Persuasion and Emotion Framing in Public Speaking: Listener Centered Approach

DOI: 10.55804/jtsuSPEKALI-16-16



Technological advancements made it possible to access data anywhere in the world. Accordingly, public speeches are addressed both to a specific society, for example, a live audience, and online listeners around the world. Thus, the audience is distinguished by diversity of social groups or cultures and naturally, techniques used by public speakers should be appropriate for the individuals with different cultural backgrounds and experiences.

If we go back to the basics of public speaking, we can define rhetoric as the means of persuasion. Like E. Griffin notes, Aristotle was rather skeptical towards public discussions that were emotionally driven; he preferred logical reasoning. However, the theory of pathos suggests not playing on the emotions of the audience, but using these emotions as a socially beneficial, somewhat corrective measure that helps to inspire the public and facilitate “useful” decisions. Accordingly, Aristotle singles out a group of opposing emotions and discusses what it takes to arouse these emotions in the listener. The study of emotions also offers a two-factor model [Schacter...1962:397], which is based on the confrontation of mutually contradictory (positive and negative) basic emotional states. Accordingly, the listener evaluates the public speaker as good or bad, reliable or dubious, right or wrong, etc.

Kenneth Burk’s approach is also worth noting. He focuses on the concept of drama and emphasizes the importance of listener’s motivation. According to him [Burke, 1963:308], when public speaker tries to have emotional impact on the listener, the reason for emotional arousal can be catharsis achieved by offering the role of a victim. The victim can be the speaker himself, or some other character. Acquiring the role of the victim by the speakers can indicate the process when the speaker mentions an “enemy” that causes either personal or social type of pain in a person.


Persuasion Script in Public Speaking

In the context of public speaking, emotion framing refers to the part of the persuasion process, when the public speaker tries to re-evaluate the popular beliefs and images spread in the society and, as a result, attempts to form a specific emotional implication in the listener. A public speaker usually follows a similar script when drafting a speech. Usually, a speech begins by presenting one’s social identity to the audience, by highlighting interests or social roles (professions) and/or other similar aspects. In order to successfully carry out the act of persuasion and, therefore, to frame an emotion, it is necessary for the public speaker to be perceived as the one who takes a positive social identity [Tajfel... 1986:284]. Once speakers have evoked a positive social evaluation of themselves, emotion framing begins, which involves questioning moral values. This is mainly done by acquiring the symbolic codes of the “victim” or “teacher”. Emotion framing can be accomplished by using thematic or episodic frames [Gross, 2008:169], which depict the narrative from two different perspectives: thematic framing involves telling the story based on an objective point of view, where the speaker uses certain data or factual information to draw attention to the topic, while episodic framing requires the character’s perspective on the narrative. The character can be speakers themselves or someone else from their life experience.

Based on the reasoning above, we can formulate a scenario-like model that a public speaker uses when trying to persuade the audience:

Step 1: Accepting the speaker as a member of the group / arousing positive emotions towards the speaker

The speaker tries to present him/herself as someone with a  positive identity: he/she uses humor, or presents him/herself as a member of a target group, or shares the beliefs and ideas of the target community. The listener develops instant trust and a positive emotional assessment of the speaker.

Step 2: Disrupting the listener’s harmony with the world

Since the listener already trusts the speaker, the latter doubts the value of X, and as a result, the listener also doubts the value of X. The audience exhibits a physiological reaction such as excitement or admiration. The listener’s context is social, and the social norms recognized by the speaker and the listener are congruent. The listener believes that the speaker can be trusted.

Step 3: Arousing emotions in the listener

As a result of certain stimuli, the listener’s views are re-evaluated.

Step 4: Change of reality

The listener shares the speaker's views and feels the desired emotional response for the speaker.

Step 5: Restoring Harmony with the universe

The listener experiences and/or expresses a certain emotion; consequently, as a result of understanding the position of the speaker and recognizing him/her as an internal member of the group, harmony with the world is restored.

