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  • What is persuasion as a natural process?

  • Why should you learn more about principles of persuasion?

  • What is involved in making a persuasive argument?

  • What are some principles of persuasion?

  • When do you use persuasion?

  • How do you use persuasion?

What is persuasion as a natural process?

Social scientists estimate that each of us is exposed to hundreds, if not thousands, of persuasive messages per day. Media messages play a large part, but aren't the whole story. The messages of daily interaction are equally important.

  • A waiter at the restaurant asks, "Is there anything else I can get you?"
  • A stranger at a party glances half a second too long.
  • A telemarketer starts a pitch on the phone.
  • A yard sale flyer catches your eye.

Every day we encounter these small-scale, usually low-stakes persuasive messages, designed to influence our attitudes and behaviors, even though we don't always label them as such. Some of those messages we deflect or ignore. Others get through and are successful, sometimes despite our own best intentions.

But it's not just others who are sending persuasive messages. We are, too. Many of us send out more such messages than we get back.

We persuade our partner to see this movie rather than that one, or our co-worker to knock off a few minutes early, or the service manager to get the oil change done by 3:00 because that's when we need the car. A large percentage of our communication is consciously or unconsciously designed to be persuasive -- that is, to be instrumental in getting something we want. One might say that communication, by its nature, is supposed to be persuasive.

If you are in a leadership position, a position of authority and responsibility, you probably send out more persuasive messages than most. In fact, it's your job to send out those messages. If you didn't, your influence would suffer. Your success as a leader, or as a community builder, is directly related to the appropriateness and the effectiveness of the persuasive messages you send out.

If all this is true, if persuasion is a natural and inevitable part of the communication process, we might choose to learn how to get better at it (and we can get better!). This section focuses on understanding principles of persuasion

Why should you learn more about principles of persuasion?

The reason it pays off to learn more about persuasion is that it will help you become more successful at achieving your goals. It's no more complicated than that. There's also an unstated assumption behind this reasoning: there are tested principles of persuasion that can be both learned and put to good use.

It's surely true that all of us already know something about persuasion and how to persuade others; some of us are already quite talented at it. In fact, it would be hard to become a fully functioning adult without knowing how to persuade others at least some of the time. Persuading and being persuaded is part of being a member of society. But, persuasion is also a learned skill. And, like any skill, one can improve with instruction and practice.

It is important to note that there are many long-lived debates regarding the ethics of using principles of persuasion.

At this point, our plan is first to present some tested principles of persuasion. Next, we'll suggest how you might use these and other principles to increase community interest in your topic, and to win people over, fairly and ethically, to your way of thinking. Finally, we'll give a few real-life cases, together with some comments on how a skilled persuader might respond.

Our principles of persuasion will apply to most forms of written communication, and will complement most other sections in this chapter on creating community interest in an issue. Those other sections will also introduce additional principles unique to the topics covered within them. Our general principles will also apply to most situations involving oral communication (face-to-face, over the phone, or over radio and television), and will therefore apply to many other Tool Box sections outside this chapter on those subjects. As you read further, it may help you to think of applications to both oral and written persuasion situations you may come across yourself.

Let's start with a basic outline of the principles of persuasion, and then go in to more detail later on in the section. Every persuasive communication situation involves the following: (a) a communicator , who uses (b) a format to deliver (c) a message to (d) an audience.

One caution before we continue: persuasion is a large, complex, and subtle subject. Since we have limited space, what follows summary and cannot possibly contain all the nuances of the principles of persuasion. For further detail, please consult the references given at the end of the section.

What is involved in making a persuasive argument?

The Communicator

A persuasive attempt is more likely to be effective when the communicator (the person communicating the message) is:

Credible, both in general and for the particular issue at hand. In other words, the person or audience receiving the communication must believe you. This trust can depend on the communicator's qualifications, and on his past performance.

When your doctor tells you that no bones were broken, and to take it easy for a few days, you believe that advice. The doctor is qualified (you have no doubt), and perhaps you have also come to trust similar advice in the past. If a fifth-grade child gave you the same message, you would probably be unconvinced. But the doctor is a credible communicator for you, and so you are persuaded.

Knowledgeable, on the particular matter at hand. Expertise makes one a more credible communicator, but that expertise must be perceived as relevant to the particular setting and the particular topic under consideration.

