“A listener is persuaded if he likes what you promise, fears what you threaten, hates what you censure . . . and so on in regard to whatever else in the way of moving the hearts of an audience is possible through powerful eloquence, not that they may know what they must do, but that they may do what they already know they ought to do.” St. Augustine
Persuasion is part of our everyday lives. We use social media to convince our followers that we’ve got it all together. We compose a persuasive email aimed at producing positive changes in our company. We send a text in attempt to get a friend to ditch her plans and grab dinner with us. Even though we do it every day, persuasion is a skill we can work to improve, not for the sake of manipulation, but to make our messages more effective and to move society forward. The key to better persuasion is abandoning general appeals and getting specific with our messages.
Don’t Waste Energy on Generalities.
You’ve been asked to develop a persuasive presentation on why your company needs to start a recycling initiative. You might be tempted to start your message with why the company should recycle, but that would be a mistake. Why? Everyone already knows it’s important. It’s wasted energy. You might give some statistics on recycling, but you don’t need to spend a lot of time convincing your audience about what they already know. Read that last line from St. Augustine again, “not that they may know what they must do, but that they may do what they already know they ought to do.”
As another example, say you are trying to persuade a misogynistic coworker to see the fault in his ways. General statements about equality probably won’t do much to change his actions. He’s probably heard them before, but it hasn’t changed his actions. When we are trying to move people, we need to get away from large, sweeping statements. Why? We can hold these at a distance because they don’t affect us on a personal level. To really move people, we’ve got to get specific.
Spend Time on Specifics.
General messages don’t tell our audience what we really want. And if someone is confused or unsure, he won’t be moved. In an interview with CBS News, author Nicholas Boothman said, “It’s no good saying to my daughter, ‘Don’t mess up your room,’ when I mean, ‘[Clean] your room.’ If you say to a customer, ‘Don’t hesitate to contact me,’ they don’t know what you mean. What you really mean is, ‘Phone me Friday,’ or, ‘Call me if you need some help.’” In order for persuasion to be effective, it must be specific. One study found that “persuasive communication is particularly effective when tailored to people’s unique psychological characteristics and motivations.” The specific and tailored ads studied resulted in up to 40% more clicks and up to 50% more purchases than their more generic counterparts.
Let’s revisit the cases mentioned above, trying to use more specific persuasive appeals.
Instead of saying: Our company needs to recycle as part of our green initiative.
Say: We’ll be placing recycling containers throughout the building as part of our green initiative. You’ll be able to easily recycle because you’ll never be more than 99 steps away from a receptacle. At the end of my presentation, I’ll distribute a map that shows you where you can find each one.
Instead of saying: Women deserve to be respected.
Say: Paul, when you interrupt your female coworkers like you did with Julie during the meeting this morning, it shows disrespect for women. Please stop interrupting us.
When constructing your persuasive appeals, whether in an email or in a presentation, think about what you audience already knows. Don’t waste time addressing those things. Instead, focus on the specific messages that can help produce clarity and change.
For more ways to become a more effective communicator, check out our results-driven online presentation skills course.