If we define communication as the exchange of information, we can assume that public speaking is a certain type of communication, a communicative act - when a public speaker exchanges information with a listener. In this process, the listener is a passive actor in the sense that he/she does not give a verbal response to the information received, but this does not mean that the listener is less important in the discourse. The following excerpt from one of the public speeches (see example N1) will attempt to illustrate the above reasoning:1

Example N1

“When I was nine years old, I went off to summer camp for the first time. And my mother packed me a suitcase full of books, which to me seemed like a perfectly natural thing to do. Because in my family, reading was the primary group activity. And this might sound antisocial to you, but for us it was really just a different way of being social ...“

The example above clearly shows that the speaker performs social self-categorization. The speaker assigns herself to the social group of reading enthusiasts, thereby creating certain expectations in the listener. After creating a social identity, the public speaker tries to make social comparisons (see example N2):

Example N2

“Camp was more like a keg party without any alcohol. And on the very first day, our counselor gathered us all together and she taught us a cheer that she said we would be doing every day for the rest of the summer to instill camp spirit. And it went like this: "R-O-W-D-I-E", that's the way we spell rowdie. Rowdie, rowdie, let's get rowdie." Yeah. So I couldn't figure out for the life of me why we were supposed to be so rowdy, or why we had to spell this word incorrectly.“

Example N2 depicts social comparison between the camp members (students), in this particular case, the speaker herself and the educator. Of these, the educator has, of course, a higher social status. By “diminishing” the educator, the public speaker challenges the stereotypical views on which any such social contrast is based. A stereotypical view in this particular context refers to the public perception of camps as the best way to strengthen social skills and morale. Thus, here the speaker presents the values of individualistic societies [Hofstede, 1983:54], which she will re-evaluate and question when moving to the emotion framing process (see example N3):

Example N3:

“Now, I tell you this story about summer camp. I could have told you 50 others just like it  – all the times that I got the message that somehow my quiet and introverted style of being was not necessarily the right way to go, that I should be trying to pass as more of an extrovert. And I always sensed deep down that this was wrong and that introverts were pretty excellent just as they were. But for years I denied this intuition, and so I became a Wall Street lawyer, of all things, instead of the writer that I had always longed to be ...“

Example N3 also demonstrates the speaker’s use of an episodic frame, which involves presenting a large-scale problem based on a personal example. In particular, the speaker describes the challenges she had to overcome throughout her life. Through episodic framing, the speaker again uses the symbolic code of the victim, and as a result, the audience becomes more emotionally involved in the narrative. The problem that the speaker brings forward is related to the social arrangement and the beliefs that she is trying to reexamine are related to the culture of the society. In particular, she tries to rethink the characteristics of collectivist society suggesting that the member of the group is responsible for protecting the interests of his/her group and having common aspirations or beliefs with it [Hofstede, 1983:54]. As a result, the speaker re-evaluates the positivity of the extroverted nature in society and challenges the idea that it is necessary to have an extroverted nature for a successful social life. Also, there is a re-evaluation of existing stereotypical beliefs about introverts, which the speaker herself is an example of. Accordingly, we can conclude that by using the episodic frame and the symbolic code of the victim, the speaker manages to create a shared reality with the listener - the latter feels empathy towards the speaker, and the beliefs/ideas that the speaker questions, the listener evaluates negatively, that is, the speaker frames an emotion that successfully performs persuasion process.

Research material and methodology

The main aim of the research is to demonstrate the realization of the mentioned schematic representation of persuasionin practice. In this regard, the following research objectives and questions were identified:


  • To what extent the listener is affected by the general emotional background in terms of deciphering the information conveyed during the public speech and the corresponding emotional message.
  • To what extent the audience perceives the public speaker as carrying a positive identity.
  • What (positive or negative) attitude does the listener have towards the views and ideas spread in the society.
  • To what extent the audience considers the public speaker to be a victim of popular beliefs.
  • If the listener’s general emotional background changes after the public speech.


The quantitative research methodology focused on the listener. An electronic questionnaire was applied for quantitative research. Study participants watched a TED.COM public talk (The power of introverts) and answered questions before and after watching the talk. Participants rated their emotional state and emotional involvement in the speech on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 represented extremely negative emotional background and 5 represented extremely positive emotional background. This study allowed us to see whether the general emotional background changes during the process of a public speaker's persuasion attempt. A total of 40 people participated in the survey. The minimum age of the participants was 18, and the maximum age was not defined. It is worth noting that the survey was conducted in English and both native English speakers (17.9%) and bilingual participants for whom English was a foreign language (L2) (82.1%) were interviewed. 1 participant out of 40 refused to participate in the survey and withdrew from the study while the remaining 39 participants fully completed the presented questionnaire.

