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Example #1: Situation Application

Let's consider some persuasion situations taken from life, and offer some brief responses. The responses draw upon and build upon what you've read in this section. They are meant to be suggestive rather than definitive, and to provide the framework for a more complete analysis -- and also to get your own thoughts flowing.

I've never given a speech before, but now I have to speak for my group before a crowd of 100 people. I'm scared out of my boots. How can I possibly get through this?

You're not the first person in this situation, and you won't be the last. Here are a few tips: Know your audience. Speak to their needs. Make notes and use them. Practice your talk frequently, out loud, standing up. Visualize yourself at the event, giving a great presentation.

Depending on your audience, you can refer (but once or twice only) to your nervousness; use it to win them to your side. They will empathize (who hasn't been a bit nervous to speak in front of a group?) and remember that you are willing to stand up because you believe in what you are talking about. Let your belief and passion shine through and carry you forward. People may not always agree with what you say, but they will usually be affected by, and sometimes be swayed by, the energy and conviction of how you say it.

The speech is over; you've done it! Now, ask for feedback from people whose opinions you respect. Use it to improve next time.

I'm speaking [or writing] on behalf of X, but the people I'm speaking to are mostly opposed to X. Many of them actually hate X. They strongly favor Y. What can I do to win them over?

First, don't get caught by surprise; if you're going into the lion's den, know it in advance, and come prepared to deal with lions. Second, acknowledge your disagreements openly, calmly, and early on; show respect for the opinion-holders, if not also for the opinion itself. Third, keep your cool. Fourth, deal with the facts. Fifth, don't expect to convert your audience in one presentation; it won't happen.

But, sixth, look for areas where you and your audience agree, and for similarities between X and Y. This may require thought, but find those overlap areas and discuss them. Use those agreements as a wedge. Show how your beliefs follow from your common starting point. At the end, thank the audience for their attention, but leave by having planted some seeds of doubt. Later, find some way (through you or others) for those seeds to grow.

We've developed a training program on __________ [starting a new business? organizing a playgroup? home security?]. We've tested it; we know it's good. Now we want our members to come get trained. We've got a membership list of 200 people, and we've started to draft our letter. What should we say in our letter to get the best attendance?

First, check your premises: If the training is really valuable and important to you, are you sure you can't call all these people, or divide the calls among your core group? Calls plus mailings will work better than either one alone. Also, are you sure you want to limit yourself to your own members? Maybe the general public, or parts of it, would be interested, in which case you might want to use other media.

But, suppose you do a mailing. Here's a partial checklist:

  • Use high quality stationery and envelopes. Handwrite the addresses. Apply relevant commemorative stamps. Use individual names for letters. Open with a strong first sentence that grabs attention and/or conveys a benefit your target audience wants. (Know your audience.) Consider accompanying the letter with a brochure or other material giving more detail. If you are mailing forms or registration materials and would like them sent back to you, include a stamped, addressed envelope for the return.
  • Explain in the letter how the training will meet your members' (or the community's) needs and how it can be used. Emphasize the fun aspects of the training, if applicable. Show how your training is superior to possible competitors. Stress low cost and convenience. Use endorsers and testimonials as needed.
  • Then tell readers exactly what you want them to do now (Call to reserve? Send a deposit? Tell, or bring, their friends? Simply show up?). Make it as easy as possible to respond. Repeat the key points at the end. Thank the reader.
  • Review the draft and have others do so, too. Be prepared to revise several times until you've got it right. Hand-sign the letter.
  • Follow up as needed. Measure your turnout; then evaluate and learn from your experience.

I'm working on an important health issue, but no one in the community seems to know much about it. It's relatively new, but it's potentially serious, if we don't take action soon.

Getting people to act on an unfamiliar issue about which they have little knowledge or personal investment takes time. Be prepared for a long-term effort. Plan your approach carefully and in advance. Marshal your facts. Think of a slogan or logo for your campaign that is catchy and easily remembered. Aim gradually to build a strong and active core group.

In this case, consider personalizing the situation, showing how inaction led to negative consequences for someone your target audience knows. Audio-visual aids may help, such as slides, graphs, or photographs blown up to large-scale proportions. There is also a possible place for controlled emotion or restrained dramatics in this situation.

Use opinion leaders to apply leverage. Use the media thoughtfully as well. Throughout your work, give people some small but specific actions they can take, consistent with what you know about them; at the beginning, this may be as little as staying on a mailing list.

