The Principles Of Persuasion

David Olney

16 May, 2022

This paper brings four of my blog posts on the principles of persuasion together in one place. They can be read separately, or in a different order, but read most clearly and cohesively in this order.

Effective communication depends on knowing who your audience is and knowing what interests them. This paper will provide you with insights into the key issues I consider when creating persuasive messages for my clients.

Which problem should we address first: The Problem, or A Person’s Problem?

After a twenty year career analysing situations to work out what the problem is, and what can be done to improve the situation in question, I think I have finally come to understand why it is rare for The Problem to be directly and successfully addressed.

Whether I was preparing material to teach University students, providing training for teams, assessing a significant issue for a client, or just making sense of the world around me, I have continually encountered the same circumstances: even if The Problem is comprehensively understood, the implemented solution is not sufficient to transform the situation, or action is only taken to address one aspect of The Problem, resulting in insufficient change to significantly improve the situation.

For years, I couldn’t reach a satisfactory conclusion about why so many problems are not comprehensively understood, and why so many implemented solutions are, at best, half measures.

Like so many things over the previous year, the answer has become clearer after studying Strategic Communication.

As a Security Studies and Complex Problem Solving lecturer and analyst, I was expected to get to the heart of any matter and to identify the root causes and effects of any situation. I was encouraged to strip as many layers away as was necessary to identify a definite relationship between cause and effect, and to explain all of the steps and stages between what we experience at the end of a process and how it started.

Ironically, after doing a lot of work to provide a clear, cohesive, and expansive assessment, the final stage of my work has always involved reducing the size and scope of my analysis and recommendations to fit available time and resource limits. Being able to create a clear and concise summary of a complex issue is a very important and satisfying skill, which I have been praised for throughout my career. However, even after delivering the concise and lucid assessment that I was asked to provide, I have frequently been perplexed when people still don’t appear to understand The Problem and don’t take a sufficient level of action to markedly improve the situation.

I know that the vast majority of people aren’t stupid and that a majority of people aren’t lazy. From a Strategic Culture perspective, I know that why a person is selected, how they are trained, and under what circumstances they are promoted has a very significant impact on how they will assess information and implement decisions. I have watched people become overwhelmed by complexity, multi-tasking, and unclear priorities, and have trained them to overcome all three things. Nonetheless, I have still found myself baffled by the decisions and actions that people regularly take to solve problems.

After all of this, studying Strategic Communication exposed me to the importance of understanding and appreciating an audience’s position, which has changed my perspective on assessing problems. Consequently, I have undergone a paradigm shift in how I assess and present solutions to problems.

I used to believe my job was to critically assess an issue and then to provide an objective report to an audience. The Problem was there to be investigated in a critical and objective manner, and I assumed that the audience would respond to my assessment from a critical and objective perspective. All of us in the complex problem solving space have, to some extent, internalised the Enlightenment ideals of reasoned analysis and rational thought, but reason only explains half of what is going on when people assess a problem.

From a Strategic Communications’ perspective, a problem is not something that people only experience objectively, or only analyse critically: it is something that causes them discomfort, which they want to overcome.

People interpret situations in a unique way, based on their own experience and perspective, which means that, more often than not, how they understand a problem is personal rather than objective. Consequently, The Problem is not the same as A Person’s Problem. While A Person’s Problem is immediate, visceral, and local, The Problem is normally ongoing, abstract, and distant. A Person’s Problem represents a specific aspect of The Problem, but The Problem is larger, more complex, and more diverse than any individual is likely to personally experience.

For example, The Problem is climate change, but A Person’s Problem could be experienced as rising sea level on a small island, or multi-year drought on a family farm in the Australian bush. While one person might be struggling to afford their electricity bill during summer in Adelaide, someone else wants to know which solar energy and battery system they should purchase for their home, so they don’t feel bad about running their air-conditioner all summer.

As another example, Australia has a housing affordability crisis, which is experienced differently by individual Australians: some people can’t get enough part-time hours to pay their rent, some people can’t move from contract work to the security of full-time employment to get a mortgage, some people want a safe investment, and some people want to speculate on the closest thing they can identify to a sure-thing in the Australian economy. The Problem can broadly be described as housing affordability, but A Person’s Problem could be under-employment, uncertain employment, lack of investment opportunities, or the lack of a diverse national economy.

It is all too easy to assume that everyone experiences and understands The Problem in the same way. Either the analyst believes that everyone wants to understand The Problem in a comprehensive, system-wide manner, or each person thinks their unique experience is typical of The Problem, rather than an example of A Person’s Problem.

