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Persuasion in the news: Arnold Schwarzenegger's Video to the Russian People

The famous actor's recent public speech to the people of Russia is a good example of the rules of persuasion put to effective use

A Persuasion Rules reader sent me this video today, which the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger posted publicly this week. In it, he addresses the Russian people directly, discussing his long-standing admiration for them and their relationship to the current conflict in Ukraine. For students of persuasion, it is a good example of how to craft and deliver a simple appeal that avoids sentimentality — the subject of my next post — and generates the appropriate level of emotional appeal.

This video could have failed easily in so many ways. It could have come across as insincere, judgmental, or lacking in understanding of the history of Russia. It could have come across as the opportunistic moralizing of a rich and famous celebrity. As the Washington Post noted:

When a celebrity opens their mouth to comment on world events, it’s deeply embarrassing at least half the time. Such messages tend to come across as either tone-deaf or self-aggrandizing (recall the battalion of actors who serenaded us with the pandemic-inspired version of “Imagine” nobody wanted).

“But,” the Post concludes, “over the course of nine minutes, Schwarzenegger — who built his career on muscles before he entered politics — makes the case that he is, somehow, the right man for this job.” Indeed, Schwarzenegger uses stories from his own childhood and family to presents a succinct case for the folly of Putin’s war and the Russian people’s duty to stand against it. His retelling of his father’s own experience in World War II is particularly effective:

When I see babies being pulled out of ruins, I feel like I’m watching a documentary about the horrors of the Second World War, not the news of today. When my father arrived in Leningrad, he was all pumped up on the lies of his government. When he left Leningrad, he was broken physically and mentally. He spent the rest of his life in pain: pain from a broken back, pain from the shrapnel that always reminded him of those terrible years, pain from the guilt that he felt. Russian soldiers already know much of this truth. You’ve seen it with your own eyes. I don’t want you to be broken like my father. This is not a war to defend Russia like your grandfathers and your great-grandfathers fought. This is an illegal war. Your lives, your limbs, and your futures are being sacrificed for a senseless war, condemned by the entire world.

Schwarzenegger anticipates that the video will no doubt be blocked by Russian state media, so he explains that he is sending the message through “various different channels” and encourages viewers to share it with their Russian friends. In this situation, his status as a global icon just may help get the speech through to its intended audience.

Of the many persuasion attempts I have seen and read aimed at the general Russian population since the war began, this one stands out. Its simple and effective use of history, amity, and emotion — delivered with skill by a professional speaker — demonstrates a level of thoughtfulness and restraint that lift it above the commonplace.

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