4 – Persuasion

Ethical Persuasion

Anonymous; Kalani Pattison; and Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt

What comes to mind when you think of speaking or writing to persuade? Perhaps the idea of persuasion may bring to mind propaganda and issues of manipulation, deception, intentional bias, bribery, and even coercion. Each element relates to persuasion, but in distinct ways. We recognize that each of these elements has a negative connotation associated with it. Why do you think that deceiving your audience, bribing a judge, or coercing people to do something against their wishes is wrong? These tactics violate our sense of fairness, freedom, and ethics. See Chapter 3: Ethics in Workplace Culture and Research for more information about the six ethical principles for communication.

What to Avoid

Manipulation involves the management of facts, ideas, or points of view in order to play upon inherent insecurities or emotional appeals to one’s own advantage. Your audience expects you to treat them with respect, and deliberately manipulating them by means of fear, guilt, duty, or a relationship is unethical. In the same way, deception involves the use of lies, partial truths, or the omission of relevant information to deceive your audience. No one likes to be lied to, or made to believe something that is not true. Deception can involve intentional bias, or the selection of information to support your position while framing negatively any information that might challenge your belief.

Bribery involves the giving of something in return for an expected favor, consideration, or privilege. It circumvents the normal protocol for personal gain, and again is a strategy that misleads your audience. Coercion is the use of power to compel action. You make someone do something they would not choose to do freely. You might threaten punishment, and people may go along with you while the “stick” is present, but once the threat is removed, they will revert to their previous position, often with new antagonism toward the person or agency that coerced them. While you may raise the issue that the ends justify the means, and you are “doing it for the audience’s own good,” you need to recognize the unethical nature of coercion.

All of these issues certainly relate to persuasion, but are clearly wrong. You as the speaker should be aware of these (in order to avoid them) to make sure you present an ethical, persuasive speech. Learn to recognize when others try to use these tactics on you, and know that your audience will be watching to see if you try any of these strategies on them.

Eleven Points for Speaking Ethically

In their book Ethics in Human Communication, Richard Johannesen, Kathleen Valde, and Karen Whedbee summarize eleven points to consider when speaking to persuade. These eleven points reiterate many of the concepts across this chapter and should be kept in mind as you prepare and present your persuasive message. Table 4.2 quotes these eleven points in their entirety.[1]

Table 4.2. Eleven points for speaking ethically.

Eleven Points for Speaking Ethically
1. Do not use false, fabricated, misrepresented, distorted, or irrelevant evidence to support arguments or claims.
2. Do not intentionally use specious, unsupported, or illogical reasoning.
3. Do not represent yourself as informed or as an “expert” on a subject when you are not.
4. Do not use irrelevant appeals to divert attention from the issue at hand. Among appeals that commonly serve such a purpose are: "Smear attacks on an opponent's character; appeals to hatred and bigotry; derogatory insinuations—innuendos; God and Devil terms that cause intense but unreflective positive or negative reactions.
5. Do not ask your audience to link your idea or proposal to emotion-laden values, motives, or goals to which it actually is not related.
6. Do not deceive your audience by concealing your real purpose, by concealing self-interest, by concealing the group you represent, or by concealing your position as an advocate of a viewpoint.
7. Do not distort, hide, or misrepresent the number, scope, intensity, or undesirable features of consequences or effects.
8. Do not use “emotional appeals” that lack a supporting basis of evidence or reasoning, or that would not be accepted if the audience had time and opportunity to examine the subject themselves.
9. Do not oversimplify complex, gradation-laden situations into simplistic, two-valued, either/or, polar views or choices.
10. Do not pretend certainty where tentativeness and degrees of probability would be more accurate.
11. Do not advocate something in which you do not believe yourself.

Overall, the tools of rhetoric, used effectively, can have a powerful impact on the decisions people make and the actions they take. Used ethically, rhetoric and the ability to persuade others can be a powerful force for good change in the world. Used unethically or for unethical purposes, effective uses of rhetoric or persuasion can have an equally negative impact, as can be seen in the actions of many well-spoken and charismatic but terrible world leaders throughout history. As you practice and master these skills in order to produce persuasive documents, remember to use them ethically, responsibly, and conscientiously.

This text was derived from

University of Minnesota. Business Communication for Success. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing, 2015. https://open.lib.umn.edu/businesscommunication/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

  1. The text of this table is quoted from Richard L. Johannesen, Kathleen S. Valde, and Karen E. Whedbee, Ethics in Human Communication, 6th ed. (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 2002), 28–29.


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