Writing to Influence People

OK. You want to convince teens who don’t use sunscreen that they really should. How do you go about it?

Do you marshal facts about skin cancer? Explain how ultraviolet rays work? Add arguments about increases to health care costs? Then offer examples that support your case?

When we want to persuade someone, our tendency is to begin with a direct approach. Such a technique, however, is often ineffective. As I noted in Write Better, “When we put forward an argument, we can trigger the rational, judging, and evaluative faculties in our audience. As a result, they may respond (at least in their own minds) with arguments of their own” (p. 60).

Our brains aren’t just rational machines that pump out logic. We have another and probably larger dimension to our thinking that we often don’t consider. Some call this intuition or gut reactions. Jonathan Haidt calls them automatic processes.

Based on years of research into how people make moral judgments, Haidt believes we should instead start by being friendly, taking time to understand the other person’s point of view.

Why? Because our emotions have a profound effect on how we think about things. Emotions aren’t opposed to reason, he says. They are instead a way–a very important, very useful way–to reason. (Think about sociopaths who are very rational but lack many emotions and therefore make terrible decisions.) Emotions are not infallible in decision-making, but neither is a rational approach.

Contrary to what we might think, studies have shown that usually we initially have a hunch about what is right or wrong when faced with an issue. Then our rational faculties may or may not come into play, using our hunch as a starting point. If, then, you want to persuade someone (in person or in writing), start with that intuitive, emotional side because our hunches tend to guide our reasoning.

Haidt offers a model for how we might put together a persuasive case. