Sunday, March 13, 2016

P.T. Barnum Mastering the Art of Persuasion

In any college of journalism and mass communications intro class it is almost certain that P.T. Barnum will be a topic of discussion. Barnum was well known in the mid 1800s as an American showman and one of the first public relations professionals, but more prominently, he was recognized for his use of persuasion, credited with the saying, “there’s a sucker born every minute.” As an advertising and public relations major I have developed not only a greater sense of awareness towards the messages sent through advertisements, but how that message is conveyed.  Barnum referred to himself as a showman by profession, and his career emulated this attitude through his use of persuasion and his appeal to the audience’s emotion.

Persuasion was not only necessary between Barnum and his audience, but also between Barnum and his employees. Two well-known hoaxes produced as a part of the Grand Traveling Museum were the Fiji Mermaid and Tom Thumb. What was described an imaged as a beautiful sea creature was in reality a constructed skeleton with the head of a monkey and the tail of a fish. He used persuasion to convince his audience of the “mermaids” legitimacy. Tom Thumb, on the other hand, was known to the public as “The Smallest Person that ever Walked Alone,” when in reality he was a four year old boy who was stated as an eleven year old. Tom Thumb was persuaded through heavy coaching and compliment of his natural talent to perform as something he was not.

Jay Heinrich refers to persuasive talk as “the oldest invention” and highlights Cicero’s five canons of the persuasive art. Invention is the first step, which begins with figuring out both what you as the persuader want and what your audience wants. For Barnum, his personal goal was to “put money in his own coffers,” and he accomplished this through providing entertainment to his audience. The second step of persuasion is arrangement, which can be simplified down to ethos first, then logos, then pathos. Barnum’s amusements may have included scheming and exaggeration, but he won over his audience by showing concern for their interest in witnessing new and exciting acts. The third step of persuasion is the style, which consists of proper language, clarity, vividness, decorum, and ornament. Barnum made use of these virtues through descriptions like “P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum” or “a mammoth fat infant” or “ingenious glass-blowers.” Memory is the fourth step of persuasion. Barnum uses wild descriptions and hoaxes specifically to draw attention and make a lasting imprint on the minds of his audience. The final step of persuasion is the delivery. Barnum’s use of scheming was impressively effective, yet he argued, “I don’t believe in duping the public, I believe in first attracting and then pleasing them.”

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