Last Updated on September 21, 2022 by Allen Stafford

Persuasive Communication Tips – According to Cicero

Persuasive Communication Tips According to Cicero

“To sway the audience’s emotions is victory; for among all things, it is the single most important in winning verdicts.”

-Cicero

Cicero, A Skilled Persuasive Public Speaker

A skilled orator and prose stylist, Marcus Tullius Cicero ranks among Rome’s greatest public speakers. While he was in the Roman Empire, he also served as a statesman, lawyer, scholar, and philosopher. Throughout his life, Cicero covered a wide range of topics, including rhetoric, philosophy, and politics.

Well known for his writings and speeches on politics during political turmoil that led to establishing the Roman Empire, Cicero created persuasive communication tips (or tenants) for public speaking. He believed that to be an effective communicator, one had to appeal to the emotions of their audience, setting aside any appeal to logic or scientific reasoning. Therefore, he believed emotions govern the average person.

Cicero further subscribed to the idea that if you can get an audience emotionally involved in your speech or discussion, the facts, evidence, or testimony do not matter in your pursuit to persuade an audience. He believed that once you arouse the audience’s emotions, you can get them to do whatever you want, including getting their vote.

While Cicero is not the only gifted orator of his time, historians have learned a lot more about him because most of his writings survived time over those of his peers. Therefore, it is through his writings that historians have reconstructed Cicero’s, along with other orators’ tricks for creating a road map for effective persuasive public speaking. As you read through the persuasive communication tips for public speaking used by Cicero, take note of when you might have heard some of the persuasive arguments. You will discover that modern politicians use these tactics to persuade their audiences in their speeches.

Persuasive Communication Tips

Cicero, among other Roman politicians, philosophers, and scholars, was an avid orator. From his writings amongst his peers is a list of Roman public speaking strategies (persuasive communication tips) used not only during the life of Cicero, but adopted by politicians and many other public speakers over the centuries to persuade their audiences to take their side in reasoning.

Persuasive Strategy Definition Why it works

Repetition

The use of repetition in speech is a powerful communication tool. When you try to convince someone of your agenda, telling them about it often leads them to believe what you say.

Research shows that repetition affects beliefs about the truth. As a result of prior exposure to information, people perceive claims as truer. Cognitive behaviorists call this the illusory truth effect. In short, the illusory truth effect tells that the processing fluency account is responsible for people believing repetitive things. As information is repeated, people process it more fluently, allowing it to be perceived as true. The marketing and advertising industry has been employing the illusory truth effect for decades to get their audiences to believe their product claims.

Vivid Language

Use phrases that are colorful and paint a picture in your audience’s mind. For example, simply saying, “undocumented migrants are crossing the borders in record numbers” may be factual, but fail to paint vivid imagery in the audience’s mind. Making a statement like, “the illegal aliens are crossing the border in caravans, headed to your cites to murder and rape your family members” is harsh, yet vivid language.

When you use vivid language in your persuasive communication speech or writings, you appeal to a person’s pathos. Pathos is the appeal to your audience’s emotions in order to evoke feeling. Recall from our earlier discussion that Cicero believed that to persuade an audience, the communicator needs to appeal to their emotions. Using vivid language connects visuals (from the colorful words selected) with the audience’s emotions — or images the audience already hosts in their thoughts — that manifest fear, anger, and happiness, amongst other emotions.

Guilt by Association

This persuasive technique discredits someone’s reputation while advancing one’s own credibility. As an example, a political rival may claim that his opponent is associated with common criminals and mafia members. By making such a claim, the rival is distracting the audience from the core issues by attacking their character indirectly. In response to a protest from the opponent, the political rival can deny ever making any specific claims about the opponent, but only about those with whom they associate.

Known also as an Ad Hominem fallacy, Guilt by Association distracts the audience from the real argument, the issues. In general, people tend to trust the speaker, especially if they are opposed to the speaker’s competitor. Rather than concentrating on the person’s characteristics, audiences should question if the issues are correct and suitable or them.

Exaggeration

If you accuse your opponent of multiple crimes, the audience may not believe that the opponent is guilty of all crimes, but that they must be guilty of some crimes. Evidence rarely, if ever, support exaggerated claims.

