Whether you’re pitching ideas, teaching young people, or mentoring fellow Toastmasters, much of our communication time is spent trying to motivate and influence others. Three concepts are particularly important when it comes to persuading people: framing the positive, focusing on the benefits and understanding the underlying resistance.
Frame to Gain
Let’s say you face an awful choice: Your doctor says your only hope of overcoming a debilitating disease is taking advantage of an experimental treatment. Would you be more willing to do that treatment if you were told it had a 67% failure rate—or a 33% success rate? If you are like most people, it would be the latter. Language matters in persuasion. How you state what you want done—how you frame it, in other words—can influence the eventual outcome.
Whenever possible, frame your message in positive terms. A simple example of this effect can be seen in advertising, where the words “new and improved” are often put on products even though all that has changed is the packaging. The word choice and framing you use affects perception, attitudes and behaviors.
Focus on the Ultimate Benefit
Broccoli is the bane of my existence. Trying to get my kids to eat this cruciferous vegetable has frustrated me for years. Then one day, I decided to try some of the persuasion principles I teach my MBA students. To my delight, I was eventually able to get my kids to eat their veggies without a battle, but not before trying a few techniques.
When attempting to persuade, consider the incentive that will lead to the change you want. Many effective persuasion efforts focus on “what’s in it for me” by explaining why you should make the change being suggested: Eat this broccoli because it will make you strong. Invest in this company so you can earn great future returns. Drive this car so you can impress a prospective romantic partner. By highlighting the positive, you focus on the benefits or positive outcomes of enacting the change.
“Language matters in persuasion. How you state what you want done— how you frame it, in other words—can influence the eventual outcome.”
Determine What Inhibits Change
However, focusing on the ultimate benefit is not always enough to effect change. You must consider what is preventing someone from changing. In our broccoli battles, my kids very clearly understood the benefits of eating their greens. However, they could not get beyond the texture and taste. These visceral responses prevented them from taking even a few small bites. By understanding the ultimate problem, I did a little culinary cover-up (dipping sauces and ice cream sprinkles) and was able to break down their distasteful barriers and achieve victory.
Failing to address what is causing resistance can actually make the problem more difficult to overcome. People can become frustrated if they desire the change you are promoting but can’t get beyond the forces restraining the behavior. For example, consider a typical campaign to get sedentary people to exercise more. The promoting arguments are clear and desirable—greater health, more energy, etc. However, new exercise regimens take time and energy and involve potential pain, which can be intimidating and prevent people from starting. If people are bombarded solely with cheerleading messages, they might begin to resent anyone who tries to help them be healthy—they are focused more on their inability or unwillingness to exercise. A more complete and effective campaign would focus not only on the benefits but on developing less strenuous and less time-consuming workouts.
The bottom line is that your persuasion efforts can be augmented by crafting your messages so they appear beneficial to your target audience, while also considering what may inhibit them from taking on your desired change. So the next time you present, take time to learn about what motivates and inspires your audience and also consider what might cause them to be hesitant and resistant.
Watch the video below of Matt Abrahams to learn additional techniques on how to make your ideas better resonate with your audience.
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Matt Abrahams is a lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Business, the author of Think Faster, Talk Smarter: How to Speak Successfully When You're Put on the Spot and Speaking Up Without Freaking Out. He also hosts Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast.