The Nature of Persuasion


Peter May
The Nature of Persuasion

Once the door to door salesman has explained what he has to offer, there are three basic questions that we need to ask: Is it true what he is saying? What are the implications of buying it? Do I actually need it?


Imagine a door-to-door salesman calls on your house. You chat for a while and eventually you get out your wallet and purchase his product. What are the processes that have taken place in that time?

When you open the door, you make an immediate preliminary assessment. If this guy looks like a rogue, if his speech is incoherent, if he is shabbily dressed, if, and, according to your personal sensibilities, he has a problem with facial hair, he probably won’t even complete his opening gambit. “No thank you, not today!” and, albeit with a friendly smile, you close the door on him.

But what if that initial inspection is more interesting? The man looks pleasant, is well turned out, has a nice smile, presents identification papers, and speaks clearly and courteously. You are more inclined to hear what he has to say. After his introduction, you may well want some clarity about either the product or the possible use you might have for it. So you ask some questions, “How big is this thing? How far does it reach? What does it cost? How long will it last?”

He has some good answers to your questions and you begin to wonder whether this is something you might actually want. So your conversation moves on to some technical matters. “How powerful is it? Has it been thoroughly tested? Is there someone on this street who has bought one whom I could talk to?”

You might then ask him if he has any literature you could study, and if so, could he come back in a couple of days, when you have had time to think about it? He gives you some leaflets and an Internet address to browse, and he promises to return on Thursday.

Come Thursday, you have a list of three things you want to ask him. He answers your questions with confidence and produces evidence for what he is saying. You are impressed and satisfied that this is a good product and the more you have thought about it, the more you realise how useful it could be. You happily part with the money and take possession of the product.

When he has gone, you plug it in and discover one of two things. Either it works like a dream or it blows up with a bang, plunging the house in smoke and darkness. Later, when the fog has cleared and you have fixed the fuse, you realise that your silver spoons are missing. “How did he do that?” you wonder as you telephone the police.

Two conclusions come from this. Firstly, persuasion is a process, leading up to a tipping point, the moment of decision when you open your wallet! Secondly, persuasion is never an arrival at complete confidence. You might be wrong, but the balance of doubt has shifted. You think this is all right, but as we say at home regarding my wife’s cooking, the proof of the pudding will be ultimately in the eating. You may have made a mistake!

In terms of proof, we are not talking about mathematical proof here. Outside of mathematics, all so-called “proofs” are provisional and must be held tentatively. This applies to all the evidence of our senses and to all the findings of science, which is why so many scientific “facts” get overturned in the course of history when new discoveries are made. Similarly, I was persuaded when I got married that Heather would make me a good wife. Well, so far so good, but we have only been married 44 years. She might yet murder me! (In fact, there have been moments when she has intimated as much!)

Previously, we looked at Luke’s description of Paul at Thessalonica (Acts 17:2-4). He went into the synagogue and gave them some information from the Scriptures. He may well have been responding to something the Rabbi had said, because Luke implies that he engaged in dialogue. This was the format that enabled him to draw certain truths to their attention and go on to explain their significance, as well as backing up what he was saying with evidence. In this synagogue context, this was probably with reference to prophecies about the coming Messiah, which supported what he was saying.

Now the people took time to digest all this and we are told he went back to continue the discussion over three weeks (verse 2). We are not told whether he met any of them mid-week, but we must assume he did. He wasn’t a man to sit at home quietly!   Entrance to market in Ephesus in Paul’s day.

Thessalonica was a thriving and largely Gentile city on a major thoroughfare between Italy and the East. While Paul’s normal strategy was to start in the synagogue, where both Jews and god-fearing Gentiles gathered to worship, as in Athens and Ephesus, he readily moved on to the market place (Acts 17:17, 19:8-9). In Thessalonica, he was attacked in the market by a mob, which we are told set the whole city in uproar. Unable to find Paul and his comrades, they dragged Jason before the authorities (called “Politarchs”) claiming that  “Jason has welcomed these men who are turning the world upside down, who have come here also, and acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar, are proclaiming another King, Jesus.” (Acts 17:5-9)

Heady stuff! Paul’s reputation went before him and his visit had now become the talk of the town. This helps us to understand how so many people came to be “persuaded” by him. They included some Jews, “a great multitude of God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women” (verse 4). His message made a massive impact.

(Luke described the ruling authorities correctly as “politarchs” using a Macedonian term now confirmed by archaeological findings, and according to the elegant Authorised Version, he described the mob as “lewd fellows of a baser sort” – and I think we have all met them!)

How did Paul gain such a hearing? If we think again about our door-to-door salesman, and the first impression we gained of him, which determined whether we would listen to him or not, both Paul’s manner and his speech must have been attractive. He must have rehearsed his opening lines, having had the door closed on him on previous occasions. He evidently found a way of succinctly expressing himself, which held the attention of his audience. We can get some measure of his effectiveness from the response of the Athenians. They were very keen to hear him out. (Acts 17:19, 20)  


My dictionary gives two distinct definitions of rhetoric – one good, one bad:

1, the art of speaking or writing effectively

2. artificial, inflated or exaggerated language

We will consider the second sort later, but let us reflect on the good sort for now. It is perfectly possible to use words poorly and ineffectively, and those of us in the communications business need to develop our communication skills.

