All persuasion starts (and sometimes stays) inside the mind of the communicator
One of the loveliest sonnet sequences in the English language was composed by Sir Philip Sydney in the 1580s. In the first sonnet, the speaker longs to write a poem to persuade his beloved of his emotions but can’t find the right words. The poet contemplates the object of his love and the world around him, but no ideas come to mind. He is ready to give up, when at last, “Fool,” says the Muse of poetry, “look in thy heart and write.” Persuasion, the poem tells us, was inside him all along, a point that illustrates a truth: we are our own most frequent audience.
In many ways, from religious to educational to philosophical settings, human beings constantly debate questions and issues, trying to convince themselves of many things. We see it in Homer’s Iliad, in the scene where Achilles debates joining the battle against the Trojans, though his divine mother has warned that doing so would doom him:
My mother Thetis, a moving silver grace,
Tells me two fates sweep me onto my death.
If I stay here and fight, I’ll never return home,
But my glory will be undying forever.
If I return home to my dear fatherland
My glory is lost but my life will be long,
And death that ends all will not catch me soon (9.423-29)
We find it also in artworks such as Rodin’s statue, The Thinker, in which the poet Dante is shown looking into hell and contemplating his own work. Even in popular music, the internal audience of deliberation is often used to make a point. For example, Main Source’s Looking at the Front Door presents a man debating the right moment to leave a failed relationship:
It seems like just two years
Back when we were bonded and not pierced
But now I keep itchin' to jet
Sitting' in the chair just to stare, set to sprint
Yo, sweetheart, you better take a hint
I say it now like I said it before
I'm lookin' at the front door
We ourselves, then, are our first and most important audience, so it is reasonable to ask whether Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion (character, argument, and emotion) apply to deliberation. Common sense and experience suggest that they do, for most of us can remember when a teacher’s character influenced us to work harder in a class or when the feelings in us generated by a boss's words or actions provoked us to leave a job. When we consider whether to take an action or change our behavior, we are persuaded by the same mechanisms that persuade external audiences. These mechanisms operate under the constraints of our own psychological characteristics, and, however our psychological make-up may alter the effects of the rules of persuasion in deliberation, are always present. This is not a new conclusion; indeed, the Greek rhetorician Isocrates presented the same insight long ago:
The arguments by which we convince others when we speak to them are the same ones we use when we engage in reflection. We call those able to speak to the multitude "orators," and we regard as persons of sagacity those who are able to talk things over with themselves with discernment.1
A full analysis of deliberation is better suited to the works of psychologists and philosophers than to me, but there are three features of deliberation that are important to students of persuasion.
The first is that a speaker is usually her own first audience. In other words, every message is composed by someone somewhere and that composition almost always has involved an internal debate over what are the best words to use or the most convincing arguments or both. For this reason, every persuasive message starts life as an idea that is contemplated and developed by the speaker. It is in this initial creation that the message first takes shape, and the choices made during this stage define the form the message will ultimately take. Thus, the person who is unable to craft clear and persuasive arguments internally to herself will always find it hard to do so externally to others. This statement may seem obvious, but it has important implications. A speaker who persuades herself of the wrong things, who does not understand how persuasion works, or who fails to understand her audience is unlikely to create a persuasive message. Moreover, because speakers and audiences often share linguistic, psychological, and cultural characteristics, the persuasion of the speaker herself sets in motion a path to either success or failure when her messages finally reach her intended audience.
The second aspect of deliberation important to us is that people sometimes use discussions with an external audience not to persuade others but to settle debates in their own minds. As the philosophers Chaim Perelman and L. Obrechts-Tyteca have noted:
It also very often happens that discussion with someone else is simply a means we use to see things more clearly ourselves. Agreement with oneself is merely a particular case of agreement with others. Accordingly, from our point of view, it is by analyzing argumentation addressed to others that we can best understand deliberation and not vice versa. 2
In other words, what may seem like an external discussion is really someone trying to make up his own mind. This phenomenon is a common one, and most of us have had the experience of being in a discussion with persons who seemed more concerned with clarifying their own opinions about a topic than in hearing ours.
The third aspect of deliberation that is relevant to us is a moral one, and it arises when someone tries to persuade others of opinions he knows are wrong or does not himself believe to be true. Aristotle says in the Rhetoric that “things that are true and things that are better are, by their nature, practically always easier to prove and easier to believe in.” However, we know that people sometimes reach one conclusion during deliberation and then go on to argue a completely different position to an external audience. We also know that some very persuasive people have first convinced themselves, and then entire populations, to believe evil ideas and to commit great crimes against humanity. Indeed, the issue of morality in self and public persuasion was of paramount importance to thinkers in antiquity, who frequently debated the role of ethics in rhetoric. In several of Plato’s dialogues, for example, speakers are criticized not because they speak poorly but because they speak falsely. In our own day, there are even a (very) few ethicists who argue that it is wrong to argue for a position, even in an “academic” debate, that one does not really hold.
To summarize, then, the first type of audience is our own mind; this audience of self is persuaded by the same modes and elements that persuade others. Moreover, both the process we use in this type of persuasion and the outcomes it produces have important ramifications for whether and how we persuade external audiences. In other words, the rules of persuasion do not only define how we induce others to agree with us, they define how we reach our own conclusions and beliefs.