by Lisa Greene
In political and advocacy work we need to persuade people to take on our views on issues and, ultimately, perform an action we desire (vote for a certain candidate, write legislators, donate, etc.)
What does it mean to persuade? Here is a definition (Miriam-Webster Dictionary):
- To cause (someone) to do something by asking, arguing or giving reasons;
- To cause (someone) to believe something: convince
Sounds easy doesn’t it? Just communicate to someone what you want them to believe or do, with proper reasoning and facts, and they will do what you want. If only it was that easy. Persuasion is a very complicated form of communication.
So, to make it a little easier, I propose we use a mnemonic to think about persuasion. Let’s look at the mnemonic of Who, What, When, Where, How and Why. Most of us learned this early in our K-12 studies as a way to write better essays and papers. [It’s also the core of good reporting.] How would we use this in terms of persuasion? Here we go:
Who is your audience? What is their cultural background? Is the person or audience persuadable? Are they already on your side of an issue? Will it be a single person or small group of people? Will it be a large audience?
What do you want them to think or believe about an issue? What action do you want them to take?
When does the action need to take place? In the very near future (voting) or is it a long term goal like encouraging someone to change their worldview?
Where is the persuasion happening? In person at the door? On social media? In a television ad? In a letter to the editor?
How are you communicating? Verbally or in writing?
Why do you care about the issue? What values of yours are highlighted by believing in this issue the way you do?
It will help you craft a message and be prepared when you are attempting to persuade someone if you think through the questions above. Especially the Why. The Why will help you when you’re framing your issue (we’ll talk more about framing and persuasion in an upcoming article) and you’ll create better messages if you practice putting your why right up front.
It is also very important that your audience is open and receptive to your message. You never, ever, ever want to put someone on the defensive. People go into a defensive mode when a message triggers a sense of threat. When that happens, their brains shut down and all they want to do is remove themselves from the threat – a fight or flight response. While that is happening, they cannot take in your message. A threat doesn’t need to be physical. Threats can manifest when people see, feel, hear or read something that brings up unwanted feelings: shame, guilt, anger, feeling stupid, or challenges what they already believe.
So how can you ensure that you don’t trigger a defensive response? Watch your words – don’t use accusatory language, put down someone’s beliefs, use jargon, overly academic or condescending language. Watch your tone of voice – maintain a friendly tone (verbally and in writing) and if a friendly tone is difficult, at least maintain an even tone. Never raise your voice in anger or sound condescending. Watch your body language – maintain an open and relaxed posture and keep a respectful distance. It can be difficult to do these things in some circumstances so I would recommend that you assume each person you hope to persuade is a reasonable and valuable human being. They may challenge that assumption and if the conversation gets threatening, remove yourself from the encounter. You get nothing out of engaging negatively with someone except, perhaps, some level of self-righteousness. And if you get to that point, you’ve completely lost your ability to persuade.
Who are you trying to persuade? Everyone is influenced by culture, education, religion, location, etc. If your background is very different from the person you’re trying to influence, you need to understand that in order to craft a message that can resonate. If your background is similar, it is much easier to craft your message. If you’re not sure or your message will go out to many people, keep it as simple and clear as possible. And always include your Why.
Be very clear on What you’re trying to persuade people to do. Because if you’re not clear on that, it’s guaranteed you will not be able to persuade someone to come to your side or take the action you desire. Again, include Why it’s important to you and to them.
When you need action on something can also determine who you are trying to influence. If you want someone to go out and vote for a Democratic candidate within the next week, it would not make sense to waste your time contacting strong Republicans. However, if you are interested in changing someone’s worldview, you have more time and can widen your universe of contacts.
Let’s look at the Where and How and the channels of communication. In verbal and written communication you generally have these channels to work with:
- Face-to-Face (one to one)
- Meetings (one to several)
- Public speaking (one to many)
- Video (television, YouTube, Tik Tok, etc)
- Audio (radio, podcasts, etc.)
As you go down this list, you have diminishing opportunities to utilize your facial expressions and body language to convey your message. You also have diminishing opportunities to receive immediate feedback on your message.
- Text Messaging
- Social Media
- Direct Mail
In written communication, your facial expressions, body language and tone of voice cannot be factored into your message. You must rely on your words only. As you go down the list, you have diminishing opportunities to receive immediate feedback on your message. However, in written communication, you can take some time to explore your view point. If it’s a letter to the editor or other form of written communication where feedback is delayed or non-existent, be sure to run it by a couple of people to make sure the message conveys what you want it to convey – that’s where you can receive more immediate feedback.
When you do have the opportunity for immediate feedback, as in face-to-face or small group encounters, remember to really listen to the other person. Listening is a skill that takes practice. Often when we’re hearing someone speak we’re thinking of other things: what to make for dinner, taking the dog to the vet, etc., or – and this is a big one – what we’re going to say next. And while we’re doing that, we’re not listening for understanding.
Listening for understanding, puts people at ease and makes them more likely to consider your viewpoint. And you’ll be able to respond in a way that addresses their needs. And that’s what persuasion is all about, communicating with someone to get them to take an action that you desire but also meets their needs.
When you’re communicating to persuade, you have the extra hurdle of needing to encourage someone to believe or do something you want. It is important that your communication is thoughtful and effective. By working through the Who, What, When, Where, How and Why, ensuring you don’t flip someone into a defensive mode and listening for understanding, you’ll have a better chance of achieving your goal.