Exaggeration evokes a dramatic, emphatic effect that results in an emotional response. Exaggeration sways the audience’s opinion by overly emphasizing either positive or negative aspects of an issue. When a person has a predisposition to a belief about the issues, either positive or negative, exaggeration reinforces their belief.

Labeling

This persuasive communication tip refers to a speaker giving their opponent a negative label, while labeling their own actions and behaviors in a positive light. The idea is to associate your opponent with any negative thoughts and the speaker with positive thoughts. This communication strategy keeps the audience from aligning themselves with the negatively labeled opponent. Choosing to align with the negatively labeled opponent could imply that they also exhibit the same negative traits.

An example of labeling the opponent may include calling them a thief, coward, self-serving politician, or liar.

Labeling a person with negative labels is a form of labeling theory. According to the theory, the words used to describe or classify individuals may influence their behavior. In labeling theory, deviance is not inherent in how people behave, but the tendency of majorities to negatively label minorities or those seen as deviant from standard cultural norms. The audience perceives speakers who negatively label their opponents as the majority. In turn, the audience views the opponent as deviant from their norms. In other words, if an opponent is labeled negatively, the message to the audience is that the opponent is not fit to hold office, or be considered for anything, since he is not like the audience and speaker.

Fearmongering

This persuasive communication tip from Cicero plays on people’s fears. While no actual proof is necessary, the speaker merely stirs up people’s fears to get them emotionally invested with the speakers’ topic. Once the speaker can arouse the fear in their audience, they can easily use the next communication strategy, “Us versus Them.”

According to evolutionary psychology, people pay attention to danger because the awareness of danger is important for survival, especially in early human evolution. Cultural evolution (the evolution of social change) amplifies fearmongering when the media caters to people’s appetite for danger-related information.

Us versus Them

When employing the fearmongering persuasive communication strategy, speakers will deploy the “Us versus Them” strategy to isolate their opponents’ view and constituents from their own. The key to this communication strategy is radical polarization.

Once a speaker taps into their audience’s fears, emotionally inciting them, the speaker can show their differences from the other sides, further dividing the two viewpoints and radically polarizing their differences. The persuasive communication strategies of vivid language, exaggeration, and labeling can all play a role with the “us versus them” strategy.

Mudslinging (Personal Insults)

Attacking the opponent by insulting them is a strategy often used when the speaker wants to avoid a real debate about the important issues. The insults do not have to be true or apply to the opponent. That the speaker uses insults is good enough to stir up their audience emotionally.

Mudslinging or personal insults are rooted in how people measure themselves. We are constantly comparing ourselves with others. When we hear insults toward our opponent, we not only feel Schadenfreude, but also feel that our status is better than our adversaries.

Use Rhyming Words

Effective communicators rhyme certain parts of their speech. People will more often than not remember information if it has a rhythm or it rhymes. For example, the famous closing arguments in the O.J Simpson murder trial where his attorney stated, If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

Rhyming works because humans like patterns and it is easier to recall words that have a similar sound structure or phoneme. Additionally, rhyming also helps with persuasion. The cognitive bias, rhyme-as-reason, states that people are likely to believe statements that rhyme than if they do not rhyme, even if the statement is not true.

Simplification

According to Cicero, speakers should simplify complex ideas into simple arguments that are easily remembered. However, the caveat with the simpler arguments is to stir up powerful emotions within the audience.

Simplification helps break down complex ideas so that an audience not familiar with the terminology or process can easily understand and comprehend the information. Simplicity also helps reduce the attention demand on your audience. There are a number of factors that distract us and bombard us on a typical day. Providing basic, simple information helps to focus our attention on the key points the speaker is trying to make. It is easier to remember the information as well, especially if the speaker makes an emotional connection with us.

Use Religion

When all else fails in your attempt to persuade an audience, use religion. For example, in Christianity, the speaker can claim that God is on their side.

By using religion, God in this example, the speaker is asserting the will of God. By doing so implies that the opponent is ungodly and on the side of evil. We see this type of persuasive communication strategy used in politics, especially between Democrats and Republicans in the United States of America. Where Republicans consistently claim that God is on their side, while Republicans claim the Democrats are godless and evil.

Transferral

Transferral works as a persuasive communication strategy if your opponent accuses you of wrongdoing. Once accused, you transfer the accusation back onto your opponent for whatever they claimed you have done. You are, in essence, transferring the criticism and attention back to your opponent. At the very least, you create confusion in your audience, leveling the playing field.

