Using Principles of Persuasion 

Copyright Community Toolbox

Contributed by Bill Berkowitz
Edited by Phil Rabinowitz & Timothy J. Brownlee  

  • What is persuasion as a natural process?      
  • 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. 

Examples: 

  • 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 as well, 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, for that's when we need the car. From another angle, a large percentage of our communications 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. That's what communication is. 

More than that -- if you are in a leadership position, a position of authority and responsibility, you 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. Then, to focus in on this section, if you want to promote interest in a community issue (or to do pretty much anything else) learning more about persuasion should pay off. And it does. 

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 own goals. It's no more complicated than that. There's also an unstated assumption behind this reasoning, to which we subscribe; it is that there are tested principles of persuasion that can both be 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 be 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. Giving some instruction is our goal for this section. Applying that instruction can be yours. 

If you are not yet convinced so far, look at it this way: Your own goals are valuable and worthwhile -- otherwise, you wouldn't have them. So why not use the best persuasive principles available to help you reach them? 

It is important to note that there are many long-lived debates regarding the ethics of using principles of persuasion. These issues are discussed in greater detail in the Related Topics Section. 

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 specifically to most other sections in this chapter on creating community interest in an issue. Those other sections will also introduce additional principles of their own. Our 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 altogether. As you read further, it may help you to think of applications to both oral and written persuasion situations you may come across yourself. 

So, now the principles in any persuasion situation, there is (a) a communicator , who uses (b) a format to deliver (c) a message to (d) an audience. There are principles relating to all four of these, and we will present them here in order, with some illustrations. One caution, though: persuasion is a large, complex, and subtle subject. Since we have limited space, what follows is a condensed and not fully complete description. 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: 

1. Credible, or believable, both (a) in general, and (b) for the particular issue. In other words, the person or audience receiving the communication must believe you. 

What leads to being believed? 

In large part, it's one's qualifications, and one's 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.

2. Knowledgeable, on the particular matter at hand. Expertise makes one a more credible communicator; but the 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. (Perhaps a little bit more; perceived expertise does generalize to a degree.) On the other hand, the refrigerator repairman may know very little about cars, medicine, or the outside world in general. But when it comes to diagnosing and fixing your leaky refrigerator, that is his area of expertise. For refrigerators, he is a persuasive communicator.

3. Similar to the target person or audience in (a) background, and (b) values. Other things equal, people are more likely to be persuaded by those they see as similar to themselves in (for example) age, cultural background, and lifestyle. 

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 older spokespersons' attractive and healthy-looking older spokespersons, possibly just like you.

Credibility, knowledgeability, and similarity are interrelated -- that is, someone similar may also seem more credible, and so on. But in addition:

4. We are influenced by communicator characteristics, especially nonverbal characteristics, which are seemingly irrelevant to the communication. 

Other things equal, we are more likely to be persuaded by communicators who are physically attractive, 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: 

5. 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 (see Principle #6 below). 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. 

But face-to-face and telephone contact are not always possible or feasible. 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. And when such communications are mailed, there are factors known to increase the likelihood of a reply. These include: (a) first class (and commemorative) stamps: (b) use of color, in paper and design; (c) personalized content (for example, handwritten); (d) hand- or typed addressing, as vs. the use of mailing labels; and (e) perceptual contrast and novelty in the overall mailing package.

The Message 

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

6. 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 must come first. 

What attracts the audience's attention to your message? 

The same factors that attract attention to virtually any physical stimulus: (a ) novelty; (b) contrast with other stimuli (something that stands out); (c) surprise (something unanticipated or unexpected); (d) color; (e) size; (f) loudness; and (g ) duration. 

These are basic attention-getting qualities, used all the time by professional persuaders. (There are some exceptions and limits; extremes can be disturbing.) While they won't guarantee that your message will be persuasive, they will increase the chances that your message will gain attention and get entry into your audience's cognitive system, so that the content of your message will have a fighting chance.

7. Is repeated. Research strongly suggests that in most cases the more a message is repeated, the more one comes to believe it. 

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 __________ 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 this, even if their motives may sometimes be suspect.

8. Offers benefits or rewards to your intended audience. In plain terms, people are persuaded because there's something in it for them. They will get, or believe they will get, some benefit from believing as you do, or acting as you wish them to. 

What kinds of benefits are there? A short list would include physical safety, psychological security, food, drink, money, sexual gratification (or sexual attractiveness), money, material goods, social approval, status, power, authority, self-esteem -- and sometimes more abstract benefits such as helpfulness, fairness, and justice. 

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 X, 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.

9. Is paired with something else which is valued or rewarding. Your audience may not perceive much benefit to 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. When they are paired with some other event or message -- even if indirectly -- that event or message acquires greater persuasive value, through pairing alone. 

And this is 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.)

10. 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 to maximize the benefits. As in, "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. 

Some additional principles, in shorter form: 

A message is more likely to be persuasive when it:

11. Is endorsed by others in authority or of high status in the community, and/or in your group. See under opinion leaders, in the following main heading. 

12. 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." 

13. 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 1." 

14. 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. 

15. 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. 

16. 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), suggesting 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 one's 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 often your target audience 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 call upon your using other 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.  

But much of our formal knowledge about persuasion comes from use of the scientific method, and in particular 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 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?

These are a lot of principles. (And it's a partial list.) How can they best be translated into practice, and into your own persuasion situation? 

To begin with, 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 as versus 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, to analyze it carefully, before you plunge in. Analysis means identifying your goal, your audience, and your resources, as noted above. 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 own 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: 

1. Know your facts. This is key to being a credible communicator. 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. 

2. 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 behind 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. Wouldn't the particulars of your persuasive approach be different? Wouldn't your message be more effective if it were tailored for your 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. 

3. 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. 

4. 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 for 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. 

5. 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

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