Learning Objectives

  • Define persuasive speaking
  • Explore organizational patterns for persuasive speeches
  • Explain the barriers to persuading an audience

  • Identify common logical fallacies

On the first day of class, your instructor provided you a “lay of the land.” They introduced you to course documents, the syllabus, and reading materials.

“It’s important that you read your textbook,” they likely shared. “The material will allow you to dive deeper into the course material and, even if you don’t initially realize its importance, the reading material will build throughout the semester. The time spent reading will be worth it because without that knowledge, it will be difficult to complete assignments and receive full credit. The time spent reading will benefit you after you leave for the semester, too, and you’ll have critical thinking skills that will permeate your life out of the classroom.” Sound familiar?

This is persuasion. Your instructor is persuading you that reading the textbook is a good idea—that it’s an action that you should take throughout the semester. As an audience member, you get to weigh the potential benefits of reading the textbook in relation to the consequences. But if your instructor has succeeded in their persuasive attempt, you will read the book because they have done a good job of helping you to conclude in favor of their perspective.

Persuasion is everywhere. We are constantly inundated with ideas, perspectives, politics, and products that are requesting our attention. Persuasion is often positively paired with ideas of encouragement, influence, urging, or logic. Your instructors, for example, are passionate about the subject position and want you to succeed in the class. Sadly, persuasion can also be experienced as manipulation, force, lack of choice, or inducement. You might get suspicious if you think someone is trying to persuade you. You might not appreciate someone telling you to change your viewpoints.

In this chapter, we explore persuasive speaking and work through best practices in persuasion. Because persuasion is everywhere, being critical and aware of persuasive techniques will allow you to both ethically persuade audiences and evaluate arguments when others attempt to persuade you. We’ll start with the basics by answering the question, “what is persuasion?”

Introducing Persuasive Speaking

Persuasion is “the process of creating, reinforcing, or changing people’s beliefs or actions” (Lucas, 2015, p. 306). Persuasion is important in all communication processes and contexts—interpersonal, professional, digital—and it’s something that you do every day. Convincing a friend to go see the latest movie instead of staying in to watch TV; giving your instructor a reason to give you an extension on an assignment; writing a cover letter and resume and going through an interview for a job—all of these and so many more are examples of persuasion. In fact, it is hard to think of life without the everyday give-and-take of persuasion. In each example listed, Lucas’s definition of persuasion is being implemented: you are asking a person or group to agree with your main idea.

When using persuasion in a public speech, the goal is to create, change, or reinforce a belief or action by addressing community problems or controversies. Remember that public speaking is a long-standing type of civic engagement; when we publicly speak, we are participating in democratic deliberation. Deliberation, or the process of discussing feasible choices that address community problems, is important in resolving community concerns because it allows all perspectives to be considered. Persuasive speaking means addressing a public controversy and advocating for a perspective that the speaker hopes the audience will adopt. If the issue isn’t publicly controversial – if everyone agrees or if there are not multiple perspectives – you are not persuading. You’re informing.

So, what’s a public controversy? Public controversies are community disputes that affect a large number of people. Because they involve a large number of people, public controversies often have multiple perspectives, leading to public deliberation and debate to resolve each dispute.

We experience public controversies daily. Through our social media feeds, we continuously scroll past shared articles, comments, or posts that provide different perspectives on community problems and potential solutions. You might, for example, join your local neighborhood (or dorm) Facebook group where neighbors share information and collaborate on solutions to specific problems facing the community. Each problem has consequences for different neighbors, and Facebook allows a space to deliberate and organize to address community priorities. They are controversial, however, because not all neighbors agree what which problems should be solved first or what those solutions are.

Sadly, there is no shortage of public controversies, and advocating for solutions to key community problems can feel overwhelming.

“How do I figure out one controversy to speak out about?” you may wonder.

Pro-Tip: Use Chapter 3 as a guide to brainstorming and conducting exploratory research around controversies.

Identify public controversies by listening and engaging with your community. What issues are affecting them? What are priorities? Once you’re able to locate a key community dispute, ask yourself:

  • What is it? What is the problem? Are there more than 1? Is this the key problem or are there other hidden issues?
  • What is the impact? What will happen if the problem is not resolved?
  • Who’s affected? Who’s being affected or implicated by this problem? Who are the audiences or stakeholders affected? Are the stakeholders a part of my formal audience?
  • What can solve it? Are there suggested solutions?