Your doctor may be credible and persuasive when it comes to your health care, but not much more credible than anyone else when it comes to choosing a new car. On the other hand, the refrigerator repairman may know very little about cars or medicine, but when it comes to diagnosing and fixing your leaky refrigerator, that is his area of expertise. For refrigerators, he is a persuasive communicator.

Similar to the target person or audience in background and values. Other things equal, people are more likely to be persuaded by those they see as similar to themselves in age, cultural background, and lifestyle, among other characteristics.

In local fund-raising campaigns, the person asking you for a donation is likely to be a friend or acquaintance. Politicians campaigning door-to-door will ring the bell with shirtsleeves rolled up. Advertisers marketing vitamin supplements will use attractive and healthy-looking older spokespersons, possibly just like you.

Credibility, knowledgeable, and similarity are interrelated -- that is, someone more similar to the target audience may also seem more credible to them, and so on.

Exhibiting positive or influential nonverbal characteristics, which are seemingly irrelevant to the communication.

Other qualities equal, we are more likely to be persuaded by communicators who are physically attractive and who are neatly and appropriately dressed, and by communicators who smile, nod at the right places, and (in most Western cultures) make eye contact. These nonverbal qualities tend to raise our estimate of the communicator, and therefore of the message. We think to ourselves, "She seems like such a nice, sincere, and friendly person. I'm inclined to believe her." We might wish things were otherwise; but they aren't.

The Format

A persuasive message is more likely to be effective if it is:

Delivered face-to-face. Other things equal (once again), personal communication is generally more effective than less personal forms, in large part because it gets the audience's attention. It's also more difficult to reject an appeal from a credible communicator if that person is standing right in front of you. When face-to-face communication is not possible, person-to-person contact over the phone is probably the next best choice. Both are generally preferable to mailed or other written communications.

Face-to-face and telephone contact, however, are not always possible or feasible, and there are occasions when paper communication can help you to reach your communication goals. The great advantages of print communication are that it can reach more people, and do so with much less expense per person. Written communications are important and necessary in generating interest in an issue.

A tip for written communication: when written communications are mailed, there are factors known to increase the likelihood of a reply. These include:

  • First class (and commemorative) stamps
  • Use of color in paper and design
  • Personalized content (for example, handwritten greetings or signatures)
  • Hand-written or typed addressing, as compared to the use of mailing labels
  • Perceptual contrast and novelty in the overall mailing package

The Message

A persuasive message is more likely to be effective if it:

Gets the audience's attention. Your audience has to physically hear (or see) the message before being persuaded by it. Otherwise, nothing else can happen. Attention to it must come first.

What attracts the audience's attention to your message? The same factors that attract attention to virtually any physical stimulus:

  • Novelty
  • Contrast with other stimuli (something that stands out)
  • Surprise (something unanticipated or unexpected)
  • Aesthetic qualities
  • Color
  • Size
  • Volume
  • Duration

These are basic attention-getting qualities used all the time by professional persuaders. While they won't guarantee that your message will be persuasive, they will increase the chances that your message will gain the attention of your audience, so that the content of your message will have a chance.

While these qualities can attract attention, one must use them carefully. Extreme use (too loud, too bright, overuse of novel characteristics) can actually repel your intended audience. For some audiences, the message must be culturally adapted in order to attract attention. A certain ethnic group may react positively to loud music and bright colors, a tactic that may not be effective in the elderly population, for example. Businesspeople may not tune in to a message containing images of teenage celebrities or pop music.

Is repeated. Research strongly suggests that, in most cases, the more often a message is repeated, the more readily it is believed.

The first time you hear an unfamiliar argument (The school year should be 300 days long; Listening to techno music improves your concentration; We need to defend our country against terrorist attack), you may not be inclined to accept it. But the 20th time you hear it, especially if it comes from several different credible sources, its persuasive value tends to increase, over and above the merits of the argument itself. Skilled persuaders of all kinds know and utilize this strategy, even if their motives may sometimes be suspect.

Offers benefits or rewards to your intended audience. In short, people can be persuaded if there's something in it for them. They will get, or believe they will get, some benefit from buying in to the message or acting a certain way.

