For those of you who read my recent blog post on persuasion, you will recognise Blair Warren’s five characteristics of persuasion from his book, The One Sentence Persuasion Course. If you are new to Blair Warren’s work, or you need a reminder, he has written perhaps the shortest, sharpest, and most insightful explanation of persuasion. Blair Warren explains persuasion as follows:
People will do anything for those who encourage their dreams, justify their failures, allay their fears, confirm their suspicions, and help them throw rocks at their enemies.
I Will paste the link for my previous blog post below, so that you can understand where I am coming from today.
At first read, Warren’s sentence appears to be stark and negative in tone, but to stop at this first level of assessment would mean missing out on the culmination of his years of research and analysis. All five of these characteristics speak to the primary significance of personal emotional experience. Persuasion is not primarily rational, and if you resort to reason as anything more than a practical way to support an emotional call to action, then you are likely to fail. Persuasion depends on identifying and acknowledging a person’s emotional truth, and offering them something that confirms what they believe and supports what they feel they want to achieve.
Negative emotional triggers definitely do not help us to be effective complex problem solvers, or objective analysts, but neither thing mattered when we were prey for carnivorous predators. Even if it sounds counter-intuitive, confirmation bias and negativity bias have contributed positively to the survival and success of our species for hundreds of thousands of years. In biological terms, they are not negative forces: they are effective heuristics that have contributed to us becoming the dominant species on this planet.
Consequently, we should analyse Warren’s five characteristics of persuasion from the perspective that they are hard-wired historical triggers, which pre-date our modern brain and the Anthropocene. We can pretend that enlightenment reason has superseded instinctive survival, or we can apply reason to demystify the pre-eminence of emotional experience.
First of all, we need to encourage people’s dreams. Outwardly, this appears to be an easy thing to do, but as I learn more about communication, and, in particular, Inbound Marketing, I am realising that we tend to know a lot about our own dreams and not very much about other people’s dreams. It is common for people to assume that other people have the same dreams as they do, which is a prime example of the Fallacy of Composition.
If you want to persuade someone, you need to work out what dream motivates and inspires them. Whatever you are proposing should help them to achieve their dreams, and will only be perceived as persuasive if it makes them feel like they can get closer to achieving their dreams. Don’t even think about trying to convince them to substitute your dream for their dream, as your dream will only be relevant to them if it can get them to where they already want to go.
Justifying their failures also depends on understanding their dreams, as the failures that haunt us tend to be those that are most deeply connected to the meaningful things we want to achieve. Letting people know that they failed because of a lack of skills, resources, or insights can simply make them feel more inadequate, so justifying their failures in a persuasive way requires that something other than them is to blame for the negative outcome. Toward this end, you should always keep the Self-Serving Bias in mind: if something good happens to me, it is because I am talented and made it happen, but if something bad happens to me, it is because other people and the world are uncaring, or cruel. Never forget that most people believe that personal success depends on individual attributes, while personal failure depends on situational circumstances. This, of course, is not true, but talking about difficult circumstances is always more persuasive than recommending personal reflection.
Similarly, allaying their fears depends on identifying all of the situational circumstances that could adversely affect their activities and providing options for overcoming these probable limitations. It goes without saying that you will only be persuasive if the fears you outline directly relate to their dreams and previous failures.
Persuasively confirming their suspicions depends on correctly identifying a problem, or enemy, as contributing to the adverse situational circumstances that concern them. Confirming their suspicions is one effective way to allay their fears.
And then there is helping them to throw rocks at their enemies, which is a very uncomfortable idea for any communication professional who wants to stay on the ethical side of the line. The way I understand this is to say that people want to know if you are just trying to persuade them, or if you are really their ally in relation to something that is important to them? If you are making a persuasive case for environmentally responsible development, then it is much easier to feel like an ethical ally than if someone expects you to throw rocks with them at a rally. Never forget that your enemy’s enemy is your friend, and that finding common ground depends on understanding their motivations.
Each of these five emotional triggers are regularly being pressed by people to persuade others to do what they want. Whether this is ethical, or not, is always up for debate, but it is undoubtable that pressing these five emotional triggers provides a powerful way to persuade people to do what you want. From the perspective of these five characteristics of persuasion, being persuasive primarily depends on understanding your audience, as well as remembering that some of them will understand what is going on, because they are familiar with Blair Warren’s research and conclusions. You might want to be persuasive, but you need to be careful of which triggers you press, and cognisant of whether your audience know what you are doing.
Persuasion: the long and the short of influencing people