The survey used questions that were mainly about the speaker, topic, social values and emotional state. See the questions used in the questionnaire, their purpose and definitions below:

1. On a scale from one to five, one being negative and five - positive, how would you assess your emotional state at the moment?

The purpose of this question is to investigate to what extent a person’s general emotional state affects the emotion framing process and whether or not it is possible that the general emotional state affects the evaluation of a public speaker and his/her speech.

2. On a scale from one to five, one being the weakest and five - the strongest, how strongly do you believe in your beliefs and values?

3. On a scale from one to five, one being negative and five being positive, what is your attitude towards social norms in your culture?

As mentioned above, in the process of emotion framing, the listener’s beliefs and ideas are re-evaluated. According to the persuasion scenario, the second stage involves breaking the harmony in the listener's consciousness and causing an emotional reaction. By evaluating our own beliefs and common norms in society, we are given the opportunity to judge how valid the said reasoning is. As a preliminary assumption, if the listener has a positive attitude towards beliefs and social norms, it will be much more difficult to “disrupt” the harmony in the listener; and if the evaluation is negative, the framing of the emotion should be much easier.

4. On a scale from one to five, one being not interesting and five - interesting, how would you assess the speech?

5. On a scale from one to five, one being negative and five - positive, how would you assess the speaker’s identity?

According to the schematic model of persuasion, the first step involved creating a positive social identity. Questions N4 and N5 allow us to judge the extent to which the listener perceives the public speaker as carrying a positive identity, and therefore, to what extent it is correct to argue that a positive social identity determines and initiates the speech act of persuasion.

6. Do you think the speaker is a victim of any social norms?

As mentioned in the discussion above, public speaking as a form of communication can be compared to a drama in which the public speaker uses symbolic codes, in this particular case – the symbolic code of the victim, and therefore, frames the emotion using an episodic frame, which, based on personal experiences, depicts the public or personal tragedies of the “character”. Question N6 allows us to discuss the validity of the mentioned reasoning.

7. If your answer to the previous question was "Yes", how does that make you feel?

The purpose of the question N7 is to determine the specific share of the distribution of emotions evoked by emotion framing into the positive or negative emotion group. Accordingly, we would determine how successfully the emotion framing process was implemented.

8. Where any social norms you believed in challenged through the speech?

According to the third level of persuasion, the listener’s views are re-evaluated; therefore, the purpose of question N8 is to determine how much the listener’s view has changed regarding the issue. The mentioned question is also related to questions N2 and N3, because if the audience shares the beliefs of the public speaker, instead of reevaluating the views, the existing beliefs may be strengthened.

9. On a scale of one to five, one being negative and five - positive, how would you assess your feelings towards the speaker after the speech?

According to the fourth stage of persuasion, the listener shares the public speaker’s real state and feels an appropriate emotional response. Therefore, question N9 allows us to argue whether it might be considered that a public speaker is perceived as an in-group member having a positive identity.

10. Did you identify yourself with the speaker emotionally during the speech?

11. Name specific emotion you felt towards the speaker after watching the speech.

12. If you could assess your emotional involvement in the subject-matter from one to five, one being the weakest and five - the strongest, how would you assess it?

The last stage of the persuasion process involved the restoration of harmony, which implies an emotional response to the speech that can be expressed through different behaviors and/or sharing the speaker’s ideology. Questions N10, N11 and N12 allow us to judge whether the listener made an emotional assessment and, as a result, how effective the persuasion was.


Research Results

Overall, 39 of the 40 applicants fully participated in the study. 21.9% spoke English as their mother tongue, and 78.1% were bilingual. The level of language competency among bilinguals was indicated as follows: A1-A2 (8%), B1 (8%), B2 (36%), C1-C2 (48%). 87.2% of applicants were female, and 12.8% were male.

