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Persuasion and coherence

Persuasion can be defined as the strategic use of language aimed at changing or affecting the beliefs or behaviour of others and strengthening the existing beliefs or behaviour of those who already agree, the beliefs and behaviour of persuaders included (Virtanen and Halmari 2005). It is an inherently intentional, dynamic and interactive process, in which the speaker has constantly to anticipate and take into consideration the reactions of the audience (cf. Virtanen and Halmari 2005, Jowett and O’Donnell 2006). Persuasion is traditionally seen to be brought about by the three classic Aristotelian types of appeal: ethos-the appeal to the authority of the speaker, which is associated with the discursive representation of his/her believability, reliability and competence; pathos- the appeal to the emotions of the audience, commonly related to the use of evaluative and metaphorical language, storytelling and humour; and logos-the appeal to the rationality of the audience, which often involves reference to facts and figures supporting the argumentation of the speaker. While different registers and genres show preference for particular forms of appeal, political speeches typically combine all three types of appeal to maximize their persuasive force.

According to Ostman (2005: 200) persuasive interaction can be seen as a continuum ranging from propaganda through manipulation and persuasion to phatic communication. Propaganda and manipulation have acquired negative connotations stemming from the view that in cognitive terms they represent an attempt at exercising mind-control by interfering with the processes of understanding through the discursive formation of biased mental models and social representations (cf. van Dijk’s (2006) triangulated approach to manipulation). Thus, while in the case of persuasion the interlocutors have the choice to believe and act as they please, depending on whether or not they accept the arguments of the persuader, in the case of propaganda and manipulation they are typically assigned the passive role of victims who are unable to understand the real meaning and intentions of the speaker and/or realize the full consequences of the ideology or actions advocated by the manipulator (van Dijk 2006: 361). Obviously, from the point of view of the explicitness-implicitness dimension, such an abuse of power by means of discourse is often carried out more effectively implicitly rather than explicitly.

Similarly to persuasion, coherence is dynamically constructed in the process of an interactive negotiation of meaning. This holds for both types of coherence considered in this study: the first pertains to identity construction and is termed “existential coherence” (Duranti 2006), i.e. the ability of the speaker to represent his/her behaviour and attitude to people, values, facts and ideas as consistent and continuous; the second is discourse coherence, i.e. the interpretative perception of the semantic unity and purposefulness of discourse (cf. Bublitz 1999, Seidlhofer and Widdowson 1999, Povolna 2007 and Dontcheva-Navratilova 2007), which encompasses conceptual connectedness, evaluative and dialogical consistency and textual relatedness (Dontcheva-Navratilova 2011). Since the construal of a coherent identity is a discursive process dependent on the ability of the speaker to guide the audience towards an intended interpretation of his/her words and actions, it is evident that existential coherence is to a large extent dependent on discourse coherence.

Existential coherence and discourse coherence are closely related to persuasion since, as pointed out by Sperber et al. (2010), when communicating interactants are striving to achieve two goals:

  • 1) to be understood, i.e. to guide the audience towards an intended perception of discourse coherence
  • 2) to make their audience think or act according to what is to be understood, i.e. to persuade the audience to trust the speaker, to accept his/her representation of the world and to strengthen or change their beliefs and behaviour accordingly

However, since discourse interpretation depends on inference based on contextual and background knowledge and on experience in discourse processing, it may not be identical for all interactants. In addition, even if comprehending the message is a precondition for its acceptance, this does not necessarily mean that the audience will accept and believe what the speaker says. How, then, are understanding and believing possible? The approach adopted in this study assumes that in the process of interaction participants impose coherence on discourse (Tarnyikova 1995: 24) and adopt a tentative “stance of trust”, i.e. a readiness to adjust their own beliefs to the speaker’s meaning rather than a mere adjusting of their interpretation of the speaker’s meaning to their own beliefs (Sperber et al.

  • 2010: 368). Drawing on Sperber et al. (2010), the assessment of the trustworthiness of what is communicated can be seen as carried out on the basis of two types of epistemic vigilance process:
    • a) assessment of the reliability of the speaker (source of information)
    • b) assessment of the reliability of the content conveyed

The representation of the “persona” of the speaker as a reliable source of information is related to the construal of an existentially coherent image of him/herself and by the establishing of his/her relationship with the audience and his/her ideological position in discourse as continuous. According to Sperber et al. (2010), the main factors affecting the trustworthiness of a source are competence, i.e. the possession of reliable information, and benevolence, i.e. the intent to share this information with the audience. An additional factor enhancing the reliability of the source is attractiveness, which in political discourse is associated with the reputation of a politician and of the institution he/she represents.

Content reliability is to a large extent dependent on discourse coherence in terms of assessment of the consistency of new information with background knowledge and previously processed information. By building up a well-constructed argumentation the speaker strives to influence “the audience’s evaluation of the coherence of ‘what has been said’ and ‘what has been meant’” (Fetzer 2002: 185) and to persuade them to believe his/her interpretation of the information conveyed.

The following analysis of the pragmatic functions of deictic pronouns and modal expressions in opening addresses explores how these linguistic devices contribute to the persuasive force of political rhetoric by helping the speakers to construe a coherent discourse in which the orator is represented as a reliable source of information and the information conveyed is in agreement with the previous knowledge of the participants in the communication. The aim of the study is to show that when delivering their speeches the orators try to achieve their communicative goals, and if necessary get past the epistemic vigilance of the audience by enhancing speaker credibility through the establishing of a dialogic framework for the negotiation of a coherent presentation of identities, social roles, shared value systems and relationships with the audience and by constructing a coherent argumentation for supporting their claims and suggestions for future actions.

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