Influencing other people

The Science of Persuasion: Know Your Audience

Every single day, leaders around the world try to influence others to perform certain tasks, support their decisions and advocate for certain ideas. Even for us non-leaders, we still can find ourselves constantly selling ideas, seeking support or asking/negotiating for resources. To achieve these goals, we all have to persuade others to accept these influence attempts.

But how exactly can we do this effectively?

Social and experimental psychologists have been trying to figure out how people become persuaded and if they are influenced by certain tactics, to what degree. Nearly a century of research on such topics has yielded a lot of valuable findings. Many have been using these findings to sell goods and services to customers, get a political candidate to a favorable position or simply have a successful presentation.

To understand the components of effective persuasion, scientists first looked at the basic mechanisms of how people become influenced. It all starts from the readiness of those who we try to persuade: Are they motivated to process the information we try to communicate? What kind of motivation do they have?

According to a model developed by Professor Petty from The Ohio State University, most people are motivated by seeking correct information.[1] This will drive people to actively communicate with and listen to others to gather information on certain topics. Therefore, to pursue any forms of persuasion, it is important to gather as much credible information as possible in order to support your arguments.

However, people’s motivation to seek correctness can be affected by many other factors. These factors can affect an individual’s levels of engagement, the ability to comprehend the information presented and their willingness to actively process the conversation.

The first factor is the audience’s involvement in the matter of persuasion. People will be more attentive and active in the conversation if the topic is related to their self-interest; they probably won’t pay too much attention if they see little relevance to themselves in the topic. That’s why politicians have to tailor their speeches to different populations to gain support.

However, if you are trying to persuade people against their self-interests, where their involvement is also high, some of these folks may become defensive instead of seeking the truth.[2] Therefore, if you try to make a person drop his/her previous belief and accept something new, you’d better have a very strong argument, make your audience realize what you are arguing is for their benefit — along with some other persuasion tactics we will discuss in future blogs. (Stay tuned! Reading them could make you more persuasive. And who doesn’t want that?)

The next factor in motivation is the audience’s personal responsibility. According to Professor Petty, individuals who are held responsible for their decisions tend to be more motivated to be engaged in the conversation or processing the information. These individuals might need very strong arguments in order to be persuaded.

Another impact factor is one’s traits. Some people love to gather new information, so they are more motivated to engage in a conversation. For these people, the best approach has to involve detailed arguments that are carefully lined up. However, some are not so eager or open to new knowledge, so you need to show them that something they are already familiar with would be a better option.

However, having a motivated audience cannot guarantee the success of a persuasion attempt. The audience’s knowledge on the topic also plays an important role. The inability to understand the information can deter the audience from being engaged in the conversation, even if they are motivated to seek and process your information. As a consultant, I often find it difficult to explain relatively complex statistics to my clients because it is rare for them to have any background in psychology or statistics. To overcome such a barrier, I will use easy-to-understand, real-life examples and cases to help them better grasp the science behind leadership concepts.

If the audience is both motivated and knowledgeable, they are more likely to carefully follow your presentation or conversation and use logical thinking to process the information, which requires you to mainly focus on the content and strength of your argument. However, the lack of either motivation or ability/knowledge can lead to a less systematic way of processing the information.

Admit it or not, we all are this type of audience a lot of the time. When we are going shopping or listening to a sales pitch, it is often not possible for us to learn everything because we don’t have the time or are not motivated to spend a lot of effort in research. Such audiences may be more likely to use a heuristic way of making decisions. To convince them, it requires some more specific techniques.

In my next blog, we will talk more about how to communicate with these people. Again, stay tuned!

[1] Petty, R.E., & Cacioppo, J.T. (1986). The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 19, 123-206.

[2] Todorov, A., Chaiken, S., & Henderson, M. D. (2002). The heuristic-systematic model of social information processing. In J.P., Dillard, & M. Pfau (Eds.), The Persuasion Handbook: Developments in Theory and Practice (pp.195-211). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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