Repeat your message. Keep repeating it. Finally, if the issue will be around for a while, you want to make sure you will be, too. So spread the responsibility. Develop new leadership. And pace yourself: take small, specific, continuous steps, but also keep working for the long haul.

Example #2: Persuasion Ethics

But is it ethical to persuade...? (And when should you be a persuader?)

What about the ethics of all this? Isn't persuasion vaguely unethical or, worse, manipulative? Is it really ethical for someone to use persuasive skills to encourage you to do something you might not want to do?

This is an important and often-debated question with a long history. We won't review that debate here, but we'll sum up our position by saying that, in our opinion, for people working to improve their communities, it is ethical to persuade most of the time.

It is ethical because of our assumption that what you want is socially desirable and has social value that transcends your personal welfare. We assume what you want others to do has a social benefit, both for those others and perhaps also for the larger community. To attempt to convince others of this is ethically proper; it is all the more proper to the extent you are right.

We can flip this argument around and suggest that if what you are arguing for has social value, you may have an actual obligation to persuade others. You may have not simply a right, but perhaps also a duty. What do you think?

What about the recipient of persuasion, who may seem defenseless against a well-trained persuader?

Our view is that, most of the time, it's the responsibility of the person being persuaded -- this means us -- to know that he or she may be exposed to persuasive attempts as a normal part of living. The persuader is not ethically obliged to inform the other that he or she is attempting to be persuasive. In addition, being a responsible adult in our society means to be able to reject or accept persuasive attempts as one sees fit. And it also means to be open to persuasive attempts, at least sometimes, and not just to resist them automatically at all costs.

There are exceptions. Persuasion is unethical if the recipient is not free to say no, or not free to leave the situation, or not free to avoid more persuasive messages. Persuasion is also unethical if the persuader makes threats against the welfare of another, or intimates that failure to comply will result in physical or psychological harm to the recipient or to someone the recipient cares about.

These examples are what we call coercive persuasion. In our view (and most others) they are unethical and out of bounds, especially for community builders.

Still, it is important to distinguish those coercive attempts from other persuasive attempts which may be forceful, clever, vigorous, and elaborate, yet also respectful, and which also permit the target person to say no and accept the answer..

Example #3: OAQs (Occasionally Asked Questions)

What about fear?

Generally speaking, the research evidence suggests that fear appeals, or persuasion by scaring people, tend not to be effective in changing behavior. There are exceptions, for example, when the target persons believe that the fear-producing event is likely to happen, that it will affect them personally, that it will be highly unpleasant, and that immediate and specific action can be taken to reduce the fear, then fear-producing tactics can be effective. But simply instilling fear in people by itself, when the above conditions are not present, does not seem to work very well.

What about humor?

Some places where humor may help: (a) at the beginning, to capture attention and to create a sense of similarity with the audience; (b) after a serious or technical part of your presentation, where the humor contrasts with what's happened before, and serves as a rest stop, or as comic relief; and (c) to lighten the weight of an action request, as in "When you hand in your pledge cards, you can write a zero on it if you want...or even a couple of them. Just make sure you've put some other number to the left of all those zeros." Be sure to know what kind of humor is appropriate for your audience and situation.

Some places where humor may not help: (a) when humor detracts from the underlying seriousness of your message; (b) when it distracts the audience from paying attention to what you are saying (they are so busy laughing); (c) when it undermines your own persuasive authority; and (d) when it is inappropriate for the occasion (a masters thesis, a police investigation, most instruction manuals).

What about emotion?

When emotion may be called for: (a) when you have genuine feelings about the issue; (b) when your audience is less receptive to factual argument; (c) when the emotion complements, but does not substitute for, the main message; (d) when you are willing to take some risk; and (e) when nothing else seems to have worked.

And when its less appropriate: (a) when your emotion (like humor above) diminishes your credibility; (b) when emotion is overused, overdramatic, or uncontrolled; and (c) when the emotion (again, as with humor) doesn't fit with the setting.

Generally speaking, emotion is better suited to oral rather than written persuasion. In oral communication, you are more likely to know your audience, and you can use its feedback to make immediate adjustments. You can't do that with written communication -- and you are far less likely to know who may eventually see a written document.

Humor and emotion should be used with caution. In persuasion situations, they resemble lighter fluid; they can start a fire rather easily; but without careful attention, that fire can spring out of control.