Controversies arise when a community experiences a problem, so your job is to decipher the breadth and depth of that problem. It’s impossible to address all issues in one speech, so researching and prioritizing are key to identifying what advocacy you find most urgent. For any controversy that you can address in a persuasive speech, keep context and power in mind.


Your public speaking context always informs what’s possible to accomplish during a speech. Like we outlined in Chapter 1, the public speaking context refers to both the physical space and cultural context.

The physical context will influence how much information you can provide to your audience. In other words, “Do I have time to talk about this issue?” “What is the most essential information to cover in a limited timeframe?” The broader cultural context can help you in situating your advocacy alongside other community conversations. What else is happening? Have other communities experienced this problem?


As persuasive speakers, you are attempting to influence an audience. What you select and how you present that information will alter how audiences understand the world, and that’s a pretty powerful thought. When you select an advocacy that addresses a public controversy, you are asking the audience to trust your perspective. To uphold that trust, it’s key to examine who is empowered or disempowered by our perspective.

When you’re considering a position toward a public controversy, you might ask, who’s empowered or disempowered by this problem? Who’s left out of the research? How are communities being represented? What am I assuming about those communities? Who is affected by my advocacy?

We can be well-meaning in our advocacies, especially when we select a persuasive insight based on our own experience. We become passionate about issues that we have seen, and that’s OK! Such passion can also, however, mean that we represent information in ways that are stereotypical or lead to the disempowerment of others.

If your city, for example, is deciding where to place a landfill, you may advocate against the plant being placed in your neighborhood. That advocacy, on face, makes sense!

“This will reduce our property values and just be plain stinky,” you might argue.

When we think about the issue reflexively and with power in mind, however, we may find that landfills are much more likely to be placed in neighborhoods that are predominant people of color (Massey, 2004). Advocating against placing the plant in your home may inadvertently mean the plant is placed in more vulnerable neighborhoods. Those neighbors become disempowered in your attempt to empower your own community.

In this example, practicing reflexivity might include asking: What are the potential solutions? What options do I have to avoid disempowering groups? Using sound research skills, considering other alternatives or perspectives, and listening can be mechanisms to answer these inquiries

There are no easy answers, but we are confident that you can select advocacies that are meaningful and worthwhile.

Formulating Persuasive Propositions

Once you feel comfortable and confident about a controversial issue that is ethical, timely and contextually relevant, you will need to identify what type of persuasive proposition that you’ll use in your speech. There are three types of persuasive propositions: propositions of fact, value, or policy. Each type will require different approaches and may have different persuasive outcomes for your audience.

Propositions of Fact

Propositions of fact answer the question, “is this true?” Speeches with this type of proposition attempt to establish the truth of a statement. There is not a sense of what is morally right and wrong or what should be done about the issue, only that a statement is supported by evidence or not.

These propositions are not facts like “the chemical symbol for water is H20” or “Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008.” Propositions or claims of fact are advocacies with evidence on different sides and/or spark disagreement. Some examples of propositions of fact are:

  • Converting to solar energy can save homeowners money.
  • John F. Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald working alone.
  • Coal exacerbates global warming.
  • Climate change has been caused by human activity.
  • Granting tuition tax credits to the parents of children who attend private schools will perpetuate educational inequity.
  • Watching violence on television causes violent behavior in children.
  • William Shakespeare did not write most of the plays attributed to him.
  • John Doe committed the crime of which he is accused.

Notice that no values—good or bad—are explicitly mentioned. The point of these propositions is to prove with evidence the truth of a statement, not its inherent value. Your goal is to persuade the audience to update their understanding or belief about the topic in question. Because you are likely not asking the audience to overtly act, it’s necessary to embed arguments that highlight how or why this factual information is meaningful for them or how the factual statement resolves a public controversy.

Propositions of fact are meaningful persuasive claims when new evidence or scientific observations arise that your audience may not know. Facts, statistics, definitions, or expert testimony are common evidence types for these propositions.

Propositions of Value

Propositions of value argue that something is good/bad or right/wrong. When the proposition has a word such as good, bad, best, worst, just, unjust, ethical, unethical, moral, immoral, advantageous or disadvantageous, it is a proposition of value. Some examples include:

  • Hybrid cars are the best form of automobile transportation available today.
  • Homeschooling is more beneficial for children than traditional schooling.
  • The War in Iraq was not justified.
  • The United States is not the greatest country on earth.
  • Capital punishment is morally wrong.
  • White supremacy is wrong.
  • Mascots that involve Native American names, characters, and symbols are demeaning.
  • A vegan diet is the healthiest one for adults.