What kinds of benefits are used by persuaders? A short list would include:

  • Physical safety
  • Psychological security (self-esteem, confidence)
  • Food or drink (free meal for participating in an event)
  • Money or material goods (free key-chain or t-shirt for attending, money toward opening a savings account)
  • Social approval, status, power, or authority (name in a program for donating to a cause, honorary title)
  • Abstract attributes, such as helpfulness, fairness, or justice ("By acting this way, you are helping children in your neighborhood," "Your participation ensures that justice will be done.")

Of course, you won't be able to offer your audience all of these benefits, nor do you need to. Sometimes one benefit alone will suffice. And the benefit does not actually have to be directly provided; it can be promised, or even implied.

What benefits should you offer? This should depend on the audience you are addressing. A skilled persuader will know as much as possible about one's prospective audience in advance, so that benefits can be offered which meet their particular needs.

If you do this activity, your children will be healthier. Your neighbors will approve of you. Your tax rate will go down. You will look years younger. Our community will feel good about itself. New jobs will be created. You will learn a new money-making skill. These are all examples of benefits, which can, for the right people and under the right circumstances, be very persuasive.

Is paired with something else which is valued or rewarding. Your audience may not perceive much benefit in what you are supporting, or may simply not believe the benefit will occur. But, if your message is linked with something unquestionably rewarding, or someone unquestionably admired, both the benefit value and the persuasive impact will go up. The principle is one of simple pairing.

This is part of the reason why community events are often accompanied by refreshments; food and drink are rewarding. It's also part of the reason why attractive models are so commonly presented together with the persuader's message: "See that appealing professional man or woman whose headache pain vanishes instantly by taking ________? Your headache can vanish in just the same way." (If you know or recognize the model, so much the better.)

Is shown to have low cost attached to it. Cost here means more than money; it can mean time, effort, or more subjective psychological expense. Costs can also involve risks, such as the risk that family members may disapprove, or that the desired action can backfire, leaving you in a worse situation than before.

So, in presenting a message, a persuader will want to minimize the projected costs as well as maximize the benefits: "It won't cost you a cent; there's absolutely no risk to you; it will take just a minute; try it in the privacy of your own home; unconditionally guaranteed." All of these are intended to reduce the perceived costs to the audience member. As before, the persuader will want to know the audience, so that he or she can be most aware of what they perceive as the possible costs, and how they can be minimized.

A message is more likely to be persuasive when it:

  • Is endorsed by others in authority or of high status in the community and/or in your group.
  • Suggests that a benefit offered is scarce, as in "we don't have many left," or "seats are going fast," or "first come, first served."
  • Suggests that a benefit has a time limit or deadline, as in "this is a limited time offer," or "please let us know by the end of the week," or "applications must be received by September 1st."
  • Is consistent with past behavior or expectations of the audience. People resist believing or acting in ways inconsistent with their previous beliefs or actions. But, if your message can be shown to fit with those prior beliefs or actions, to be a natural extension of them, that gives you a persuasive advantage.
  • Appeals to the norms or your audience or your target group. Every group has norms -- a set of behavioral and attitudinal standards, sometimes explicit, but often not. If your message appears to violate these group norms (of propriety, of custom, of written or unwritten rules), it will probably be rejected. If it goes well with those norms, acceptance is more likely.
  • Uses the principle of reciprocity, suggesting, in effect, that the communicator (or someone else) has helped you in the past and now needs some help in return. Or, as a variation (either directly stated or implied), suggest that if you help out now, you can request and receive help at some later date.

The Audience

Finally, some audience principles. Some of these are related to principles expressed before, and can here be stated briefly, this time from the point of view of the receiver.

A persuasive attempt is more likely to be effective when the target person or audience (the two terms here are used synonymously):

  • Knows, likes, and respects the communicator (the communicator is credible).
  • Already believes in the message.
  • Is predisposed to act on behalf of their beliefs.
  • Already has a history of acting (and acting successfully) on behalf of your cause.
  • Is further motivated to act by benefits appealing specifically to them.
  • Is capable of taking the desired action (the action is feasible).
  • Has enough time and resources to take the desired action.

