To convince others to modify their own ideas and accept yours, you need to show that you care about them and that your ideas fit into their interests. This is the approach communication specialist Liz Simpson recommends:
To succeed at the persuasion game, you have to be absolutely committed to understanding the other side’s position as well as your own. Without that willingness to try on the other side’s arguments, you simply cannot be persuasive. From that understanding will come the insights you need to move the other side over to your camp.2
This is true not only for ideas but also for products and services. Your best argument is always one that meets the needs and wants of your audience.
Understanding the needs and values of others is not simple. It requires a strong listening orientation. You will need to ask lots of questions to get beyond a surface understanding about the hopes, expectations, and hidden assumptions of your target audience. Once you know your target audience’s needs and values, you are in a strong position to explain how your product, service, or idea benefits them.
In addition to understanding the needs and values of your target audience, you should consider the psychological principles that impact how people are influenced. Also, you should consider whether you are making a logical appeal or an emotional one in your persuasive messages.
Dr. Robert Cialdini, a marketing psychologist, has spent his career studying how people are influenced in business and marketing environments. He has examined research in this area for four decades, plus he spent three years taking undercover jobs in car dealerships, telemarketing firms, fund-raising organizations, and other buyer-seller environments to learn the most influential ways of getting people to say yes. Based on his work, he has identified six principles of persuasion (aside from the price and quality of products and services). These principles include reciprocation, consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity.3 Haniz’s message to recruit credit union members for the Hope Walkathon offers an interesting example for applying these various principles (see Figure 9.7, p. 258, for her completed message).
Reciprocation is a principle of influence based on returning favors. As defined by Cialdini, “We should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided us.”4 Cialdini cited an interesting study in which a professor sent Christmas cards to a random sample of strangers to see what would happen. Many of the card recipients reciprocated, sending cards to the professor without attempting to find out who he was. The study showed that even card receivers who did not know the card sender and who might not interact with the card sender in the future felt compelled to return the favor of sending a card. People tend to feel obligated to pay back others when they’ve received something of value.5
Haniz uses the principle of reciprocation in her message in several ways. For example, she focuses on a lengthy reciprocal relationship that the credit union has with the local breast cancer center, and the walkathon serves as the mechanism that draws the two organizations together. The credit union helps the center by generating walkathon donations, and the center helps the credit union and the larger community through more effective breast cancer treatment and education. Furthermore, the message implies a reciprocal relationship between the credit union and its members by offering various free items, such as a T-shirt, a water bottle, and a cancer guide, to members who are willing to participate in the walkathon.
Consistency is based on the idea that once people make an explicit commitment, they tend to follow through or honor that commitment. In other words, they want to stay consistent with their original commitment. Cialdini cited several studies to make this point. In one, psychologists found that horse racing fans become more confident that their horses would win after placing a bet. Once they made a final commitment, they were further convinced of the correctness of their choice.6
Haniz appeals to commitment and consistency in several ways. Foremost, she appeals to the credit union’s long commitment to the fight against breast cancer. Some credit union members will want to continue to honor this long-standing collective commitment and will appreciate that their credit union is doing so. She also provides links in the message for people to immediately act on their interest in the walkathon. A link to register right now serves as an immediate commitment to participate.
Social proof is a principle of influence whereby people determine what is right, correct, or desirable by seeing what others do. Haniz employs several appeals to social proof in her letter. She describes the level of participation and contribution among members in last year’s walkathon, implying that the popularity and financial impact of this event make it a good cause. Also, the walkathon itself is a type of social proof; the gathering of thousands of people wearing team T-shirts and marching in unison for a cause is powerful imagery.7
Liking is a principle of influence whereby people are more likely to be persuaded by people who they like.8 Haniz appeals directly to this principle by describing Betty Williams, who is a breast cancer survivor, the benefactor of the breast center, a credit union member, and a participant in the walkathon. Betty Williams is presumably a person most people in the community know and like, a woman who many of the credit union members may know from running into her at the credit union or other community events, and a woman who is passionate about an important cause (a reason for liking). Haniz emphasizes in the message that walkathon participants will join this likable and respected community member at the walkathon.
Authority is a principle of influence whereby people follow authority figures. The number of celebrity endorsements in advertising is evidence of how authority can impact persuasion.9 Although Haniz does not appeal to a national celebrity, she does appeal to a prominent local community member—again Betty Williams. With Betty’s level of influence and personal experience combating cancer, she is likely seen as an authority. Furthermore, Haniz also appeals to members to support the Betty Williams Breast Center, a group of expert professionals who collectively are authorities on breast cancer.
Scarcity is a principle of influence whereby people think there is limited availability of something they want or need, so they must act quickly.10 Haniz employs this principle in terms of time. She explains that the walkathon occurs only once each year (limited time period to participate) and that participants must sign up by a given deadline (limited time period to sign up).
You will apply these principles most often in external persuasive messages, and you should always apply them fairly. Cialdini describes them as “weapons of influence.”11 The very term weapons implies that they are powerful and can do harm. In the “Apply the FAIR Test” section near the end of the chapter, we further discuss the appropriate use of these principles.
Most people justify their business decisions based on the soundness of ideas, not feelings. Savvy business communicators, however, understand the importance of injecting emotion into their persuasive messages. While they appreciate the place of reason in business and consumer decisions, they understand that resistance to ideas, products, and services is often emotional. Conversely, they are aware that their target audiences often possess strong emotional attachment to competing ideas, products, and services. Thus, effective communicators find ways to appeal to the core emotional benefits of products, services, and ideas.12
Even in internal persuasive messages, emotional appeals are critical, as indicated by Craig Conway, president and CEO of PeopleSoft:
Good communicators have an enormous advantage over poor communicators because so much of running a company is inspirational. … You just have to be able to persuade people that they are a part of something bigger. If you have a creative vision and you can communicate it in a compelling way to get people excited, you will recruit better people as a result. Then, it is easy to convince the world that you have a more dynamic company.13
Part of understanding your audience is identifying the needs and values that resonate emotionally for them.
Typically, internal persuasive messages focus mostly on logical appeals. External persuasive messages, with the exception of those that emphasize price, generally include strong emotional appeals. As you develop persuasive messages, think about how to get the right mix of logical and emotional appeals. Generally, you will supply both but emphasize one or the other. Keep in mind that even when you choose to make strong emotional appeals in written messages, you should generally avoid the tone of mass advertising, where exaggeration, sarcasm, and over-the-top appeals are acceptable and even effective. Later in the chapter, you will notice several messages created by Haniz and Christine—two based more strongly on logical appeals (Figures 9.5 and 9.8) and two on emotional appeals (Figures 9.7 and 9.9).