Communication is a key vehicle in understanding values because communication is how communities collectively determine what is right or wrong. Because values are culturally-situated and not universal, as a speaker, you must ground and describe what value or moral judgement you’re utilizing. If a war is unjustified, what makes a war “just” or “justified” in the first place? What makes a form of transportation “best” or “better” than another? Isn’t that a matter of personal approach? For different people, “best” might mean “safest,” “least expensive,” “most environmentally responsible,” “most stylish,” “powerful,” or “prestigious.”

Effective propositions of value rely on shared beliefs held by your audience. Developing confidence about your audience will allow you to determine what value systems they rely on and how your proposition relies on similar belief systems. We’ll talk more about appealing to your audience below.

Propositions of Policy

Policy propositions identify a solution to correct the problem. These propositions call for a change in policy (including those in a government, community, or school) or call for the audience to adopt a certain behavior.

Speeches with propositions of policy try to instigate the audience to act immediately, in the long-term, or alter their perspective on an issue. A few examples include:

  • Our state should require mandatory recertification of lawyers every ten years.
  • The federal government should act to ensure clean water standards for all citizens.
  • The state of Georgia should require drivers over the age of 75 to take a vision test and present a certificate of good health from a doctor before renewing their licenses.
  • Wyeth Daniels should be the next governor of the state.
  • The Supreme Court should rule that migrant detention centers are unconstitutional.

These propositions are easy to identify because they almost always have the word “should” in them.

Many policy propositions advocate for a solution through a specific organization or government agency. In the examples above, the federal government, the state, and the Supreme Court are all listed as relevant actors to resolve the problem.

Alternatively, you could advocate for your audience to make specific behavioral changes that lead to solutions. If you’re addressing the consequences of climate change in your local community, do solutions require government or non-profit action? Could your audience make in-roads to reducing the negative effects of climate change alone? Thorough research will assist you in determining what actors – organizations or your audience—are best suited to implement your policy solution.

Policy propositions commonly embed a specific call-to-action. What should the audience do if they are persuading by your perspective? What actions can and should they take that can support your policy proposition? This can include “call your senator” (though more specificity is often helpful), but your call-to-action should be crafted with audience adaptation and information in mind.

Pro Tip: For topic development, remember insights from Chapter 12 — topics should be focused and unique.

Organizing Persuasive Propositions

Organization plays a key role in comprehending an argument. Chapter 6 on organizing provides you a nice starting place to decide which organizational pattern is best suited for different speech types. In this section, we discuss organizing persuasive speeches with a focus on propositions of policy.

Once you’ve identified your main argument, ask, “what organizational pattern best suits my argument?”

For propositions of fact or value, you might select a categorical organization. Essentially that means that you will have two to four discrete, separate arguments in support of the proposition. For example:

Proposition of Fact: Converting to solar energy can save homeowners money.

  1. Solar energy reduces power bills.
  2. Solar energy requires less money for maintenance.
  3. Solar energy works when the power grid goes down.

For propositions of policy, the problem-solution organization pattern is commonly used. We do not typically feel any motivation to change unless we are convinced that some harm, problem, need, or deficiency exists, and even more, that it affects us personally. As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” In a problem-solution pattern, you can spend ample and organized time outlining the consequences to inaction, i.e. the problem.

Although a simple problem-solution organization is permissible for a speech of actuation, you will probably do well to utilize the more detailed format called Monroe’s Motivated Sequence.

This format, designed by Alan Monroe (1951), is based on John Dewey’s reflective thinking process to consider audience listening patterns. Monroe’s Motivated Sequence involves five steps, which should not be confused with the main points of the outline. Some steps in Monroe’s Motivated Sequence may take two points. Each step is described below:

  • Attention. This is the introduction, where the speaker brings attention to the importance of the topic as well as their own credibility and connection to the topic.
  • Need. Here the problem is defined and defended. It is important to make the audience see the severity of the problem, and how it affects them, their family, or their community. The harm or need can be physical, financial, emotional, educational, or social. It will have to be supported by evidence.
  • Satisfaction. A need calls for satisfaction in the same way a problem requires a solution. Not only does the speaker present the solution and describe it, but they must defend that it works and will address the causes of the problem as well as the symptoms.
  • Visualization. This step looks to the future either positively or negatively. If positive, the benefits from enacting or choosing the solution are shown. If negative, the disadvantages of not doing any-thing to solve the problem are shown.
  • Action. In the action step, the goal is to give specific steps for the audience to take as soon as possible to move toward solving the problem. Whereas the satisfaction step explains the solution overall, the action step gives concrete ways to begin making the solution happen.