There has been recent discussion in the British press about two men who were famous for their rhetoric, Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King. Churchill originally gave his famous, “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech in the House of Commons. It was apparently electrifying and members were so excited they insisted he deliver it to the nation on the radio the following day. He was very reluctant to do this, and in the event, he merely read his original script. This came across as flat and uninspiring – though he used exactly the same words!

Now this is very interesting. Imagine saying now in a loud voice, “The house is on fire – get out as fast as you can.”  Imagine saying it in a way that will induce immediate action, if not panic. Now imagine saying the same words in a way that no one would take seriously. The difference here is not in the words but the way you deliver them.

In Martin Luther King’s famous speech, he repeats the phrases “I have a dream” and “Let freedom ring” nine times. Because of the energy and passion he famously put into it, it is difficult to imagine that speech being delivered in a tedious way, but it was certainly repetitious, and could potentially have been a real turn off!

The art of rhetoric is more than formulating the sequence of words. It is also in the way they are delivered – and that goes for all speech. We can be boring, passionate, humorous, sardonic or sincere – just in the way we deliver our words. Certainly, the apostle Paul showed rhetorical skills in his writing, as 1 Corinthians 13 demonstrates so clearly, but he evidently had skills in rhetorical speech as well.

So if the salesman on the doorstep is going to sell his product, he needs to give attention to his appearance, his manner, his sale’s pitch, his descriptive powers, and the clarity of his explanations, as well as the force and integrity of his arguments, if he is going to persuade people to purchase his product.  

Philosopher Peter S. Williams says that Aristotle taught that rhetoric had to do with three aspects of communication: ethos, pathos and logos; that is, the character and credibility of the speaker (ethos), the disposition and responsiveness of the audience (pathos) and the content and construction of the speech itself (logos).[i] He quotes the apostle Paul, who urged the Colossian church to pray, not only that he would find “an open door” to speak about Christ (pathos) but also that he would speak clearly “which is how I ought to speak” (logos). In turn, Paul advised the Colossians in their evangelism to be wise, and to “let their speech be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (ethos) (Col. 4: 3-6). So the challenge that faces us is identical to the challenge which faced the early Christians. “Good rhetoric,” Williams concludes, “is crucial for persuasive evangelism.”       

The same applies, of course, to writing. It is my experience that whatever we write can be improved! If we are writing something important, we must not settle for the first draft. I have just checked a manuscript for a friend, which has already been checked by several people. I found a further 38 errors. He is most grateful! But I was just checking for typos. I left him to worry about the words.

Years ago I read a very helpful little book called “Words on Target”.[ii] The title itself alerted me to the fact that words are the weapons of truth. They can be fast, sharp and penetrating, making a deep impact! Or they can equally well be sluggish, blunt, and ineffective, going off with a “fut”. It taught me the value of well-deployed short sentences to arrest attention; the use of unexpected adjectives to stir the imagination; to avoid repetitions; to use dictionaries and a thesaurus to select fresh words; and to understand the difference between strong words and weak ones. The author wrote, “Economy, energy and subtlety pry open the twentieth century mind.”

In my view, and probably yours, every sentence that I write could be improved! The stuff we churn out reflects the amount of effort we have put in. Obviously, we should get other people to check our work. But we should be our own most critical analyst. To my mind, the golden rules include:

1) Always sleep on a text and review it next morning

2) Re-read it at different times of the day and in different “moods”

3) Read it imagining you were quite ignorant about the subject matter

4) Alter every sentence that needs to be read twice – if you doubt it, change it!

5) Be constantly asking, “Is there a better way to say that?”

6) When you think it is finished, then start to polish it. Those final tweaks can smooth out the remaining glitches and make the prose flow smoothly.

7) Never write a book – it takes too long!  


Billy Wilder, the film producer of Sunset Boulevard and Some Like It Hot, said, “I have a vast and terrible desire never to bore an audience.” The quickest way to bore an audience, apart from being dull, is to make sure they lose the plot! If we are to persuade people that Christianity is true, we must make sure that we are making sense to people and that they can follow what we are saying. The moment we use terms they do not understand or try to explain concepts which we haven’t properly grasped ourselves, they will quickly glaze over – losing not only the plot but probably the will to live!

It has been well said that “it is not what we say that matters, but what they hear”. So what words should we use to explain incarnation, sin, justification, redemption, faith and repentance? We have to work at these things. We need sparkling illustrations to carry these ideas. For instance, I like to explain the incarnation as Jesus being the “human face of God” and sin as “self-worship”. I describe redemption in terms of buying and restoring a damaged antique. And I always explain faith in terms of trust. Metaphors have their limitations and weaknesses, but good ones can go a long way in getting across complex ideas. Like parables, they convey packages of truth – and we need lots of them. However, we should not allow ourselves to believe that Christianity is too complex to explain. It would never have taken off so dramatically if it was. Our problem may be that we spend too much time listening to amateur theologians and not enough time listening to the straightforward questions of unbelievers!  


