A Persuasive Essay Sways, Seduces, and Sells

Writing a successful persuasive essay is like creating a piece of art. When the pieces are all put together right, you have created something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Here are some important guidelines to ensure a successful conquest. At the end of this page, there will be a homework assignment to help you or your child test her persuasive writing skills. 

  • Know the audience.
  • Use a thesaurus.
  • Choose the appropriate rhetorical devices . 
  • Use the emotional appeal last. 

Persuasive Essay writing requires knowing your AUDIENCE

Before a person begins writing, she should have a clear idea of her audience. 

  • How large is the audience? Is the paper written for one instructor? business executives? stockholders? a college class? children? a judge? a religious group? 
  • What are the values and filters of your audience? Are they wealthy, middle class, or poor? Are they innovative, traditional, or entrepreneurial types? Are they spiritual, conservative, liberal, idealistic, and/or highly educated? 
  • Know what your audience wants.  
  • Know what your audience expects from you. 

Your audience will determine the words you choose, the types of appeal and rhetoric you will predominately use, and the story you tell. 

Until you have a firm idea to whom you are writing, there's no point in writing even one word. 

Here's a short matching game:

Let's begin with the word happy. Everyone wants to be HAPPY, right?. In the left column are synonyms for the word happy or the idea of HAPPINESS. In the right column are your audience choices. Which ones will be more effective in your persuasive essay? 

 What words will you choose for your persuasive essay about happiness

Synonyms for Happy



ecstatic / ectasy




tickled pink

Target Audience







Questions: Would you use

1. blithe with children?

2. blessed with professors?

3.ecstasy with grandmothers?

4. upbeat with teenagers?

5. chipper with businessmen? 

6. tickled pink with politicians

Here's another example: On the first day of school, a rookie elementary school principal announced over the intercom that "children were not to leave the campus at lunch." As he watches dozens and dozens of children leave the "campus," he realized that  playground would have been a better word. 

This is why you need to know your audience and perhaps, use a thesaurus.

There is leeway with a couple of the synonyms above, and certainly some  wouldn't be effective with some audiences. And since the purpose of writing a persuasive essay is to build as compelling an argument as possible, selecting the correct vocabulary is important. 

Be Aware of Audience Filters in Communications

Another consideration in writing a persuasive essay is to be aware of the audience filters. Four common filters to consider are emotions, culture, situational context, and personal beliefs. 

Emotions - Is your audience bored? Are they being forced to attend your speech? Are they angry? Your answer to these questions, determine what words.and examples you will use to defend your position.

Here's an example: Teachers who are being forced to attend another inservice when they would rather be doing (a) lesson plans, or (b) anything else are a very tough audience. 

Culture - Is it an international group of professionals? Is the audience from a particular region of the country? 

Whether it's the west coast, the Midwest, or the South, all these factors should be considered when choosing your words and evidence to support your audience. 

For example, uhh... uhh... actually, I'm afraid of choosing any examples as I wouldn't want to offend. 

Okay, here's one. You are a homeschooling advocate, and you've been asked to write a persuasive essay for the National Education Association magazine. 

Now, that's got to be a well-planned persuasive essay. 

Situational Context - Have there been any recent traumas in the community, the city, the state, or the country? If so, people's emotions may not be too open to new ideas. Generally, people dislike change, and since persuasion is all about change, be sure to choose your words carefully. 

Personal Values - Everything that we listen to or read today is filtered through our core beliefs. These values keep us secure and grounded, which is good.

They also happen to keep us rigid and sometimes unwilling to explore or consider new ideas.

However, if the rights words and stories are chosen by some skillful persuasive essay writer, like yourself, you can overcome; nay, I say, CONQUER, these obstacles and bring your audience around to your way of thinking.

Steinbeck's Books Reveal My Biases

Here's a personal example: Years ago, I picked up a copy of The Red Pony, but after reading about 10 pages, I put the book away.


Because it had a lean, rough cowboy character, who reminded me of the cruel farmhands in Of Mice and Men.  I also didn't like the dry, windy setting that reminded me of what I don't like about west Texas, but when Steinbeck vividly described him clearing his throat and spitting on the ground, I'd had enough. 

There's entirely too much realism in Steinbeck's novels for me. I get enough of that from walking out my front door, thank you.  

His only novels I like are Of Mice and Men, which I really don't like, but I appreciate, and Travels With Charley. 

Therefore, to more effectively write a persuasive essay, try to find a common ground with your audience that evokes pleasant memories and promotes cohesiveness. 

The Next Step Is Rhetoric

Rhetoric is defined as the art of persuasion. However, I think a more precise definition is rhetoric specifically focuses on HOW one says or writes what is said rather than the message itself. 

After deciding who the audience is, the next step is deciding what techniques and methods you will use to sway them to your point of view. 

So what techniques can be used to transmit one's message?

  • Use the question technique. 
  • Repeat key phrases to build momentum

When using appeals to Ethos, Logos, and Pathos, employ these techniques to support the structure of the persuasive essay. 

Appeal To Morality (Ethos)

Ethos is basically being trustworthy. To gain the trust of your audience--so they will do what you want-- it is important to be a trustworthy person at various levels.

Do you have a good reputation?

Are you educated in the field in which you are speaking?

Do you practice what you preach?

Sharing personal anecdotes that reflect these qualities will help the audience relate to you. 

Did Antony do 

Appeal To Reason (Logos)

An effective persuasive essay should include reason and logic. Here the writer cites facts, statistics, and gives historical evidence to prove the argument. 

However, since the reader has a longer period of time to absorb the evidence presented, my advice is to keep the logos argument short and sweet. Everyone knows how statistics can be manipulated, and people do not make decisions with their heads or solely on logic. 

