Speaking at Conferences - the Art of Persuasion


What sets an awesome speaker apart from an average one? Their content? Their delivery? Sprinklings of magical unicorn dust?

Magical unicorn dust is pretty hard to get hold of, so we’ve been having some training here at Distilled. It’s been illuminating - so I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned.

Speaking is about way more than coming up with an awesome slide deck. From an audience’s perspective (even though they may not consciously be aware of it) it breaks down into words, music and dance.

Words = Your slide deck and what you actually say.

Music = How you say whatever you’re saying.

Dance = Not just how you move on stage, but also your gestures, body language and facial expression.

Today I’ll be covering off the ‘words’ part of the equation.


The Rhetorical Triangle & the Art of Persuasion

The Rhetorical Triangle is all about persuasion.

Why does a speaker need to persuade their audience? Well, it depends on the nature of the engagement. If you’re pitching for new business you’ll need to persuade your audience that you’re the right solution for them. If you’re a politician you’ll need to persuade your audience to vote for you. If you’re speaking at an SEO conference you’ll need to persuade your audience that you’re worth listening to, that your research and data is sound and / or that your approach works.

The Rhetorical Triangle is based on Aristotle’s Rhetoric - a work which is widely regarded as the most important single work on persuasion ever written. The theory is that a speaker’s ability to persuade depends on how well they appeal to their audience on three different fronts - ethos, pathos and logos.

So the end game is, if you want to persuade - you’ll need to win people over on all three fronts.

Ethos -This refers to the speaker’s ethical appeal. How well do they present themselves? Do they seem knowledgeable / reasonable? Trustworthy? Credible? How well is this aligned with your own ethics?

Pathos - This is about emotional appeal and refers to how the speaker presents their arguments (i.e. what they are saying). Often speakers will use pathos (emotion) to make their arguments matter to their audience. How well does the speaker tap into their audience’s emotions? Does the speaker appeal to your sense of pride / fear / anger / justice / love?

Logos - This is about logical appeal and again refers to how the speaker presents their arguments. Do they include facts and figures to back up their arguments?

The Rhetorical Triangle is deliberately equilateral (all three sides are the same length) as in order to persuade a speaker needs to convince their audience that they are credible, and use both emotional and logical appeals. Why? Well an argument backed purely by facts and figures can get boring and cause an audience to switch off and conversely an argument backed purely on emotional appeal may cause an audience to switch off due to a lack of ‘proof’ or solid reasoning.



Having a logical structure is also really important - you can chuck all the ethos, logos and pathos you have at an audience, but without a logical structure you’ll just confuse the hell out of them. It breaks down as follows:


The Opener

It’s often said that we judge others within 30 seconds of meeting them. It’s exactly the same when you’re presenting, so those first 30 seconds should be awesome.

You know this right? Me too.

And yet I’m pretty sure that the first 30 seconds that I was on stage at MozCon were more filler than thriller :(

There are a few devices you can use to start a presentation:

  1. Bait (pathos). A statement that gets the audience’s attention. Bait often involves an emotional rather than logical appeal.
  2. Scene setting (pathos). Tell a story to set the scene. Story-telling, when done well can be very effective at drawing an audience in.
  3. Case Study (logos). Similar to story telling, but more fact / stats based.
  4. Bottom Line (logos). Similar to bait but with a logical rather than emotional appeal.
What you use really depends on your audience, your personality and presentation style. For example, I’d be nervous of using Bait as an opener at a search conference - I’d suggest case study or bottom line (those with logical appeal) are likely to go down better.


Key Messages / Arguments

Ideally there should be no more than three key messages or arguments within any given presentation. Why? Well there’s only so much an audience can take in. Try to stick to three key messages which you explain thoroughly rather than touching on 100.

This was another eye-opener for me - I’ve definitely been guilty of trying to cram in too much previously.


Benefits not Features

It’s a mantra of marketers everywhere - but it’s benefits that sell, not features. At MozCon Avinash Kaushik communicated the benefits of accurately attributing revenue to SEO - you’ll make more money and look awesome in front of your boss or clients.

If you can prove what you’re adding to a company’s bottom line - as an employee you stand a much better chance of securing that pay rise; and similarly, if you’re agency side you stand a much better chance of keeping your clients and perhaps getting them to up their spend with you.

It’s much easier to get excited about filters and funnels with dollar signs in your eyes, huh?


Counter Arguments

Counter arguments are powerful because they allow a speaker to show that they have considered the alternatives to their own point of view (ethos) - and where appropriate illustrate the shortcomings thereof. It’s important to include counter-arguments as they will increase trust and allow you to present a balanced view.



A strong close should include a call to action. What do you want your audience to do?

