intellectual basis isn’t “good enough, because people are not inspired to act by reason alone.” So “unit[e] an idea with an emotion,” McKee explains, and the best way to do that is by telling a compelling story. “Persuading with a story is hard…. [I]t demands vivid insight and storytelling skill to present an idea that packs enough emotional power to be memorable."

If you are ready to start using storytelling in your persuasive arguments, try these five storytelling tips from President Obama’s former director of speechwriting, Jon Favreau. My favorite: “There is no persuasion without inspiration.”