In the first part of this two-part series on using persuasive techniques in writing a speech, we learnt how to establish a connection with our audience by using repetition, directly addressing them with the second-person pronoun ‘you’, and showing a sense of inclusion with the use of ‘we’.

To further illustrate this point, can you spot the collective pronouns, various forms of ‘we’, in my opening?

I mentioned that “we learnt” how to connect with “our audience”, showing that I, though as a teacher, am part of this learning journey with you! (Actually, your teachers are also continually learning as we teach you. In writing these two blog posts, I have had to look up information to illustrate the persuasive techniques.)

In this post, we will discuss (1) Imperatives (Commands), (2) Rhetorical Questions and (3) the Rule of Three. We will mainly analyse the famous I Have a Dream speech by Martin Luther King. References to other speeches will also be made.

But first, let’s find out how we can improve this short excerpt from the exercise I gave at the end of the last post.

In order to achieve these goals, I will work closely with the other members of the council, as well as the school administration. Through collaboration, we can make a difference in the lives of the student body.

Thank you for your time, and I hope to have your support in this election. Together, we can make our school a better place.

Source: Student Council campaign speech sample adapted from ChatGPT

Improved version (reasons in blue):

With these goals in mind [dropped “In order to” to make it sound less detached], I will work together with members of the Student Council and the school management to make a difference to your lives.

We will endeavour to give you opportunities to speak your mind and share your views, empower our student leaders to guide you, and for those of you experiencing mental health issues, to come alongside you. [reiterates the three goals in an accessible and pastoral way]

Thank you for your support as I strive to lead you in the year to come. [thanks audience in advance, showing confidence] Together, we can make our school a better place.

Persuasive techniques in speech writing (part 2)

1. Imperatives (Commands)

This refers to the use of verbs to give orders or to command someone to do something.

In I Have A Dream, King declares:

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

“Let freedom ring” is a figurative expression. Simply put, it means to liberate or to free. In this case, King’s dream is to bring freedom to his people (African Americans, who have long been oppressed) in all the states of America. While it is not specifically commanding someone to do something, the use of this imperative demonstrates authority and confidence in this dream of his. By this command, he expresses his determination to free people of his race.

Compare this to if he had used “I want to free” or “I will free” (use of personal pronoun ‘I’). While this also shows his commitment to his people’s liberation, “Let freedom ring” is more powerful in that it shifts the focus to the people—that they will be the ones crying victory when that day comes.

Take another example by Barack Obama when he says, “Don’t tell me words don’t matter.” in his speech Words Matter. It is confronting, it grabs your attention, and it makes you sit up to hear how he is going to prove you wrong. And for that matter, imperatives carry a lot of weight.

2. Rhetorical Questions

Illustration for rhetorical questions used as a persuavice technique

Source: Filbert Cartoons

Looking at the cartoon excerpt above, which is the rhetorical question? Filbert (the cat) asks his friend, Kodiak (the bear), if he wants to watch a scary movie. Kodiak then answers him with another question “Don’t they give you night terrors?”, but one that already indicates his response—he does not want to watch as it gives him night terrors. Kodiak is using a rhetorical question, one that makes a point and seeks to persuade Filbert not to watch the movie.

In the same way, you can use rhetorical questions to nudge your audience to your point of view. Instead of forcing your audience to do something (as imperatives do), you can help them realise why they should do something. Take these excerpts from Emma Watson’s speech given at a special event for the HeForShe campaign in 2014.

  1. But my recent research has shown me that feminism has become an unpopular word.

Why is the word such an uncomfortable one?

  • In 1995, Hilary Clinton made a famous speech in Beijing about women’s rights. Sadly many of the things she wanted to change are still a reality today.

But what stood out for me the most was that only 30 per cent of her audience were male. How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation? Men—I would like to take this

In the first example, Watson makes the point that ‘feminism’ has become an uncomfortable, maybe even provocative, word. At the same time, the question prompts her audience to rethink their idea of feminism.

As for the second example, can you identify the point that Watson is making?

Watson’s point: That change can only be affected in the world if men, who have equal responsibility, feel that they are part of the conversation.

She ends off her speech with a strongly worded question: “And to ask yourself if not me, who? If not now, when?”, which makes a direct call to every one of her listeners to act, in that very moment. If she had said, “You should be the one. Now is the time.”, it would not have had the same effect of making the audience think twice.

