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The art of persuasion

Our society must urgently tackle a host of serious problems, yet progress has been slow. And most calls to action fall on deaf ears. Why? What to do?

We inform people about the problem, the facts and the actions required. They hear what we say, weigh up the pros and cons and then they make a rational decision. Right? Wrong!

“Of course”, you say, “Humans are deeply irrational beings.” Yes, all of us – to varying degrees. But given this fact, why then do so many social and environmental causes continue communicating as if humans are rational? And why are corporate advertisers so good at making their not-much-needed brands the next desirable ‘must have’?

All of us have deep-seated values, which are “guiding principles based on what we think is important” and that influence our decisions and actions. Now when we inform someone about objective, took-years-to-research facts demonstrating a particular need to change, we hope they will make a rational decision. But what happens is that we pass incoming information through our values-based filters and bend, ignore and cherry-pick the facts – irrespective of how important they are – to support our dominant worldview. We all do this: some more, some less, depending on who you are and what the information is.

What does this mean for us change agents? Simply put, we all need to get far more skilled communicators. Facts provide an objective and ethical basis for our messaging, but they need to be overlaid with allure and zest, – whether verbal, text-based, visual or other – that speak to our emotional nature. Particularly, our messages have to:

  1. be ‘framed’ in a manner more likely to reach a particular target audience and
  2. reinforce intrinsic values that help create a more caring and engaged society.

Framing: We need to learn to ‘frame’ our messages in such a way that it both speaks to people’s values and understanding of the world as well as encourage society-enhancing, intrinsic values (see below).

Values: Extrinsic values such as wealth, social power, public image, social recognition and self-indulgence are often promoted in our society, particularly as part of corporate advertising and in the media. Intrinsic values, such wisdom, equality, helpfulness, curiosity, social justice and protecting the environment – values which are essential to creating a world where there is “Enough, For All, Forever.” – are often suppressed. Yet values are not fixed and can change in any individual. Values are like a muscle and we need to use every opportunity we have to reinforce and exercise the application of intrinsic values in our society.

This is just a light taster of this subject and there is much more to learn about the art of persuasion for the common good. I encourage – no, implore (it is that important) – every change agent to read the Common Cause Handbook (http://valuesandframes.org/downloads/).

Published in the Change Agent book.

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