The majority of participants evaluated the emotional state positively, on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 positive and 1 negative), 12.8% chose “5”, 48.7% - “4”, 25.6% - “3”. 10.3% evaluated their emotional state negatively by choosing number “2” and 2.6% by number – “1”. These numbers are understood as follows: numbers 4 and 5 equate to a positive emotional state, number 3 is neutral, and numbers 1 and 2 represent negative associations. If we generalize the results, it becomes clear that the majority of applicants (61.5%) evaluated their emotional state positively, the minority (12.9%) - negatively, and the remaining 25.6% - neutrally.

The correlation between the speakers” personal views and their attitudes towards social norms is interesting. In particular, 26% of applicants negatively assess the social norms in their culture, while only 3% indicated a negative assessment of their personal views.

53.8% of the research participants think that the speaker is a victim of social norms; however, 71.8% state that they did not question any personal beliefs or ideas while watching the speech. This indicates that the belief in personal values is stronger and it may not conform to widely spread social norms.

Thus, people may find themselves in conflict with social norms. To determine if the emotion framing and ultimately, the act of persuasion was successful, we asked research participants whether they identified themselves with the speaker emotionally. Interestingly, 51.3% said they emotionally identified themselves with the speaker; 15.4% did not feel any similarity, and 33.3% chose the answer “maybe”.

When asked which specific emotion they felt toward the public speaker, the survey participants listed the following emotions: compassion, sympathy, sadness, regret, impressed, respect, trust, admiration, gratitude, anxiety, inspiration, appreciation, confidence, excitement, curiosity, and neutral emotions (indifference).



The obtained results answer the questions posed at the beginning of the article, namely:

1. The general emotional background is important in terms of deciphering the information conveyed and the corresponding emotional message during a public speech; however, according to the results, we cannot state that a positive emotional background means a positive evaluation of the speech and vice versa. It is likely that the emotional background greatly influences the intensity of emotion evaluation, depending on the life experience of each individual.

2. The second question, to what extent the individual perceives the speaker as having a positive identity, was important because, as mentioned above, a positive evaluation of the listening public is necessary for the success of the persuasion process. The mentioned research also confirms the role of social identity. Based on the results, 31 participants evaluated the identity of the public speaker positively.

3. We were interested in what role the listener’s beliefs and ideas and common views or social norms play in the speaker’s evaluation process. According to the results, we can conclude that personal beliefs and social norms may not be in agreement with each other, and during the assessment, one’s own beliefs were evaluated more positively than the social norms spread in the society.

4. As for the extent to which the audience considers the public speaker to be a victim of popular views, according to the results, it was noted that the majority (53.8%) consider the public speaker to be a victim of the norms spread in society. Therefore, we can conclude that the listener has adopted the symbolic code of the victim, which means seeing him/herself from the perspective of the oppressed. In the process of narration, the speaker used episodic frames, through which she presented her own experiences as being oppressed, and therefore, successfully played the role of a victim.

In this way, the public speaker establishes a positive social identity. As a result, in this case, the framing of the emotion and the re-evaluation of the belief-images break a certain harmony in the listener. As a result of the research, it was revealed that the majority of listeners (51.3%) emotionally connect themselves to the public speaker, which also confirms the last stage of persuasion, the process of emotion evaluation, and the successful implementation of persuasion as a speech act.


[1] This and other examples are taken from the following link:


Barrett L. F., Mesquita B., Gendron M.
Context in Emotion Perception. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(5),
Burke K.
Definition of Man. The Hudson Review,16(4), doi:10.2307/3848123
Burke K
A rhetoric of motives. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Griffin E.
A first look at communication theory. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Gross J. J.
Emotion regulation. In M. Lewis, J. M. Haviland-Jones, & L. F.
Halperin E., & Pliskin R.
Emotions and emotion regulation in intractable conflict: Studying emotional processes within a unique context. Political Psychology, 36(Suppl 1),
Hofstede G.
National Cultures Revisited. Behavior Science Research, 18(4),
Iyengar S.
Is anyone responsible? How television frames political issues. University of Chicago Press.
Izard C. E
Basic emotions, relations among emotions, and emotion-cognition relations. Psychological Review, 99(3),
Schachter S., Singer J.
Cognitive, social, and physiological determinants of emotional state. Psychological Review, 69(5),
Tajfel H., Turner J.C.
The Social Identity Theory of Intergroup Behavior. In: Worchel, S. and Austin, W.G., Eds., Psychology of Intergroup Relation, Hall Publishers, Chicago.