Persuasive Communication

The world is filled with other people. And if you want to get anything done, you’re going to have to persuade at least some of them to see things your way. Influencing people is especially important if you want to make a sale, get the promotion or, even change the world.

It can seem that being persuasive is a natural gift, like charisma or good looks, but I assure you, just like everything else, it can be learned. After 20+ years helping people with persuasive messaging, I have boiled it down into a few simple models that anyone can use to hone their message and deliver it more effectively. In this article, I’d like to show you one of them. But first, a caveat.

Get to Your Point as Quickly as Possible

But, whatever else you do, get to your point as quickly as you can.

No matter what your strategy for persuading someone may be, you are always, always, always better off doing it with as few words as possible. We live in an attention-deficit disorder of an age and are, literally, the most messaged humans in the history of the world. We don’t have any attention left to spare.

So when you create any communication, be it an e-mail, a video, a proposal, a presentation, always try to use as little of your audience’s attention as possible. If you think about communication as a production process, what you are making is a change in someone else’s mind. And to do that you use words and images, but the main input into that process is someone else’s attention. And attention is a highly constrained resource.

Audience – Message – Action

Every message is aimed at an audience. Even if you are talking to yourself, you have an audience. And everybody talks to themselves. Even if you are all alone and bark your shin on a coffee table, when you curse, the audience is yourself and the desired action is to make you feel better. And if you think that’s crazy, here’s something even crazier: It f#$%!ing works!

Every message has a desired action. We communicate because we want to change something in the world. Even if the thing we want to change the other person’s mind, that’s real change. And it’s not ‘just’ or ‘even’ somebody else’s mind. Changing someone’s mind is a huge thing. Companies spend billions of dollars to influence and change people’s minds. Most of the time they fail. Provide me any example of communication you like in the comments and I will show you how there is an action hiding within it.
A message can be anything. But, in a persuasive sense, there’s only one way to evaluate it. Does it get the audience to take the action you desire? It doesn’t matter if it is grammatically correct or if it rhymes or if a third-party outside the audience doesn’t like it. Does it get a result?

Using This Model

The Audience – Message – Action model frees your brain up to not have to remember everything all at once. Especially when it comes to remembering to make sure that your message actually stands a chance of working. Seriously, with all of the jargon, the politics and the strategerizing (that’s when you overthink your overthinking), it’s easy to lose sight of simple effectiveness.

But writing down audience, message and action is like showing your work in math class. You immediately begin to see how the parts are working (or failing to work). And you get to see how changing one component can make the entire system click.

Every message is aimed at an audience. // Every message has a desired action.

For example, let’s say we want somebody (anybody!) to buy our motor oil. At the very beginning, we probably don’t even care who, we just want to sell some oil. Let’s arbitrarily pick an over-targeted, consumer archetype, Soccer Moms.

What can we say to soccer moms (and when and where) to make them more likely to buy a case of motor oil?

AUDIENCE: Soccer Moms

MESSAGE:

ACTION: Buy a case of Motor Oil

It doesn’t seem like there’s much. In fact, at first blush, it seems like this is the wrong target for this product. Soccer Moms don’t seem like they really buy motor oil by the case. We could investigate this with research — figuring out what questions to ask is another valuable way to use this model — but for the sake of illustration, let’s move along.

Keeping the same target, we could recognize that soccer moms don’t buy oil by the case, they buy it by the oil change.

Or we could develop new audiences for our action.

AUDIENCE: Soccer Moms

MESSAGE:

ACTION: Specify our motor oil for their oil changes

AUDIENCE: Mechanics

MESSAGE:

ACTION: Buy our motor oil for their oil changes

AUDIENCE: Procurement director for Spiffy Lube

MESSAGE:

ACTION: Buy our motor oil for their oil changes

AUDIENCE: Fleet Maintenance Directors

MESSAGE:

ACTION: Buy our motor oil for their oil changes

Even if you are not the most creative, strategic or persuasive person, I’m willing to bet you’ve already got a couple ideas for what could go in the message slot. Or even a couple ideas for other targets. That’s the whole point. This AMA model is a more productive way to think about persuasive communications.

Sadly, in my experience, what usually happens is this:

AUDIENCE: Soccer Moms

MESSAGE: A Focus on Performance

ACTION: Specify our motor oil for their oil changes

Or, at worst, this.

