Subject Crunch Thursday: Key lessons with videos on persuasive techniques and link to a FREE revision sheet
Techniques like repetition and anecdotes are a staple of persuasive writing. Along with a slew of other rhetorical devices like emotive language, statistics and the good old “rule of three”, they are an effective method of gaining the reader’s trust and support.
But isn’t that the most dangerous thing about them?
The truth is, there is both power and danger inherent in persuasive devices.
You see, these devices are by no means confined to the English classroom, or to books on theory and rhetoric. They are active ways of communicating ideas. You only need to look at the fact that many teachers (myself included) use political speeches to exemplify many of these techniques. Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I have a Dream” speech is a great example of anaphora (check out the video for a definition if you’re not sure what that is). The trouble is, anaphora is also famously used in Nazi party slogans. While many of us don’t use the example of “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer” to exemplify the technique (it’s German for a start), it goes without saying that those with nefarious or bad ideas wield these rhetorical devices just as memorably.
Anecdotes are similarly misused in the sphere of online pseudo-science (see the video for a definition of an anecdote). Anecdotes are short stories, often drawn from personal experience, that support the speaker’s argument. TikTok is teeming with influencers keen to tell young people that because they started one absurd habit, they lost weight. Or cleared up their acne. Or grew abs overnight. Or turned into Spiderman.
That last sentence was also an example of anaphora and the rule of three, by the way!
The truth is, anecdotes are bad evidence. They are the experience of one person and aren’t repeatable, reliable or probabilistic (hello rule of three). Not to mention the fact that a person with an anecdote might have made an error in connecting it to the outcome. For example, someone might say, After I started my new nightly routine of bathing in the blood of unicorns, my skin cleared up. Perhaps they think so, but it could also have been a coincidence, or a consequence of getting more fresh air and exercise on all those daily unicorn hunts.
Though he was talking about life at the time, Macbeth’s Act 5 soliloquy comes to mind when I think about bad anecdotes.
“It is a tale / told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / signifying nothing.”
As an English tutor, I often find myself altering the common idiom, knowledge is power. I say communication is power. I hope that by learning to use these persuasive techniques yourselves, you can recognise when others are trying to use them to get you to agree, subscribe or part with your money.
Not all of you will go on to become rhetoricians. But all of us live in a world more replete with ideas and modes of communication than ever before. Thinking critically, knowing the power of words and the value of evidence, is more than useful. It’s vital.
Check out my free revision resource below. It includes a good “starter kit” of persuasive techniques that you can look out for in your English studies and beyond.