The more concrete you can make the action step, the better. Research shows that people are more likely to act if they know how accessible the action can be. For example, if you want students to be vaccinated against the chicken pox virus (after establishing that it is a key public controversy), you can give them directions to and hours for a clinic or health center where vaccinations at a free or discounted price can be obtained.

With any organizational pattern selected, it’s imperative to group your main points around clear claims that are supported with evidence and explained with a warrant. As you develop your persuasive arguments, stay appraised of who your audience is and best practices for persuasion.

Developing the Persuasive Speech: Appealing to an Audience

Persuasion only occurs with an audience, so your main goal is to answer the question, “how do I persuade the audience to believe my proposition of fact, value, or policy?”

To accomplish this goal, identify your target audience—individuals who are willing to listen to your argument despite disagreeing, having limited knowledge, or lacking experience with your advocacy. Because persuasion involves change, you are targeting individuals who have not yet changed their beliefs in favor of your argument.

The persuasive continuum (Figure 13.1) is a tool that allows you to visualize your audience’s relationship with your topic.


Figure 13.1

The persuasive continuum views persuasion as a line going both directions. Your audience members, either as a group or individually, are sitting somewhere on that line in reference to your thesis statement, claim, or proposition.

For example, your proposition might be, “The main cause of climate change is human activity.” In this case, you are not denying that natural forces, such as volcanoes, can affect the climate, but you are claiming that human pollution is the central force behind global warming. To be an effective persuasive speaker, one of your first jobs is determining where your audience “sits” on the continuum.

+3 means strongly agree to the point of making lifestyle choices to lessen climate change (such as riding a bike instead of driving a car, recycling, eating certain kinds of foods).
+2 means agree but not to the point of acting upon it.
+1 as mildly in favor of your proposition; that is, they think it’s probably true but the issue doesn’t affect them personally.
0 means neutral, no opinion, or feeling uninformed enough to make a decision.
-1 means mildly opposed to the proposition but willing to listen to those with whom they disagree.
-2 means disagreement to the point of dismissing the idea pretty quickly.
-3 means strong opposition to the point that the concept of climate change itself is not even listened to or acknowledged as a valid subject.

Since everyone in the audience is somewhere on this line or continuum, persuasion means moving them to the right, somewhere closer to +3.

Your topic will inform which strategy you use to move your audience along the continuum. If you are introducing an argument that the audience lacks knowledge in, you are moving an audience from 0 to +1, +2, or +3. The audience’s attitude will be a 0 because they have no former opinion or experience.

Thinking about persuasion as a continuum has three benefits:

  • You can visualize and quantify where your audience lands on the continuum
  • You can accept the fact that any movement toward +3 or to the right is a win.
  • You can see that trying to change an audience from -3 to +3 in one speech is just about impossible. Therefore, you will need to take a reasonable approach. In this case, if you knew most of the audience was at -2 or -3, your speech would be about the science behind climate change in order to open their minds to its possible existence. However, that audience is not ready to hear about its being caused mainly by humans or what action should be taken to reverse it.

As you identify where your target audience sits on the continuum, you can dig deeper to determine what values, attitude, or beliefs would prohibit individuals from supporting the proposition or values, attitudes, or beliefs that support your proposition. At the same time, avoid language that assumes stereotypical beliefs about the audience.

Throwback: Use Chapter 2 to dig deeper into audience values, beliefs, and attitudes.

For example, your audience may value higher education and believe that education is useful for critical thinking skills. Alternatively, you may have an audience that values work experience and believes that college is frivolous and expensive. Being aware of these differing values will deepen your persuasive content by informing what evidence or insights to draw on and upon for each audience type.

Once you’re confident about where your audience is on the continuum and what values they hold, you can select the appropriate rhetorical appeals – ethos, pathos, and logos—to motivate your audience toward action. Yes, we’ve discussed these rhetorical appeals before, but they are particularly useful in persuasive speaking, so let’s re-cap.

Ethos is the influence of speaker credentials and character in a speech. Ethos is achieved through citing reliable, authoritative sources, strong arguments, showing awareness of the audience, and effective delivery.