Once the door to door salesman has explained what he has to offer, there are three basic questions that we need to ask: Is it true what he is saying? What are the implications of buying it? Do I actually need it?

Most other questions we might ask come into those categories (Is there a guarantee? Does it smell? Have I got a good alternative?)

I have often heard people say that the questions people ask about Christianity today are different from the questions they asked a generation ago. Certainly our cultures evolve and do so with increasing speed. So the questions relating to culture will change. But once the Gospel is “on the table” it invokes the same sort of questions that it always has done, because they are not questions about our culture but questions about a very specific and, at first sight, improbable proposition. And they are highly predictable!

Is it true and how can we know it is true? 

1. Are the New Testament documents historically reliable?

2. Is Christ unique among the world’s religious figures?

3. Has science disproved God?

What are the implications of it being true?

4. Isn’t religion all psychological?

5. What are the natures of faith and repentance?

6. What happens to unbelievers and those who never hear about Christ?

7. Why would a good God allow suffering and evil?

Do I need it?

8. Aren’t I good enough for God as I am?

Those basic questions are thrown up by the very nature of the Gospel, and are asked, sometimes in identical words, by both educated and uneducated people in every continent and every culture.
I once sat an exam where (without cheating, I might add) the class had managed to work out in advance what the questions would be. The exam paper was exactly what we expected – and everyone in the class scored the top grade. Well, they would have been idiots not to! If you know the questions in advance, you can get to work on preparing good answers.  


Now I believe that persuasion is the missing ingredient in Christian mission. An important Anglican Report called “The Measure of Mission” shaped Anglican thinking for a generation. In its Theological Reflections, it set out the Ten Marks of Mission, but persuasion was not one of them. It then listed Twelve Words Used in the Mission Debate – but persuasion was not there either.[iii]

Yet Luke in Acts records that a great multitude of people were “persuaded” in Thessalonica (17:4). In Berea, “the Jews examined the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (17:11). In Athens, the philosophers wanted to know “what this new teaching is that you are presenting” (17:19). In Corinth he “tried to persuade Jews and Greeks” (18:4) and was dragged before the tribunal, where the Jews said, “This man is persuading the people to worship God” (18:13). For three months in the synagogue of Ephesus, he “argued persuasively about the Kingdom of God” (19:8) before “reasoning daily” in the hall of Tyrannus for the next two years, enabling the whole of Asia Minor to hear the Gospel (19:9-10). Luke vividly described the riot which eventually broke out among the silversmiths in Ephesus. They said, “This Paul has persuaded… a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods.” (19:26)

Apollos had previously been at Ephesus, before helping the work in Corinth. We are told he was an “eloquent man” (18:24) who “powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Messiah was Jesus” (18:28). Festus thought Paul was mad, but Paul insisted that he was speaking “true and rational words” (26:25). And what did King Agrippa make of Paul’s eloquent defense? “In a short time, would you persuade me to be a Christian?” (26:28).

The final picture we have of Paul is of him being under house arrest in Rome. We are told that great numbers came to his lodgings, where from morning to evening “he tried to convince them about Jesus”, and “some were convinced by what he said, but others disbelieved, disagreeing among themselves” (28:23-25).

There are then to my mind only two types of evangelism – persuasive evangelism and unpersuasive evangelism – and there is no point or purpose in being unpersuasive! Yet contemporary evangelism can rarely be described as “arguing persuasively about the Kingdom of God”.

We have looked at three areas to work on if we want to be Christian persuaders. We need to present our material attractively so that people can listen, explain our message carefully so that they can understand, and address their questions and doubts so that they are convinced by the truth of what we are saying.

But being persuaded is not the whole story. They might conclude that Christianity is really true but want none of it!

I remember once holding a dialogue with students in a very packed room, with every inch of floor space covered. The discussion had lasted two hours and had gone well. As I drew the meeting to a close, pointing out the implications of Christian belief, a student got up to leave. He was at the far end of the room and had to struggle to find  floor space for each step of his way to the door. I stopped speaking and waited for this drama to end. Eventually he made it to the door, which, because of the bodies, was very difficult to open. As he was about to leave, I broke the silence and asked, “Can you tell us why you are leaving at this point?”  “Yes,” he said, “I don’t want anyone else to rule my life.” And with that he left.

That is of course the general state of mankind. It is the very definition of “sin”. People do not want to let God be God over them. They prefer the epitaph from Sinatra’s famous song, “I did it my way!”

So we also must pray that God would take these Gospel truths, and not only give understanding and conviction of the truth of what we are saying, but by his Holy Spirit bring about that change of the heart, mind and will that will enable people to turn away from everything they know to be wrong and place their trust in Jesus as their Saviour, Lord and God. We must do our part in presenting the Gospel persuasively, but only God can change their hearts.

Peter May is a retired medical doctor, former UCCF Trust Board chairman and lay member of Church of England’s General Synod.

[i] Williams P.S. A Faithful Guide to Philosophy Paternoster 2013. p.7

[ii] Nichols S. Words on Target Victory Press 1963

[iii] Report of  Mission Theological Advisory Group, The Measure of Mission 1987 pp.24-44  

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