Strategic Communications Students Practice the Art of Persuasion

How do you persuade an audience that reality TV isn’t all that bad?

That was the task of Smita Kamath and Amrit Gill, students in the Strategic Communications master’s program. While Kamath and Gill built an argument in favor of reality TV, students Jacqueline Fleming and Rob Gukeisen presented evidence against it.

These presentations, which took place on Saturday, February 21st, were part of an exercise in persuasion taught by The Persuasive Presenter instructor Jane Praeger with the help of facilitators Gina O'Halloran, Catherine Mevs, and Leila Brahimi. The assignment called for groups of two to present evidence for or against a given issue; topics included compensation for student athletes, legalizing sex work, internet privacy, and more. However, unlike a debate in which the pro and con groups battle to refute each others’ arguments, the teams determined their own audiences and therefore their own lines of reasoning. The teams needed to select a segment that would be amenable to changing their minds about the issue and tailor their appeal to the concerns of that specific audience. Students conducted desk research as well as interviews to glean insights from their prospective target audience members.

Define Your Audience

“Part of the assignment is refining who your audience is, as well as clearly defining the issue,” O'Halloran told me while the Strategic Communications class took a break from their presentations in Fairchild Hall. She said that, with the group that was arguing in favor of reality TV, their research revealed that viewers thought of these documentary shows as tabloid-like fare: “The Real Housewives” and “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” “It made them see that their audience was looking at reality TV in a very compartmentalized way,” O’Halloran said. “So for their argument, they actually had to define reality TV so that it includes the ‘Project Runway’s and the ‘Top Chef’s of the world – which you think of as competitions but, by definition, is reality television.”

Above: Gina O'Halloran

The objective of the students’ research is to discover an insight. “The insight isn't always what your audience just said to you,” Brahimi said. “An insight is, what do you think they feel about this topic? Knowing what they said, how do you think you could persuade them?”

Discover Insights

From there, students needed to use the insights to determine their target audiences. Fleming and Gukeisen sought viewers who might be willing to turn against reality TV. They concluded that the ideal segment was millennial women with younger siblings. She said that, when she interviewed young college graduates about their views on reality TV, “They feel very invincible: 'I know exactly what I'm doing.'” She said, “Once we started asking about the last five years, they talked about how they've grown – but they had this ‘aha!’ moment where they realized that their younger siblings hadn't gone through that yet, and they wished someone [were] there to coach them and tell them what to do.”

Above: Jacqueline Fleming

Omit Needless Data

Then the challenge lay in editing the information and distilling the persuasive presentation to its most important elements. “I think the tendency is to throw in all the information,” Brahimi said, “Students have to think about, what's the most relevant data and what's the most compelling data? Do you really need this piece of information? Cut it and see what happens.”

Fleming and Gukeisen, for example, refrained from explaining that reality TV consists of docusoaps as well as competition shows. They said that it would stray from the emotional appeal of their argument. Kamath and Gill, who needed to reframe reality TV for their target audience, chose to take a closer look at the nuances and the potential impact of this television genre. They said that shows including “The Apprentice,” “Project Runway,” and “American Idol” can inspire viewers to pursue a new career while “The Biggest Loser” can prompt fans to lose weight. "We're not saying that all reality TV is great. Gill said, “We're not saying that all reality TV is bad. We're saying that reality TV is a decision, and you need to make the right one.”

During the Q&A portion of the exercise, audience members remained divided on the reality TV issue. Some individuals became ambivalent. “I was swayed both ways,” said one student who had been watching the presentations. “'No, I would not let my sister – if I had one – watch that!' On the other hand,” she said with a flourish of her hand, “‘Top Chef!’”