In both cases people are prone to succumbing to the Fallacy of Composition: which is the mistake of attributing to a group (or a whole) some characteristic that is true only of its individual members (or its parts), and then making inferences based on that mistake.


An individual doesn’t experience every variation of the housing affordability crisis or climate change, which means that they are not likely to resonate with, or appreciate, more than a few aspects of a comprehensive explanation of The Problem. An individual is most likely to absorb aspects that directly relate to their experience and to support the solution that solves their personal problem.

Meanwhile, a comprehensive assessment of The Problem relies on an analyst’s commitment to reason and rational thought, which their audience may not share. How often does a politician or CEO have something personal to gain from what should be a public decision?

Consequently, we cannot effectively address The Problem without incorporating as many examples of A Person’s Problem, so that the audience can see how their own experiences fit into the big, complex picture. Unless the context between The Problem and A Person’s Problem is effectively layered and integrated, most people will continue to act on the bit that matters to them rather than to do what matters. Humans have to get better at solving problems, and a good place to start is learning to appreciate how solving A Person’s Problem may, or may not, solve The Problem.

Persuasion: the long and the short of influencing people

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.

Five key characteristics of persuasion

If you want to persuade people, then you need to keep five key things in mind, and to seamlessly integrate as many of them into your communication as possible: encourage their dreams, justify their failures, allay their fears, confirm their suspicions, and help them throw rocks at their enemies.

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.

If you want to persuade someone: validate them, don’t correct them

The final aspect of Blair Warren’s book, The One Sentence Persuasion Course, I have chosen to write about is a new insight that he added to the updated version. On top of recommending that the most effective way to persuade people is to encourage their dreams, justify their failures, allay their fears, confirm their suspicions, and help them throw rocks at their enemies, he suggests that you should validate and fascinate people, rather than correcting and convincing them.

We have all had our own experiences of teachers, tutors, and lecturers who won’t identify anything good in what we just said, who immediately dive into pointing out all of the ways in which we were incorrect, followed by trying to convince us of some other/their perspective. If, like me, you found this to be particularly annoying, then I am assuming that you have also spent a lot of time trying not to do what they did to other people.

When I taught guitar and violin, one of my most common comments to my students was: “a good start, now let’s make it even better.” No matter how messy their first attempt at playing something was, it was still better than all of the people who never tried, or all of those who quit when it became difficult. A little bit of validation used to go a long way toward keeping my students focused and motivated.

When I started teaching at university, I had to go beyond this general approach and positively acknowledge a specific thing that someone had said, or written, even if it was small in comparison to what I was aiming for the class as a whole to achieve. A little bit of validation always successfully primed the pump for hard work and open minds.

And then I discovered Carol Dweck’s work on Fixed and Growth Mindsets, which makes it clear that there are significant benefits to be gained by praising effort, as well as praising what people have already achieved. Famously, Dweck has introduced the idea of “not yet” to millions of people: you have not yet accomplished everything you need to do to move on to the next level, but you are now closer to where you want to be.

Between my own experience of being taught and teaching, and then listening to Carol Dweck, I had worked out the positive significance of validation when teaching, but it was only when I listened to Blair Warren that I directly contrasted validation with correction. Correction only works as a part of persuasion if it comes after some form of validation, and if it is pitched as something that builds on an acknowledged positive. In short, don’t suggest a correction: suggest something that will make it even better.

Successfully validating people depends on keeping 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. If something good happens to someone else, it is because they were lucky, but if something bad happens to them, it is because they aren’t sufficiently talented, or aware. You need to validate their personal successes, and help them to overcome difficult circumstances, without inferring that you are more capable than they are.

Making sense of how to fascinate, rather than correct, is more difficult than recognising the contrast between validation and correction. Fascinating people implies that we have to be fascinating, but, thankfully, this is not the case.

As I reflected on my years of teaching, I recognised that I did one consistent thing that kept my students engaged: I told stories about people making difficult decisions in the midst of uncertain circumstances. I wasn’t fascinating, but how people make decisions in difficult situations is fascinating. Fascinating people depends on telling stories about people your audience can identify with and care about. If your audience care about the characters in your stories, then they can be persuaded by what you have to say about the circumstances you are describing.

It is easy to fall into the habit of correcting and convincing, because so many people who think they are right believe this is the way to get what they want. Despite their belief, the evidence and analysis point the other way. Aim to validate and fascinate people whenever you can, so that they are more likely to listen to (and act on) what you have to say. Persuasion is not about being right, it is about validating that someone is already on the right track. People want to hear about how they can do even better, and they are fascinated by stories of people succeeding in difficult circumstances.


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