Pathos means using the emotions such as love, anger, joy, hate, desire for community to persuade the audience of the rightness of a proposition.

Finally, logos refers to the organized and logical arguments that are used to support a claim.

So, what do these mean in practice? Suppose that your speech is trying to motivate the audience to support expanding bus routes on your campus. Use Table 13.2 to track the use of rhetorical appeals.

Using Rhetorical Appeals




“On days with poor weather, rain, or snow, many of you are like me, waiting in a pile up of students to catch the campus bus. As one of those students…”

“After speaking with the transportation department on campus…”

“Imagine yourself at the bus stop. Waiting. Your clock ticks as missing class becomes a vivid thought. As more time passes, your heart races, knowing you’ll miss a big test with no late work.”

“In a study conducted by transportation department on campus, 63% of students reported that unpredictable and slow buses led to missing class.”

                                      Table 13.2

In sum, the audience plays a central role in persuasion, so staying tuned-in to audience beliefs and expectations is key.

Barriers to Effective Persuasive Speaking

Persuasive speaking can provide opportunities to advocate for important community solutions. But persuasion is really difficult, and there are often barriers to effectively persuading our audience to change their beliefs or act in a new way.

Persuasion is hard because we have a bias against change. As much as we hear statements like “The only constant is change” or “Variety is the spice of life,” the evidence from research and from our personal experience shows that, in reality, we do not like change. Recent risk aversion research, for example, found that humans are concerned more with what we lose than what we gain. Change is often seen as a loss of something rather than a gain of something else, and that’s stressful. We do not generally embrace things that bring us stress.

Given our aversion to change, audiences often go out of their way to protect their beliefs, attitudes, and values. We (as audience members) selectively expose ourselves to messages that we already agree with, rather than those that confront or challenge us. This selective exposure is especially seen in choices of mass media that individuals listen to, watch, and read. Not only do we selectively expose ourselves to information, we selectively attend to, perceive, and recall information that supports our existing viewpoints (referred to a selective recall).

This principle led Leon Festinger (1957) to form the theory of cognitive dissonance, which states, among other ideas, that when we are confronted with conflicting information or viewpoints, we reach a state of dissonance, or tension between ideas and beliefs. It often occurs when we’re presented information that’s out of line with our values or experiences. This state can be very uncomfortable, and we will do things to get rid of the dissonance and maintain “consonance.” We don’t want to accept that our beliefs may be wrong or inconsistent; we want to remain harmonious.

In a sense, not changing can outweigh very logical reasons to change. For example, you probably know a friend who will not wear a seatbelt in a car. You can say to your friend, “Don’t you know that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (2009) says, and I quote, ‘1,652 lives could be saved and 22,372 serious injuries avoided each year on America’s roadways if seat belt use rates rose to 90 percent in every state’?” What will your friend probably say, even though you have cited a credible source?

They will come up with some reason for not wearing it, even something as dramatic as “I knew a guy who had a cousin who was in an accident and the cop said he died because he was wearing his seatbelt.” They may even say, “Well I am a good driver, so you only need seat belts if you’re driving poorly.” You may have had this conversation, or one like it. Their argument may be less dramatic, such as “I don’t like how it feels” or “I don’t like the government telling me what to do in my car.” For your friend, the argument for wearing a seat belt is not as strong as the argument against it, at least at this moment. Ideally, at least for a public speaker, the dissonance is relieved or resolved by being persuaded (changed) to a new belief, attitude, or behavior.

So, what is a speaker to do to overcome these barriers? We suggest making reasonable requests, articulating the benefits or consequences, and answering oppositional arguments.

Make Reasonable Requests

Setting reasonable persuasive goals is the first way to meet audience resistance. Look back to the persuasive continuum scale in Figure 13.1. Trying to move an audience from -3 to +2 or +3 is too big a move. Since change is resisted, we do not make many large or major changes in our lives. We do, however, make smaller, concrete, step-by-step or incremental changes every day. Even moving someone from -3 to -2 is progress, and over time these small shifts can eventually result in a significant amount of persuasion. Aim small, especially within a time constraint, and work to find future room to build.

Focus on Benefits and Consequences

When problems aren’t resolved, there are consequences. When problems are resolved, there are positive benefits for the community. Because you are asking the audience to change something, they must view the benefits of acting as worth the stress of the change. A speaker should be able to engage the audience at the level of needs, wants, and values as well as logic and evidence.