AUDIENCE: People

MESSAGE: A Focus on Performance

ACTION: We need sales to go up

And it’s usually not even that specific. Maybe it’s “Our tagline is “Performance” or “Quality” or “Partnership”. And it’s inane to think that those abstracts are persuasive. They don’t even communicate any meaning. The takeaway here is that the more specific you can make each of these elements, the more successful your efforts will be.

Tips You Can Use

1. Lower the cost of the desired action.  This is the magic of return postage. I want you to send me something, so I send you a letter asking for it. But to make it easier, I include an addressed and stamped envelope. Now, instead of having to find a stamp, find an envelope and address a letter, you can just seal the envelope and drop it in the mail.

Maybe I want to get a raise. So our model looks like this:

AUDIENCE: My Tightfisted Boss

MESSAGE: I’d like a raise.

ACTION: Get approval from his boss to pay me more.

It’s obvious that we could come up with more persuasive messages here, but let’s see how just lowering the cost of the desired action can make it more likely to get a raise.

ACTION: Take two minutes to look at this comparative salary report.

Assuming that the salary report shows that I’m being underpaid, this seems like a good way to get started.

AUDIENCE: My Tightfisted Boss

MESSAGE: According to Glassdoor, my salary is well below industry average.

ACTION: Take two minutes to look at this comparative salary report.

One thing always leads to another, so figuring out a chain of actions that lead to what you ultimately want is often a better way to think about persuasion. Because maybe what we are really looking at is:

AUDIENCE: My Tightfisted Boss

MESSAGE: According to Glassdoor, my salary is well below industry average.

ACTION: Read report => Believe that I am underpaid => go to bat for me for the raise.

Or maybe the action chain looks like this:

ACTION: Read report => believe that I am underpaid => worry that I might take another job => go to bat for me for the raise.

One thing leads to another. Make the first thing as easy, fun and low cost as possible. It’s hard to get someone to buy a car. It’s easier to get them to take a test drive. So which one does the car salesman ask you to do first?

2. Be as specific as possible with the desired action. What specific action do you want someone to take? I know this seems simple, but because we live in an attention-deficit disorder of a world there is a big difference between asking someone “Please help us put an end to cancer” and “Please donate $5 to fund pediatric leukemia research?” In the first one, you are leaving the audience with the burden of figuring out how they can help. It’s harder for someone to process and understand. Because the second one is more specific, the audience doesn’t have to burn brainpower filling in the blanks.

Or, consider it from a management standpoint. If I say, “Jim, I need your performance to improve?” How likely is it that Jim is going to mend his errant ways and become the stand-out, the go-to-guy on my team?

But if I say, “Jim, you need to be here and at your desk by 8:30 every morning.”

Or, “Jim, I need you to make twenty service calls a week.”

Or, even “Jim, every time you kill the Joe, you need to make some Mo’.”

These last three stand a better chance of succeeding simply because they are specific. But “Jim, in our handbook it says that we are all respectful and considerate of our fellow employees,” isn’t going to get Jim to stop leaving an empty coffee pot on a hot plate.

3. Be as specific as possible with the audience. Far and away the best place to be specific is with your audience. Don’t try to persuade an industry when you can persuade a role. Don’t target your message to a role when you can target it to a specific person.

Audience-Message-Action-Tightfisted
AUDIENCE: Soccer Moms

MESSAGE:

ACTION: Specify Old North State Oil at your next oil change.

Oof, this is tough. But watch what happens if we can make that audience more specific.

  • AUDIENCE: Soccer Moms who drive over 25,000 miles a year.
    or
  • AUDIENCE: Soccer Moms with 2+ kids on sports teams.
    or
  • AUDIENCE: Audrey Johnson who lives at 332 Drury Lane

Making the audience more specific always opens up new and more powerful ways to think about persuasion.

Enough Hypotheticals, Let’s Introduce the Rubber to the Road

Audience: You

Message: This Article

Desired Action: To be a more persuasive communicator

If this model works for you, use it and spread it. If you have questions or want to see it applied to your situation, please leave a comment or message me and I’ll do my best.

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Patrick McLean

Patrick McLean helps companies communicate in ways that are simple, interesting and compelling. This work includes marketing communications, but also training and developing the people he works with to be more powerful communicators. It’s a stubborn fact of the social media age — nobody else can be authentic for you.