The Art of Persuasion

12:00 pm.



It is officially lunchtime and my stomach is knows it. When I pop open the refrigerator door, I have two options: salad with vegetables or pizza.

Although I know I need all of the nutrients in the salad, I crave the delectable and greasy pepperoni pizza. For some this may be a guilt-free choice. For me, I have to actively persuade myself that that pizza will go straight to my thighs.

Kelsey, you had a donut this morning. You absolutely do NOT need more grease in your system.

Remember how you gained four pounds last semester? Do you really want that to happen again?

This inner-struggle continues for several moments until I persuade myself to not eat the delicious Dominos.

Interestingly enough, this scenario has not changed from when I was a child in the grocery store begging my mom for the sugary cereal instead of the nasty wheat cereal. I would turn on my charm and by the end of the shopping trip, I would usually walk out of the store with the potent cereal. (However, my dad was always easier to persuade.)

Words have underlying power and when the skill of persuasion is developed, people can have immense power at their fingertips.

In Ancient Greece a group of people known as Sophists honed in on the skill of verbal persuasion and used the spoken word to earn money by coaching students. Any man who was able to pay the price could learn the art of the persuasive speech.

According to James A. Herrick, in The History and Theory of Rhetoric, persuasive speech was previously thought of as a gift from gods. The Sophists quickly diminishedimage this notion by coaching anyone who could afford lessons.

Before we proceed, let us take a break and explore a few essential vocabulary words:

      • Logos = word, argument
      • Sophistes = modern meaning of professor
      • Isegoria = right guaranteeing equal opportunity to speak freely in public

Hence, the Sophists focused on “logos” and acted as “Sophistes” because people used the right of “isegoria” in Ancient Greece. The Sophists would provide services to become a speechwriter, a teacher, or a professional speaker. Most notably, they focused on persuasive speeches in court.

Court in Ancient Greece was similar to court in Legally Blonde. Both the prosecution and the defense would give speeches and the best persuasive speech would win the case.

The lessons they offered included the method of dialectic, a method my high school speech teacher also used. This method entails making arguments for and against a position.

In the final unit of high school speech, my teacher forced us to tackle the dreaded debate. To prepare for our final debate, he had us write two speeches on a selected topic. I had the topic of spanking children for punishment. On the day of the final, we had no idea which side we would have to argue in favor of.

If you were wondering, I ended up debating against spanking and wound up winning by a short margin. Because I had to look at my topic from countless perspectives, I was a better debater. The Sophists used this same method.

Although the Sophists were controversial and some thought of then as “rhetorically gifted con artists” (Herrick 37), there are numerous benefits to the art of persuasion that the Sophists discovered

Their students could:

        • Analyze cases
        • Think on their feet
        • Ask probing questions
        • Speak eloquently
        • Pose counterarguments (Herrick 39)

Gorgias, one of the most famous Sophists, said that the “sounds of words, when manipulated with skill, could captivate audiences” (Herrick 43).

The art of persuasion is a timeless skill and our students should be well versed in persuasive speech so they can persuade their mothers to buy that sugary cereal.


Herrick, James A.. The History and Theory of Rhetoric. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc., 2009. Print.