But note: The problem for persuaders is that your target audience often does not know you, does not necessarily agree with you, and may know very little or nothing about the issue at all. Yet, these are often precisely the people you need to win over. To do so will require your using the principles of persuasion we have described.

Where do these principles come from?

A good deal of what we know about persuasion comes from ordinary life experience. Such experience has accumulated and has been written about over thousands of years. Aristotle, for one, wrote about persuasive techniques in the Rhetoric, (4th century B.C.), a book still very much worth reading.

Much of our formal knowledge about persuasion, however, comes from use of the scientific method, and, in particula,r from studies done by social psychologists in the last half of the 20th century. Most of their studies have involved experiments -- varying one factor at a time, and holding other factors constant, so that researchers could be sure that any differences were due to the one factor they varied.

Social-psychological research findings have supplemented daily life experience and have helped us to know more about principles of persuasion than we knew even a generation or two ago. While such findings are not the last word, nor the only word on the topic, they are considered the most definitive body of evidence by most modern scholars of the field.

How can you put these principles into practice?

How can this long list of principles (and it is only partial) best be translated into practice, and into your own persuasion situation?

To begin, every situation is different. The particular persuasion principles you should use will be determined by the nature of your particular circumstances. More specifically, they will be determined by your particular goal, by your particular audience, and by the persuasive resources you have at your disposal. For example, if you want someone to sign a petition, that may call for one type of persuasive approach, but, if you want the same person to volunteer for your cause, or to write a big check, that may require something else. Similarly, it will make a difference if you want to convince one sympathetic person instead of one hundred indifferent ones; or if your campaign budget is five figures, compared to two figures, or no figures at all.

Since each persuasion situation is truly different, it makes sense to understand each situation well and to analyze it carefully before you plunge in. Then you can plan your effort in advance; that is immeasurably important.

What are principles of persuasion?

While your specific persuasive tactics will almost always vary from occasion to occasion, there are, nevertheless, general guidelines that will apply to a very large number of persuasion situations, both written and oral. Below are some of them. Not every one will apply to your setting, nor is it necessary to use every one that does, but, more often than not, when these guidelines are used thoughtfully, your persuasive attempt is more likely to be successful:

Know your facts. Better yet, master your facts; have them at the tip of your tongue -- or at least in a notebook close by your side. Be able to document any claims you make in a level-headed, non-condescending, but also not-overly-humble way. You've researched the evidence; others should know what it says. This is key to being a credible communicator.

Know your audience. How many audience members are there? What kinds of people are they? What is their current opinion on the issue? What is the basis for their opinion? Where do they get their information? What are their own needs and interests? What arguments are most likely to persuade them?

Suppose, in one case, your audience was high school athletes; in another, hog farmers; in another, an evangelical church congregation; in another, your camping buddies. Yet, suppose the issue at hand was basically the same (healthy eating habits, for example). Wouldn't the particulars of your persuasive approach be different? Wouldn't your message be more effective if it were tailored for each particular target group?

You don't have to persuade every single audience member, or even try. But, the more you know about your audience in advance of your persuasive attempt, the better you will be able to design effective arguments specifically for them. Saul Alinsky, the famous community organizer, was once quoted as saying, "Never go outside the experience of your people." We think he was right.

Express the similarities between you and your audience. Bring out your common values, beliefs, and experiences, because similarity between communicator and audience increases persuasiveness. A few broad examples:

  • We all want our kids to grow up in a safe community.
  • I feel exactly as you do.
  • I grew up the hard way, just like you folks here.

The similarities you convey shouldn't be invented; they should be genuine, and stated sincerely.

Utilize opinion leaders. Even if you have mastered your facts and expressed your similarities, you may not be as credible a communicator as others who have more visibility or stature in your community. For most community issues, and probably for your issue too, one can identify opinion leaders -- people who are well-respected and/or well-liked where you live, and whose opinion is likely to matter to your target audience.

These opinion leaders may be ministers, politicians, business executives, newspaper columnists, school principals, agency directors, club presidents, neighborhood activists, coaches, or others without specific titles. Whoever they are, they can sway your intended audience better than you can, so find out who they are for your issues. Try to win their support. (Of course, to do that, you are going to need to know your facts, and to use other principles of persuasion as well.)

