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Advice for Persuaders

David Bromwich’s rich study can help us improve our use of words.

David Bromwich rests the argument of his book, How Words Make Things Happen, on the straightforward assumption, “words are valued because they move us” – a notion every preacher or teacher will heartily affirm. This is not to say that the intention of those using words is always realized in those who hear or read them. For that to be the case, persuasion must be achieved, and it is the burden of Bromwich’s essay to consider what that entails, and whether or how it may be accomplished. 

Bromwich observes, “Language affects human action, it is involved in almost everything we do, and its meanings are imperfectly determined, both ameliorated and degraded.” The better we understand how language works to persuade, how it moves people to action, the more we can perfect the use of it. For those of us for whom words are the medium of our vocation, Bromwich’s insights should be helpful for advancing the Kingdom of God.

Bromwich examines the use of language in persuasion by philosophers, poets, politicians, and activists from various times in history, to discover some of the important ways people seek to persuade. He believes words do have this power, often “in spite of themselves” and even “of their avowed intention.”

People want to believe, “and a hunger for belief drives much of human conduct.” That should be good news for us, who hope to persuade others to their beliefs, because we have a hunger to be believed.

Words can thus serve both needs. The goal is mutually agreeable understanding, but this goal is not always realized. Words accomplish this goal when they “stir readers to feel a sensation (including or implying sympathy) that outruns the settled purpose of the words and that has no correlative in action.” “Persuasion commonly works by a semblance of reasoned argument in order to appeal directly and indirectly to the passions.”

But a speaker or writer must first persuade himself before he will be able to persuade anyone else. We persuade others by building on their existing beliefs, if only on the need to believe. We must also be passionate about our beliefs, and tie our words with strong emotions. Speaking aloudwhat we believe can help us believe it more passionately.

Persuasion also involves “dreaming aloud, which the dreamer asks other people to listen to and be somehow affected by.” Our beliefs must be challenge, rubbed against other beliefs, and either refined or changed. The current attitude toward “safe speech” and “hate speech” operates against the power of persuasion and consigns people to groups beyond which they can only with difficulty grow.

This is a complex and useful book, replete with case studies and examples from many disciplines and periods of history. It is well worth the time it takes to understand Bromwich's argument.

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