This is arguably less important if you’re speaking at a search conference, but imperative if you’re pitching / communicating with colleagues or clients etc.

Barack Obama - A Case Study in Persuasion

By way of a working example we looked at Barack Obama’s ‘Plan for Changeadvert (17/09/2008) - regardless of your own personal politics I think it makes quite a compelling case study.

It’s worth noting that he does seem to break the ‘3 messages’ rule (he makes 5 points), but I think essentially his points boil down to:

  1. Focus on re-building America (over-archin g theme)
  2. Regulate Wall Street
  3. Create jobs

I’ve broken down the ad so you can see how it fits into the structure explained above, highlighted logos, pathos and ethos and ‘benefits’...

<The Opener>

“In the past few weeks, Wall Street’s been rocked as bank closed and markets tumbled. But for many of you - the people I’ve met in town halls, backyards and diners across America - our troubled economy isn’t news. 600,000 Americans have lost their jobs since January. (pathos)

Pay-checks are flat and home values are falling. (logos)

It’s hard to pay for gas and groceries and if you put it on a credit card they’ve probably raised your rates. (logos)

You’re paying more than ever for health insurance that covers less and less. (logos & pathos)

This isn’t just a string of bad luck. The truth is that while you’ve been living up to your responsibilities Washington has not. (pathos)

That’s why we need change. Real change. This is no ordinary time and it shouldn’t be an ordinary election But much of this campaign has been consumed by petty attacks and distractions that ave nothing to do with you or we get America back on track. (pathos)

Here’s what I believe we need to do:

<Key Messages - (benefits are highlighted in red)>

  • Reform our tax system to give a $1000 tax break to the middle class instead of showering more on oil companies and corporations that outsource our jobs. (logos, ethos, pathos)
  • End the ”anything goes“ culture on Wall Street wit h real regulation that protects your investments and pensions. (ethos, pathos)
  • Fast track a plan for energy made in America that will free us from our dependence on mid-East oil in 10 years and put millions of Americans to work. (ethos, pathos, logos)
  • Crack down on lobbyists once and for all - so their back-room deal making no longer drowns out the voices of the middle class and undermines our common interests as Americans. (ethos, pathos)
  • And yes, bring a responsible end to this war in Iraq so we stop spending billions each month rebuilding their country when we should be rebuilding ours. (ethos, pathos, logos)
<Counter Argument>

Doing these things won’t be easy. But we’re Americans. We’ve met tough challenges before. And we can again. (Ethos, Pathos)


I’m Barack Obama, I hope you’ll read my economic plan. I approved this message because bitter, partisan fights and outworn ideas of the left and the right won’t solve the problems we face today. But a new spirit of unity and shared responsibility will. (pathos, ethos)

My 2 cents

There are several things which I think Obama does well here. There’s an excellent balance of emotional versus logical appeals. He also does a great job of highlighting benefits rather than features in the ‘key messages’ segment of his advert -

  • Help the Middle Classes (rather than helping corporations)
  • Protect investments & pensions (not just regulate Wall Street)
  • Rebuild America (not just end the war in Iraq)
His close is also pretty strong - it quite clear what he wants his audience to do next.


Unexpected Benefits

Of course I’ll be looking to implement what I’ve learned when I next speak at a conference, however there are wider applications. Often the success or failure of a project hinges on the SEO’s ability to persuade.

Client-side SEOs need to persuade those above them that SEO is important enough to warrant budget and resource. Agency-side SEOs need to persuade in pitches to secure contracts.

But it doesn’t end there. Throughout the lifecycle of a project you’ll need to persuade others to:

  • Make on-site changes / change internal processes
  • Invest in great content
  • Link to you
  • etc
As such I’ve already been making use of the structure and rhetorical triangle for other types of communication - e.g. client documents, proposals, emails etc.

The strong close is a really useful device for getting sh*t done. For example, before I may have closed an email with something like - ”If you could read through the documents attached and let me know how you’d like to proceed...“ (Yuck - is it any wonder people didn’t come back to me!) However, I now close with something more structured - a list of next steps with timelines including a time and date for a call.

We’ve also been using the rhetorical triangle and this structure for our outreach / link building efforts - it’s way too early to make outrageous claims about uplifts in response, however initial indications look good.

In short I’m pretty sold on the importance of persuasion, both in terms of verbal and written communication.

But what about you? I would love it if you’d leave a comment and let me know what you think...

Image credits: Awesome / Rhetorical triangle

About the author
Hannah Smith

Hannah Smith

Hannah joined Distilled in September 2010 as a Consultant and is now on the Content Strategy team. Prior to this she spent over 7 years in offline marketing (point of sale, press advertising, direct mail & sponsorship), until her fairy godmother...   read more