Transferral, also known as blame-shifting, is an abusive communication strategy. It shifts the blame from the accused to the accuser. Because it takes the focus of the problem away from the accused, the audience will shift their focus to the other side. Shift-blaming uses cognitive flexibility, which is the ability for people to selectively switch between mental processes to generate appropriate behavioral responses. Transferral works best once a speaker arouses their audience’s emotions.

Testimony

A speaker can cite witnesses in their speech without naming the witnesses, even if they do not exist. One tactic is to use phrases such as “everyone knows that….” or “many people agree with me on….”

This communication strategy can also work with inanimate objects when the speaker uses phrases such as, “the walls of the building witnessed their behavior.” The audience will walkaway thinking there was evidence or testimony, even though the speaker mentioned no one specific.

Most people do not check facts. This strategy works especially well if the speaker is charismatic. Audiences will take a charismatic speaker’s word for the testimony, based on the authority bias. This bias describes people’s tendency to attribute greater accuracy to the opinion of an authority figure, regardless of content.

Divert and Distract

This persuasive strategy is best used when your opponent makes a good point. Speakers will divert the audience’s attention away from the opponents’ point by making a sensational and outrageous statement. The truth of the statement is irrelevant. The concept is to change the subject and get the audience talking about something new.

If the audience is already emotionally engaged in the topic, divert and distract works well with this strategy. The sensational statement made by the speaker will distract the already emotionally charged audience and move their attention away from the opponent’s good news and bring the focus back onto the speaker so that they can talk about a new topic.

Paralipsis

A paralipsis is a rhetoric strategy for emphasizing a subject by passing over it. Cicero was good at using paralipsis to bring up a negative accusation about his opponents into a denial statement. For example, a speaker using this strategy could say something about his opponent without accusing them: “I would never mention that my opponent avoided paying their taxes.” Using this technique is a way for the speaker to create the illusion of taking the high moral road while calling out their opponent.

Paralipsis is an effective rhetorical tool because it allows the speaker to mention anything negative about their opponent without taking responsibility. Their audience perceives the speaker wants to avoid delivering the negative information, but does so respectfully.

Humor

It may appear mean to poke fun at your opponent. However, Cicero leveraged this persuasive communication tip to his advantage. He used humor at the expense of his opponent, such as making fun of their appearance or behavior.

Humor works because people like to be entertained. Using humor builds rapport with the speaker. This is especially true with like-minded audiences who share the same interest and views as the speaker. Humor also increases the chances that the audience wants to listen actively to the speaker and makes the information more memorable.

Props and Visual Aids

Cicero stated that a public speaker is like an actor. “That they have to prepare their stage with the props to produce the strongest impression upon the audience.”

The use of props and visual aids produce a strong, emotional impression on the audience. Props make a point or argument concrete. They can also be an effective metaphor linking the speaker’s concept to the audience’s emotion. The audience easily remembers them.

Speech Delivery

How you deliver your speech is important. Use colorful and an engaging demeanor to deliver your speech. Avoid using a static demeanor where you just stand behind a podium and not move during your speech. Cicero noted that a poor speech with great delivery is better than a brilliant speech with bad delivery.

Speech delivery is most immediate to your audience. A speaker’s delivery communicates confidence and conveys to an audience that you are prepared to discuss and aware of your subject matter.

Final Thoughts

Practitioners of persuasive communication today look to connect with their audiences not only emotionally, but intellectually. Although Cicero’s persuasive communication principles are no longer considered best practices for delivering persuasive speeches or writings, politicians and other public speakers engage in his tactics, especially when dealing with an adversary. Cicero emphasized results above all else. Despite writing about morality and ethics, Cicero was not concerned with what was morally and ethically right, or even the truth or facts. He was concerned with only what proved effective.

The questions arise: does good communication (oratory) have to be moral? Is effectiveness the only measure of speech? Philosophers have long debated what is moral and ethical. However, each concept remains the interpretation of the individual. How they approach public speaking or written communication is subject to their own beliefs. People are better off learning critical thinking skills to better discern if a public speaker is using immoral tactics to persuade them into agreeing with their politics or ideology.

Communication Activity: Find an Example

To test your understanding of each persuasive tactic, look for examples of each in the media, home, or work environment. From what sources do you hear about Cicero’s strategies the most? Why do you think you hear from these sources more than others?