20 Simple Steps to the Perfect Persuasive Message

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Craft messages that change minds using these 20 principles of persuasion, all based on established psychological research.

Perfection is hard to achieve in any walk of life and persuasion is no different. It relies on many things going just right at the crucial moment; the perfect synchronisation of source, message and audience. But even if perfection is unlikely, we all need to know what to aim for.

To bring you the current series on the psychology of persuasion I’ve been reading lots of research, much more than is covered in recent posts. As I read, I noticed the same themes cropping up over and over again.

Here are the most important points for crafting the perfect persuasive message, all of which have scientific evidence to back them up.

  1. Multiple, strong arguments: the more arguments, the more persuasive, but overall persuasive messages should be balanced, as two-sided arguments fare better than their one-sided equivalents (as long as counter-arguments are shot down).
  2. Relevance: persuasive messages should be personally relevant to the audience. If not, they will switch off and fail to process it.
  3. Universal goals: In creating your message, understand the three universal goals for which everyone is aiming: affiliation, accuracy and positive self-concept.
  4. Likeability: ingratiating yourself with the audience is no bad thing—most successful performers, actors, lawyers and politicians do it. Likeability can be boosted by praising the audience and by perceived similarity. Even the most fleeting similarities can be persuasive.
  5. Authority: people tend to defer to experts because it saves us trying to work out the pros and cons ourselves (read the classic experiment on obedience to authority).
  6. Attractiveness: the physical attractiveness of the source is only important if it is relevant (e.g. when selling beauty products).
  7. Match message and medium: One useful rule of thumb is: if the message is difficult to understand, write it; if it’s easy, put it in a video.
  8. Avoid forewarning: don’t open up saying “I will try and persuade you that…” If you do, people start generating counter-arguments and are less likely to be persuaded.
  9. Go slow: If the audience is already sympathetic, then present the arguments slowly and carefully (as long as they are relevant and strong). If the audience is against you then fast talkers can be more persuasive.
  10. Repetition: whether or not a statement is true, repeating it a few times gives the all-important illusion of truth. The illusion of truth leads to the reality of persuasion.
  11. Social proof: you’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again—despite all their protestations of individuality, people love conformity. So tell them which way the flock is going because people want to be in the majority.
  12. Attention: if the audience isn’t paying attention, they can’t think about your arguments, so attitudes can’t change. That’s why anything that sharpens attention, like caffeine, makes people easier to persuade. And speaking of attention…
  13. Minimise distraction: if you’ve got a strong message then audiences are more swayed if they pay attention. If the arguments are weak then it’s better if they’re distracted.
  14. Positively framed: messages with a positive frame can be more persuasive.
  15. Disguise: messages are more persuasive if they don’t appear to be intended to persuade or influence as they can sidestep psychological reactance (hence the power of overheard arguments to change minds).
  16. Psychologically tailored: messages should match the psychological preferences of the audience. E.g. some people prefer thinking-framed arguments and others prefer feel-framed arguments (see: battle between thought and emotion in persuasion). Also, some people prefer to think harder than others.
  17. Go with the flow: persuasion is strongest when the message and audience are heading in the same direction. Thoughts which come into the audience’s mind more readily are likely to be more persuasive.
  18. Confidence: not only your confidence, but theirs. The audience should feel confident about attitude change. Audience confidence in their own thoughts is boosted by a credible source and when they feel happy (clue: happy audiences are laughing).
  19. Be powerful: a powerful orator influences the audience, but making the audience themselves feel powerful increases their confidence in attitude change. An audience has to feel powerful enough to change.
  20. Avoid targeting strong beliefs: strong attitudes and beliefs are very difficult to change. Do not directly approach long-standing ideas to which people are committed, they will resist and reject. Strong beliefs must be approached indirectly.

Change minds

You should be aware that many of these factors interact with each other. For example when the message is strong but the source is dodgy, the sleeper effect can arise.

Argument strength is also critical. The basic principle is that when arguments are strong, you need to do everything to make people concentrate on them. When they’re weak, it’s all about distracting the audience from the content and using peripheral routes to persuade, such as how confidently or quickly you talk.

Weaving all these together is no mean feat, but look at most professionally produced persuasive messages and you’ll see many of these principles on show. Incorporate as many as you can for maximum effect.

Image credit: Maigh

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About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 15 December 2010

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