Once opinion leaders are on your side, you can ask them for testimonials or endorsements. You can ask one opinion leader to influence another. Most importantly, you can ask them, quite directly, to influence their own constituencies. By doing so, you are using social leverage, a principle as powerful in the social world as mechanical levers are in the physical one.

Make a strong opening. The opening (of a speech, of a letter, of a brochure) is when audience attention is at its highest, and when its opinion is the most flexible. Use your opening to capture attention and shape opinion. In oral persuasion, a good first impression, including a nonverbal one, is essential. In both oral and written persuasion, a starting sentence or two outlining your main argument and stated with confidence will assuredly help. This is also a good place for humor, if you choose to use it. Humor can break down walls more easily than you would expect.

Get to the point. Perhaps not in the very first line, but very soon thereafter. It's a fast-paced world most people live in; your audience doesn't have time to waste. If you wait too long, you can lose people's attention, as well as your credibility. When you lose attention and credibility, few will be persuaded. Even if you are on target, don't fire away too long. Know when to stop. Make your main points concisely, sum things up, then get out of the way. This is one way of showing respect for your audience; they will appreciate it and you.

Offer a benefit (or a few) supporting your position. Maximize the benefits of your stance as best you can. The benefits should be customized to your audience -- that same audience that you have already studied. If your audience is most motivated by economic security, speak to dollars and cents. If they are most spurred by community pride, or crime in the streets, or (fill in the blank), speak to that.

In a nutshell, identify the benefits with the greatest appeal to your audience, and use them accordingly.

Minimize the costs

Inoculate your audience against counter-arguments they may hear from the other side or create for themselves. It's often best to anticipate and rebut opposing arguments in advance, unless you believe your audience will never hear other points of view, or there is very little possibility of resistance or opposition. For example:

  • "Our opponents will tell you this, that, and the other, but you and I know full well that..."
  • "Now I know that you may be thinking such-and-such; I used to think the same way myself. But after a while, I came to realize that..."

Ask for an action step. In community work, it's often not enough that someone is persuaded by your argument; you also want them to act once the argument is presented to them. You want them to join a committee, or give money, or vote, or answer the survey, or do something else. Now is the best time to make that action request.

Researchers studying volunteering have asked people this question: "What led you to volunteer for (X)?" The response most commonly given is "Somebody asked me." In other words, people will help you if you ask.

Make the action step clear. What is it exactly that people are being asked to do? Yes, you want them to support you, but precisely how? Sure, you need their help -- but in what particular way? Make your action request unambiguous and specific.

Make the action step simple. The requested action usually should not require much expense -- of time, money, or psychic energy -- for the doer. (One significant exception is in personalized fund-raising campaigns with wealthier donors, when it's common to ask for the largest gift the donor can afford.)

A corollary is that the action step should be feasible. Sending in a coupon may be easily doable, but calling one's legislator may be difficult for those with no background in politics, and hosting a neighborhood coffee may pose problems for someone working the night shift.

Have a variety of action steps available. What is sometimes called an action menu. If the target person hesitates to accept a larger portion, offer a smaller one. If someone cannot attend meetings, could they write a short letter, or drop a few leaflets on the block, or even just stay on the mailing list?

You might want to request the largest action first, which suggests that the different menu items need not all be displayed at the same time. But in any case, be sure to:

Obtain a commitment to take the step. If someone makes a commitment, effectively saying "Yes, I will do it," that increases the likelihood that the action step will indeed be taken.

Commitments tend to be more effective when they are made publicly, in the presence of others; the person making the commitment feels more accountable. But even private commitments -- especially if written, as in a pledge -- are usually better than no commitments at all. What's more, those making and fulfilling smaller commitments are more likely to make larger commitments later on, compared to those who have committed nothing. This supports the desirability of obtaining even modest commitments when you can.

Use models, in addition to opinion leaders. Models, in this sense, are people who have taken the desired action, have benefited from it, and are willing to say so publicly. An effective model need not be an opinion leader; she can be a family member, a co-worker, a neighbor down the street, or anyone else the target person knows, likes, and respects. Models are peers working with you to influence your target audience. If that model publicly performs the desired action, or says that she has gained from it, that is likely to have positive persuasive impact.

