During the first year of my Master of Media in Strategic Communication, I decided to listen to Robert Cialdini’s book, Influence, to add depth to what I was learning in class. At the time, I enjoyed listening to his anecdotes, analysis, descriptions of his experiments, and his conclusions. The importance of reciprocity, social proof, scarcity, and commitment and consistency immediately resonated with me as characteristics of influence. I appreciated the significance of liking and authority on an abstract level, and unity grew on me over time.

Cialdini’s seven characteristics of influence (Reciprocation, Commitment and Consistency, Social Proof, Liking, Authority, Scarcity, and Unity) are cohesive, and I have regularly found ways to apply them at work and while podcasting. However, even though they have been useful, I have spent more time questioning their completeness as an explanation of influence than I have spent applying them.

Cialdini’s characteristics of influence can be used to explain good-natured and ethical examples of persuasion, but they don’t provide a satisfactory explanation of how populist leaders and demagogs persuade crowds of ordinary people to burn, smash, and hate. They also don’t satisfactorily explain how democratic leaders such as Churchill and JFK motivated ordinary citizens to hold the line, fight to victory, and to do the improbable.

An ethical understanding of how influence works is critical for communication professionals, so that we can stay on the ethical side of the line, but how are we meant to help to persuade people to step back from the brink when they have been whipped into a frenzy by ruthless individuals who have no restrictions on their means of influence? For example, Presidents Trump, Putin, and Xi have twisted millions of people, the media, and public debate to suit their personal aims with no obvious regard for their own citizens, or anyone else.

Cialdini’s characteristics of influence are strangely bloodless, shedding no light on the role of gut instinct and passion. He describes influence as it ought to be in an ideal world rather than as it manifests itself at either an anti-vax or environmental rally. There is so much more to influence than a moderate and moderated effect.

If we don’t understand how leaders like Churchill and JFK persuaded citizens to do the hard things, then how can we possibly assist young leaders like Greta Thunberg to convince the population of the world to save our only home from our thoughtless excesses?

Between 2007 and 2011 I taught a university course on charismatic politics, which set out to show the students that charismatic leaders ranging from the good to the bad, and from the malevolent to the mad, all possess a broadly similar ability to get people up and moving in the direction they chose for them. Whether for good or ill purposes, the leaders we spoke about could heat blood and ignite passion in ordinary people, turning them into an unexpected, and insufficiently explicable, mass effect.

Listening to Cialdini’s book did little to provide me with a better understanding of how people are motivated to die for an idea, or kill for a cause, than I had when I finished teaching charismatic politics in 2011. In truth, I had forgotten about the hours spent discussing the relative strengths of rhetoric and reason with hundreds of students in tutorial rooms Some students thought that reason could win the day, while other students knew that passion trumped reason, even though they didn’t know why.

And then about three weeks ago I bought a short audiobook by Blair Warren called The One Sentence Persuasion Course. Blair Warren has probably spent as long investigating persuasion as Robert Cialdini, but from the perspectives of historical examples and practical experience as a marketer. Warren’s summary of how persuasion works reads thus:

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.

Read that again and let it sink in.

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.

This is the most chilling and insightful sentence that I have heard for at least a decade.

Warren has summarised in one sentence (and a short audiobook) everything I didn’t know how to wrap up neatly in charismatic politics, as well as everything that Cialdini didn’t write about in Influence. His insight is stark and powerful, because, for example, it provides a means by which to simultaneously understand how Hitler turned Germany into a genocidal state, and how Churchill influenced a beleaguered Britain to withstand and eventually beat Nazi Germany.

Cialdini’s characteristics of influence and Warren’s sentence exist on a spectrum that can be described in at least four different ways: reason and emotion; ideal and actual; subtle and substantive; and cerebral and visceral. Persuasion and influence can happen anywhere between these extremes, and it is vital that strategic communication professionals appreciate what is possible, so that we can decide how we are going to remain ethical. Whether means of persuasion are ethical or unethical in and of themselves, or whether the ends justify the means, are significant questions that should be discussed regularly.

Immensely powerful tools of persuasion are available to be deployed in every situation, and they are always being deployed by someone for reasons that suit their own purposes. Whether we want to persuade in the same way, or whether we know how to counter these forms of persuasion, will depend on knowing what is possible and deciding whether it is ethical.

I know that persuading people is both an art and a science, but I’m not sure I will ever be finished working out exactly where the line between ethical and unethical persuasion lies. What I know for sure is that there is power in combining Warren’s insights and Cialdini’s focus on how to behave ethically.

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