Identify the benefits, advantages, or improvements that would happen for the audience members who enacted your advocacy. If you do good audience analysis, you know that audiences are asking, “What’s in it for me?” “Why do I need this?”

Alternatively, you could outline the short and long-term consequences of inaction and detail how the problem would negatively affect the audience and/or their community. In other words, you’re identifying what would occur if the audience does nothing; if they choose not to act. Using Monroe’s Motivated Sequences can assist in organizing these arguments.

Answer Oppositional Arguments

During a persuasive speech, audience members are holding a mental dialogue, and they are thinking through rebuttals or oppositional arguments to your advocacy. These mental dialogues could be called the “yeah-buts”—the audience members are saying in their minds, “Yeah, I see what you are arguing, but—”. Reservations can be very strong, since, again, our human bias is to be loss averse and not to change our actions or beliefs.

If you’re advocating a claim that humans are the primary cause of climate change, your audience may think, “yeah, but these consequences won’t happen for a long time,” or “yeah, but we have time to resolve these problems.”

As a speaker, address these! Refute the arguments that may prohibit your audience from changing.

It’s common to call oppositional arguments “misconceptions,” “myths,” or “mistaken ideas” that are widely held about the proposition. You may answer oppositional arguments around climate change by saying, “One common misconception about climate change is that we won’t see the negative impacts for decades. A recent study determined that consequences are already upon us.”

After acknowledging oppositional arguments and seeking to refute or rebut the reservations, you must also provide evidence for your refutation. Ultimately, this will show your audience that you are aware of both sides of the issue you are presenting and make you a more credible speaker.

Understanding and Avoiding Fallacies

So far, we’ve discussed persuasive speaking and strategies to move your audience along the persuasive continuum. Motivating your audience to change, however, must be done ethically while using good reasons.

In Chapter 5, we began discussing best practices in constructing arguments. In this section, we dive deeper into reasoning by highlighting a common pitfall: the use of fallacies— erroneous conclusions or statements made from poor analyses. There are actually dozens upon dozens of fallacies, and we identify 9 common fallacies below.

False Cause

False cause is a fallacy that assumes that one thing causes another, but there is no logical connection between the two. In a false cause fallacy, the alleged cause might not be strong or direct enough. For example, there has been much debate over the causes of the recession in 2008. If someone said, “The exorbitant salaries paid to professional athletes contributed to the recession” that would be the fallacy of false cause. Why? For one thing, the salaries, though large, are an infinitesimal part of the whole economy. Second, those salaries only affect a small number of people. A cause must be direct and strong, not just something that occurred before a problem arose.

Slippery Slope

A slippery slope fallacy is a type of false cause which assumes that taking a first step will lead to subsequent events that cannot be prevented. The children’s book, If You Give a Moose a Muffin, is a good example of slippery slope; it tells all the terrible things (from a child’s point of view) that will happen, one after another, if a moose is given a muffin. If A happens, then B will happen, then C, then D, then E, F, G and it will get worse and worse and before you know it, we will all be in some sort of ruin. So, don’t do A or let A happen because it will inevitably lead to Z, and of course, Z is terrible.

This type of reasoning fails to look at alternate causes or factors that could keep the worst from happening, and often is somewhat silly when A is linked directly to Z. Slippery slope arguments are often used in discussions over emotional and hot button topics that are linked with strong values and beliefs. One might argue that “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns,” a bumper sticker you may have seen. This is an example of a slippery slope argument because it is saying that any gun control laws will inevitably lead to no guns being allowed at all in the U.S. and then the inevitable result that only criminals will have guns because they don’t obey gun control laws anyway.

In any instance where you’re identifying potential consequences if action is or is not taken, credible evidence and ethical warrants are good checks against our tendency to slippery-slope to the audience.

Hasty Generalization

Making a hasty generalization means making a generalization with too few examples. It is so common that we might wonder if there are any legitimate generalizations. Consider this hastily generalized argument:

A college degree is unnecessary. For example, Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of college, invented Facebook, and made billions of dollars. As this example demonstrates, dropping out of college leads to great financial success, so a complete degree is pointless.

The key to generalizations is how the conclusions are “framed” or put into language. The conclusions should be specific about the limited nature of the sample.

Straw Person

A straw person fallacy is a fallacy that shows only the weaker side of an opponent’s argument in order to more easily tear it down. The term “straw person” brings up the image of a scarecrow, and that is the idea behind the expression. Even a child can beat up a scarecrow; anyone can.