3. Rule of Three

This is based on our tendency to remember three things at a time. For instance, “blood sweat and tears”, “the good, the bad and the ugly”, as well as safety advice like “Stop, Look Listen”. To make your speech stick, think of three points that you want your audience to take away.

Compare the statements in the left and right columns:

A1I have a dream that one day the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.A2I have a dream that one day even (1) the state of Mississippi, (2) a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, (3) sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
B1And when we allow freedom to ring from every village, hamlet, state and city, we will be able to speed up that day…B2And (1) when this happens, (2) when we allow freedom to ring, (3) when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day…
Note: Statements in right column are from King’s speech.

Statements in both columns have the same content, but they differ in their effects. When you repackage your content in threes (indicated by the numbers in the right column), you make it more catchy and memorable. In Statement A2, it mentions the state of Mississippi and describes it two more times to emphasise how steeped the Blacks are in injustice. In Statement B2, it amplifies the idea of every single area being liberated, by adding more details to “when this happens” with the second and third descriptions.

Applying these techniques

We will now use these techniques to make the speech below more impactful.

First and foremost, the Scouts CCA provides opportunities for adventure and exploration. Through various outdoor activities, you will have the chance to connect with nature and discover new horizons. These experiences cultivate resilience, resourcefulness, and an appreciation for the environment. Witnessing a beautiful sunrise from a mountaintop or cooking a meal over a campfire are sure to leave a lasting impact on your character.

Source: Sample of student’s speech to juniors on joining the Scouts CCA, adapted from ChatGPT

As this is an informal speech (Context) unlike the previous exercise, the student should aim to connect (Purpose) with his juniors (Audience) by keeping his language simple and personal. It might be wiser to avoid imperatives since his audience are like his peers, and use more rhetorical questions instead. Think about how you would want to be spoken to by your senior!

Your revisions could look like this (in bullet points; reasons in blue):

  • What comes to mind when you think about the Scouts? [a genuine, and not a rhetorical, question, but gets audience thinking]
  • Maybe camping, trekking, building life-size structures… [rule of three; notice that these are more specific than “adventure and exploration” and “outdoor activities” which are unhelpfully vague for your juniors—you need to create a visual in their head]
  • What if I told you scouting is all of this, and more? [rhetorical question that highlights Scouts is beyond what one can think of]
  • You get to connect with nature and gain new experiences, which will make you more resilient, more resourceful, and better appreciate our environment. [rule of three (no change except to turn nouns into adjectives for better flow)]
  • Imagine witnessing a beautiful sunrise from a mountaintop or cooking a meal over a campfire. [imperative] All this is sure to leave a lasting impact!
    or
    Trust me—I’ve witnessed a beautiful sunrise from the top of Gunung Lambak in Malaysia, and cooked dinner for my patrol of four over a campfire! [imperative]

The revised paragraph:

What comes to mind when you think about the Scouts? Maybe camping, trekking, building life-size structures… What if I told you scouting is all of this, and more? You get to connect with nature and gain new experiences, which will make you more resilient, more resourceful, and better appreciate our environment. Imagine witnessing a beautiful sunrise from a mountaintop or cooking a meal over a campfire. All this is sure to leave a lasting impact!

Practice of Persuasion techniques

Now you try:

Here is a short exercise for you to apply the 3 techniques you have learnt (a continuation from the above excerpt):

In addition to adventure, the Scouts CCA places great emphasis on leadership development. As a Scout, you will have numerous opportunities to take on leadership roles within your patrol or even in larger events and projects. Whether it’s organising a community service initiative or planning a camp, these experiences will empower you with invaluable leadership skills, like decision-making and collaborating with others. These qualities will not only benefit you during your school years but will also prepare you for future challenges.

Source: Sample of student’s speech to juniors on joining the Scouts CCA, adapted from ChatGPT

Using imperatives, asking rhetorical questions and employing the rule of three are additional ways to pack more punch into your speech. The latter two may seem more challenging to craft, but don’t be afraid to keep trying.

Remember that you don’t have to apply all 3 (or 6) techniques at once. You can start with 2 or 3 and incorporate more into your speech as you write.

For instance, employ 1 more technique for each term or each year. Of course, learn by reading or watching others’ speeches (including those you hear in school).

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