How to (Subtly) Wield the Principle of Authority in Persuasive Speech

Posted by Elizabeth Levey
June 20, 2014

by Elizabeth Levey

elizabeth-levey-1“Because I said so, that’s why!” was a common phrase uttered by my father during my teenage years.  And although I hated to hear it, he was right. His life experience, maturity and perspective made him the expert as to what was appropriate and acceptable behavior for his rebellious daughter.  And (usually) I deferred to his expert opinion, and I’ve got to admit - I was (usually) glad that I did.  Since becoming a parent myself, I find myself seeking his advice and expertise on a regular basis.


In his article “Harnessing the Science of Persuasion”, Robert B. Cialdini refers to this as the the Principle of Authority. Simply put: people defer to experts. And understandably so—as Cialdini mentions, “…amid the teeming complexity of contemporary life, a well-selected expert offers a valuable and efficient shortcut to good decisions.”  As in my example with my dad – I think my sister and I turned out okay, so I consider him a parenting expert, and consequently he’s often my go-to resource.


Applying the Principle of Authority to your presentation may not be as simple as shouting “Because I said so, that’s why!” to your audience.  However, the wonderful thing about it is its inherent simplicity.  There are no time and resources that need to be spent; as a presenter, you simply need to find a way to reveal your existing expertise to your audience.  Finding opportunities to establish your expertise can help strengthen your credibility with your audience.  When you feel credible as a presenter, calm and composure are sure to follow.


persuasive-speech-topics-1When working with persuasive speech topics, how can you support your presentation using the Principle of Authority? In cultures outside the US, it’s not uncommon to do a bit of socializing before engaging in their first business interaction. If you’re given this opportunity – work it!  It’s very easy to work examples and anecdotes about your expertise into the natural give-and-take of a conversation without sounding boastful. 


However, most of us are not afforded such a civilized way in which to establish our expertise.  So what are we to do?  It’s not as if we can add a few slides to our deck with images of our diplomas, awards, and other credentials.  When presenting to an audience for the first time, subtlety is key.  Allowing your personal stamp to shine through is a great way to touch lightly on your relevant background and experience. It can be as simple as the addition of a personal story about solving a problem similar to the one at hand for your organization, or describing the time spent mastering a complex discipline related to the issue being discussed. 


The next time you’re presenting, don’t assume your expertise is self-evident.  Take some time to expose it in a subtle way.  Your audience will appreciate the information, and your presentation will be sure to be accorded the respect it deserves. 


Intrigued by Cialdini's "Science of Persuasion"? We've got more thoughts on the Principles HERE


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