Repeat the message as necessary. Especially if the content of the message is unfamiliar or new. The idea is not to overkill, or to make a nuisance of oneself -- repetition can be overdone -- but to make sure that the message and the requested action have fully registered. Persuasion can take time. Your audience members may not be prepared to respond on the first, second, or third exposure; they may need to see or hear your message on many more occasions before it sinks in and they are ready to act. Repeat as needed, be patient, and make repetition your ally.

In the world of government, political consultants frequently employ a similar three-part strategy for winning local elections and campaigns: (a) target your likely voters; (b) give them your message; and (c) give it to them again.

Thank the target person. "That's great! We really appreciate it!" Even if no commitment is made, thank the person for listening, and for the consideration given. Verbal approval, even a 'thank you' is reinforcing; it strengthens the likelihood that more commitments (both first-time commitments and subsequent ones) will be made and actions will be taken in the future.

Follow up. Ensure the committed action has in fact been taken. Did the voter show up at the polls? Was the check received? This can be done in a friendly and polite way: "Have you been able to...?"; "Did you have a chance to...?" For human beings, there is a natural distance between intention and action; your role here is to help bridge it. When the action has been taken, thank the target person once again.

Keep the target person informed. "Your support meant that a new program can be developed for youth in our community," "Because of you, we were able to feed three additional families this holiday season." People like to know that their actions have made a positive difference.

When applying these guidelines, here are three more thoughts to keep in mind:

  • Persuasive technique helps, but it helps more when it's not applied mechanically, by the numbers. You don't want to get so caught up in technique that you shut off your own human nature.

Know good technique, and use it. But, unless the situation is very formal (a legal proceeding; a technical report), some expression of your natural self is likely to strengthen your position. Cool and remote perfection is neither expected nor desired.. Quite the contrary; in your audience's eyes, a certain amount of admitted imperfection, combined with sincerity of conviction and demonstration of natural feeling, will often count for more than dry persuasion technique.

  • Keep aware of the humanity of the people with whom you are working. They are also humans, with strengths and flaws. In community persuasion situations, when you are relating to people you know and may have continuing relationships with, it's especially important to treat your target group with caring and respect.

This doesn't mean you can't argue strongly, making full use of the principles we have described. But it does mean you should normally minimize disparaging comment or personal attack. Such approaches are pragmatically questionable, but particularly so on a local level. You may have to deal with the same people in your community again, and, if you have insulted them or alienated them or distanced them, they will be less likely to want to work together with you in another situation, even when you may agree with and need each other.

  • Moral values may also come into play. Consider that your possible opponents are also your neighbors. You might ask, "How would I feel if someone used these persuasive tactics on me?", and be guided accordingly. Never use persuasion to manipulate your audience without integrity.

In Summary

To reflect on the principles of persuasion, try visualizing a bridge on which your target person or audience stands. The left side of the bridge represents no knowledge of or interest in your issue; the right side represents the desired action -- that is, your goal. Some intermediate markers along the bridge are attention, understanding, and intent.

Your target person may be anywhere on the bridge. Your task as persuader is to move that person along the bridge toward your goal -- gradually if needed, but no slower than necessary. You may want to move them from no knowledge to attention, or from attention to understanding, or from understanding to intent, or from intent to action; whatever the case may be.

Using principles of persuasion effectively and with integrity can accomplish your goals to create and maintain healthy communities.

Contributor 
Bill Berkowitz

Print Resources

Berkowitz, B. (In press). Community and neighborhood organization. In J. Rappaport & E. Seidman (Eds.), Handbook of community psychology. New York: Plenum.

Cialdini, R. B. (1993). Influence: Science and practice (3rd ed.). New York : HarperCollins.

Karlins, M., & Abelson, H. I. (1970). Persuasion: How opinions and attitudes are changed. New York: Springer.

Oskamp, S., & Schultz, P. W. (1998). Applied social psychology (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Petty, R. E., & Wegener, D. T. (1998). Attitude change: Multiple roles for persuasion variables. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (4th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 323-390). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Petty, R. E., Wegener, D. T., & Fabrigar, L. R. (1997). Attitudes and attitude change. Annual Review of Psychology, 48, 609-647.

Pratkanis, A. R., & Aronson, E. (1992). Age of propaganda: The everyday use and abuse of persuasion. New York: W. H. Freeman.