While the ethos part of an argument appeals to the credibility of the speaker or writer, logos must have strong reasoning to win.

That means a longer and more complicated written argument that you may not be able to prove except in a lengthy persuasive essay. Using logos rarely gives the advantage to the writer. It should probably be limited to use in speech when the listener has little time to process the reasons given.

Appeal To Emotion (Pathos)

An effective persuasive essay should appeal to emotion or have pathos. If we admitted it, most of us would have to agree that we use our heart, or how we feel, to make most of our decisions in life.

I'm not here to say whether that's right or wrong; it's simply the way it is.

As a writer, if you want to win your argument, you must E-X-P-L-O-I-T that knowledge.

As a listener or reader, you must be on guard to protect against such tactics, but as a writer, you must embrace them as part of your arsenal to help you win your victory. 

If you are a parent who is teaching her child to write persuasively, don't you want to teach her to engage in this battle with the intent of taking no prisoners? What if she has to write an essay to get into the college of her dreams, don't you want her to be able to write in a manner that will guarantee that success? 


Shouldn't every word she writes, and every piece of evidence she uses, support her winning argument?

Shouldn't every word she chooses lead her hapless reader to the conclusion that her argument is the right one? 

IT DOESN'T MATTER if there is another way of viewing the evidence, HERS is the right way. 

IT DOESN'T MATTER if it will cost more to buy her product, HERS is the best product and worth it. 

IT DOESN'T MATTER if there are other options that might work, HERS is the one they need to choose today. 

Writing a persuasive essay with this same zeal and enthusiasm and making the facts that are used tell her story seem to be the only facts that matter is what a writer uses to compel an argument, and it is the pathos argument that accomplishes this. 

Use pathos last because

  • We make up our mind at the end of the given reasons
  • It follows with the natural plot development of stories with the climax at the end
  • People are conditioned to expect the writer's conclusion near the end of the essay, so 
  • Ask for what you want at the end, so the reader can say, Yes.

You can get all of Aristotle's works free here. 

The real persuaders are our appetites, our fears and above all our vanityThe skillful propagandist stirs and coaches these internal persuaders.

                                                                             - Eric Hoffer  

Application: Antony Got It Right! 

Here's an excerpt of the famous play, Julius Caesar, which contains Antony's famous speech upon Caesar's assassination. Yes, this is a speech, but many of the same techniques are used in writing. 

To set the scene, Antony has asked permission of the assassins to say a few words to the crowd. This is Act 3, Scene 2.

While they are reluctant to acquiese to his request, Antony promises them that he means no harm, so he begins with the "honourable men." 

The Persuasive Essay or Speech

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; 

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. 
The evil that men do lives after them; 
The good is oft interred with their bones; 1620
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus 
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious: 
If it were so, it was a grievous fault, 
And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it. 
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest— 1625
For Brutus is an honourable man; 
So are they all, all honourable men— 
Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral. 
He was my friend, faithful and just to me: 
But Brutus says he was ambitious; 1630
And Brutus is an honourable man. 
He hath brought many captives home to Rome 
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill: 
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious? 
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept: 1635
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff: 
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious; 
And Brutus is an honourable man. 
You all did see that on the Lupercal 
I thrice presented him a kingly crown, 1640
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition? 
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious; 
And, sure, he is an honourable man. 
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke, 
But here I am to speak what I do know. 1645
You all did love him once, not without cause: 
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him? 
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts, 
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me; 
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar, 1650
And I must pause till it come back to me.

Antony works his audience: 

 Have patience, gentle friends, I must not read it1685
It is not meet you know how Caesar loved you. 
You are not wood, you are not stones, but men; 
And, being men, bearing the will of Caesar, 
It will inflame you, it will make you mad: 
'Tis good you know not that you are his heirs; 1690
For, if you should, O, what would come of it!

Antony works them like putty in his hand. 

Will you be patient? will you stay awhile? 
I have o'ershot myself to tell you of it: 1695
I fear I wrong the honourable men 
Whose daggers have stabb'd Caesar; I do fear it.

Antony's audience begs him to continue.

You will compel me, then, to read the will?

Then make a ring about the corpse of Caesar, 
And let me show you him that made the will. 
Shall I descend? and will you give me leave?

By the time Antony has finished his speech, he has artfully persuaded the Roman citizens that Caesar was assassinated without cause, and they are ready to take revenge on his assassins. 

This is, of course, what Antony wanted. 

You can get a free copy of the play Julius Caesar here. 

Its Analysis and Commentary

The use of the phrase "is an honourable man" helps build the cadence or rhythm in Antony's speech. 

Once Antony uses it a second time, the audience comes to depend on it for a pause to absorb the information given. 

It helps the audience understand the persuasive essay, or in this case, speech. 

Antony asks six questions in his speech.

Asking questions helps the audience to interact with the speaker or reader.

Even though no one may actually answer the question (as it's rhetorical), they are answering the question in their minds. 

It holds their attention and helps them to agree with the speaker or writer. 

The audience understands what answer the speaker or writer wants, and they are easily manipulated into giving the writer the answer she wants. 

The audience doesn't know what's hit them. Antony owns them:

"I must not read it.

It will inflame you, 

it will make you mad.

I fear I wrong the honourable men

I do fear it

You will compel me, 

then, to read the will? "

Can't you hear the audience screaming?


Homework Assignment: Evaluate Patrick Henry's Speech

Here is a copy of Patrick Henry's Speech to the Virginia Convention.

Print it and highlight the various ethos, logos, and pathos persuasive techniques that were used to sway the statesmen to go to war against the British. 

The persuasive essay is written in the same style and format as the five-paragraph essay, which is found here. 

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