How to Be More Persuasive
A yoga instructor recently criticized other yoga instructors and wellness advocates for posting “spiritually bypassing quotes” on their social media accounts. She said she was angry her fellow wellness practitioners were not being explicit enough about Black Lives Matter.
In sum, she echoed the sentiment of John Stuart Mill, who said, “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” Although I can understand her perspective, her message strategy was flawed. This happens often when we speak or write from impulse (aka “rant”) rather than from purposive thought. Rants might make us feel good in the moment, but they aren’t persuasive in the long-term effort to change attitudes or policy.
In her judgment of others, she failed to see the uniqueness of these individuals or their intentions behind their messages. She didn’t consider those trying to reach across the divide and build bridges, not more boundaries. A message spoken by one person to a specific audience does not have the same effect as another person speaking to a different audience. This is Communication 101.
Rants might make us feel good in the moment, but they aren’t persuasive in the long-term effort to change attitudes or policy.
We all have attitudes and opinions concerning the world. Social judgment theory describes the intensity of our attitudes and where they fall along the attitude spectrum of an issue. It also has to do with our degree of involvement and how we can persuade or be persuaded. In encountering new messages, our current positions determine whether or not the new message is adopted into the repertoire of our beliefs. Our own position on an issue serves as our anchor point.
When we encounter messages that are in relative agreement with our beliefs, these messages fall under our “latitude of acceptance.” Because our anchor point is the center of our judgment, we might not object to seeing messages that skew slightly in either direction. If anything, they strengthen or affirm our beliefs. The intensity of our beliefs can make this latitude of acceptance small, meaning that we are more rigid in terms of accepting beliefs outside of this range.
Those messages that contradict our beliefs are steered into our “latitude of rejection.” It is in this case that we tend to dismiss the message or the credibility of the messenger, creating further gaps in ideology. If our passion about an issue makes our latitude of acceptance small, the size of our latitude of rejection increases. Additionally, attitudes are less likely to change because our minds are closed off to opposite points of view.
Those positions in the middle — the “latitude of non-commitment” — are those messages that can appeal to either side of the spectrum because they are not offensive to our current position nor do they fall into our latitude of rejection. Interestingly, the less we are identified or involved with a particular issue, the wider this latitude of non-commitment. Therefore, we are more likely to hear differing perspectives. Because we possess less personal involvement, our minds are open to differences.
If we know our audience has a low level of involvement, we can tap into this latitude of non-commitment to produce attitude change. These messages move the needle slightly towards the message’s intended position. The key is to move slightly. If we pull too hard or fast, the rubber band snaps into the latitude of rejection.
The quality of the message also factors into the mix. If we encounter a message in our latitude of non-commitment, we can be persuaded in one direction or the other depending upon the quality of the argument. If the message possesses strong credibility, logic, and emotion in one direction, we adopt this argument into possibly changing our attitude. If the message is weak, it is counterproductive. Either the attitude does not change, or it causes us to move in the opposite direction of the intended message.
Let’s use the concept of wearing a mask in public as an example. A few weeks ago, a Facebook friend posted a 500-word diatribe why wearing a mask was wrong, and why people who wore them were “stupid.” Among people who agreed with him, this post affirmed their views. This post fell under their “latitude of acceptance.” Because I am required by local orders to wear a mask in public, this post fell under my “latitude of rejection.” Besides, I don’t appreciate being called “stupid.” Messages like these bring further division in our society because they don’t consider the diverse audience that might encounter it.
However, had the post presented a logical argument (logos) of why it was wrong, I might not have produced counter-arguments. If the post appealed to my emotions (pathos) rather than stirred me with insults, I might have considered his point of view. If a public health professional with a history of reputable research (ethos) had written the post, it might had fallen into my latitude of non-commitment and shifted my attitude.
Overall, messages can strengthen attitudes if they are close to an audience’s current attitudes. If we know our audience generally agrees with us because it has a high level of involvement, we can continue to build a movement.
In order to persuade diverse audiences with varying attitudes, it’s important to tailor our messages along this latitude of non-commitment. You “engineer consent” by building a campaign of messages over time to produce attitude change that is more enduring. Moving the message too far out of the audience’s range results in the audience rejecting it. With too many messages out of this range, the audience may tire, reject the sender of the message, and close the door for any attitude change.
In times of extreme tension, it’s tempting to post extreme messages to effect immediate change. However, this immediate change might not endure if we don’t build our audience. In posting messages that are too extreme or condemn those who are trying to reach across boundaries, we could be burning more bridges rather than creating unity.