A straw person fallacy happens when an opponent in a debate misinterprets or takes a small part of their opponent’s position in a debate and makes it a major part of the opponent’s position. This is often done by ridicule, taking statements out of context, or misquoting.

Politicians, unfortunately, commit the straw person fallacy quite frequently. If someone states, “College A is not as good as College B because the cafeteria food at College A is not as good” is a pretty weak argument—and making too big of a deal over of a minor thing—for attending one college over another.

False Dilemma

False Dilemma is often referred to as the “either-or” fallacy. When you are given only two options, and more than two options exist, that is false dilemma. Usually in false dilemma, one of the options is undesirable and the other is the one the persuader wants you to take. False dilemma is common. “America: Love it or Leave It.” “If you don’t buy this furniture today, you’ll never get another chance.” “Vote for Candidate Y or see our nation destroyed.”

Appeal to Tradition

Appeals to tradition is the argument that “We’ve always done it this way.” This fallacy happens when traditional practice is the only reason for continuing a policy. Tradition is a great thing. We do many wonderful things for the sake of tradition, and it makes us feel good. But doing something only because it’s always been done a certain way is not an argument.

You’ve likely experienced this through politicians. For example, if a politician says that we should support coal mining because “it’s a great American tradition and we’ve coal mined for decades,” it certainly highlights values inherent within the speaker, but it’s a fallacy.


This fallacy, the bandwagon, is also referred to as “appeal to majority” and “appeal to popularity,” using the old expression of “get on the bandwagon” to support an idea. Bandwagon is a fallacy that asserts that because something is popular (or seems to be), it is therefore good, correct, or desirable.

You’ve probably heard that “Everybody is doing it” or “more than 50% of the population supports this idea.” Just because 50% of the population is engaging in an activity does not make that a wise choice based on sound reasoning. Historically, 50% of the population believed or did something that was not good or right. In a democracy we make public policy to some extent based on majority rule, but we also have protections for the minority or other vulnerable populations. This is a wonderful part of our system. It is sometimes foolish to say that a policy is morally right or wrong or wise just because it is supported by 50% of the people.

Red Herring

A herring is a fish, and it was once used to throw off or distract foxhounds from a particular scent. A red herring, then, is creating a diversion or introducing an irrelevant point to distract someone or get someone off the subject of the argument. When a politician in a debate is asked about their stance on immigration, and the candidate responds, “I think we need to focus on reducing the debt. That’s the real problem!.” they are introducing a red herring to distract from the original topic under discussion.

Ad Hominem

This is a fallacy that attacks the person rather than dealing with the real issue in dispute. A person using ad hominem connects a real or perceived flaw in a person’s character or behavior to an issue he or she supports, asserting that the flaw in character makes the position on the issue wrong. Obviously, there is no connection. In a sense, ad hominem is a type of red herring because it distracts from the real argument. In some cases, the “hidden agenda” is to say that because someone of bad character supports an issue or argument, therefore the issue or argument is not worthy or logical.

A person using ad hominem might say, “Climate change is not true. It is supported by advocates such as Congressperson Jones, and we all know that Congressperson Jones was convicted of fraud last year.” This is not to say that Congressperson Jones should be re-elected, only that climate change’s being true or false is irrelevant to their fraud conviction. Do not confuse ad hominem with poor credibility or ethos. A speaker’s ethos, based on character or past behavior, does matter. It just doesn’t mean that the issues they support are logically or factually wrong.

Section Summary

Fallacies reduce good reasoning and they weaken your argument. To avoid fallacies, think critically about what evidence is being used, and if your claim and warrant are reasonable explanations and articulations of that evidence. A key way to avoid fallacies is to double and triple check your evidence to make sure that a) the evidence is credible, b) there is enough evidence to support your claim, and c) you have explained the evidence using good reasons.


Persuasive speaking is an opportunity to share a passion or cause that you believe will matter to society and help the audience live a better life. Even if you are initially uncomfortable with the idea of persuasion, we use it all the time in different ways. Choose your topic based on your own commitment and experience, look for quality evidence, craft your proposition so that it will be clear and audience appropriate, and put the finishing touches on it with an eye toward enhancing your logos, ethos, and pathos.


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Speak Out, Call In: Public Speaking as Advocacy Copyright © 2019 by Meggie Mapes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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