If you are teaching a public speaking class for middle, high school, or college students, one of the most difficult assignments will probably be the persuasive speech. Students find this project difficult for several reasons. First, this speech requires them to be vocal about a controversial opinion in front of their peers, and this makes some students uncomfortable. Second, the assignment requires students to make an argument about something they feel strongly about without attacking people who disagree– since, after all, you can’t effectively persuade someone by attacking them. Finally, the assignment requires students to give solid evidence to back up their points, which is a challenging lesson for learners at all levels.

If you’re teaching persuasive speaking, here are a few tips to keep in mind.

Establish Respect

First, it’s crucial to establish an atmosphere in your classroom where students are comfortable voicing their opinions. Students need to know the difference between personal attacks and politely disagreeing with an issue. They also need to be assured that personal attacks from others will not be tolerated by the teacher.

Persuasive Topics

Some students find this very difficult, especially if they are not very interested in politics. Sometimes students choose topics that sound like good topics, but that they don’t really know much about or care about. The trick is to help students find topics that are important to them personally, because persuasive speeches are much more convincing if the speaker really feels it.

Brainstorm with students–inside and outside of class–to help them come up with a list of things they feel strongly about. Encourage them to find topics that relate to their interests. For example, if a student is interested in music, he could give a persuasive speech about music downloads. If a student is interested in sports, she could give a speech about steroid use.

Here are some tips for finding great persuasive speech topics.

Using Evidence

One of the most difficult parts of this speech is learning to avoid making claims without backing them up with evidence. For example, a student might argue in support of the death penalty by claiming it acts as a deterrent. There’s nothing wrong with this claim, but if the student fails to back this up with statistics or other solid evidence, it’s just a claim.
There are three kinds of evidence students can use in a speech:

Factual evidence.

This includes statistics and other verifiable information. For example, in a speech in favor of more sex education, a student might provide statistics about teen pregnancy.

Example evidence.

This includes stories about individuals, or single examples of a problem or circumstance. For example, a student might tell the story of her friend Angela, who became pregnant at age 15. Example evidence is a good way to draw upon an audience’s emotions, but it’s important to supplement examples with more generalizable facts.

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Expert evidence.

This involves quoting or citing a source that has credible knowledge of a topic. For example, the student might cite the leader of a nonprofit organization that works with teenage parents.

Persuasive Strategy

Another difficult lesson for students is learning to understand that persuasion is a strategy. That is, they need to think of effective ways to actually persuade the audience members to change their attitudes or behaviors. Spend some time brainstorming with the class about effective ways to persuade them about the students’ proposed topics.

One way students can do this is to include evidence that relates directly to the experiences of the audience. For example, if a student is giving a speech about the need for better public transit, an example about traffic in another city won’t be all that effective. A better example will be a crowded highway close to the school that students use frequently.

Students also should be encouraged to choose topics that don’t ask the audience to make too big of a change in their beliefs or behaviors. For example, a student who gives a speech about atheism probably won’t be able to persuade the audience that God doesn’t exist. However, the student might be able to persuade some of the students to support some legislation that’s fair to atheists.

Finally, it’s crucially important that the speaker avoid ad hominem, or personal, attacks. The student needs to speak accurately and respectfully about opposing opinions throughout the speech. Otherwise, there’s no way that others will be persuaded. This is a difficult lesson to learn.

Students don’t necessarily love the persuasive speaking assignment. However, it may be the most valuable assignment they have in the class. Put some time into making the persuasive speaking assignment as useful as possible, and students may find they enjoy this kind of speaking more than they thought.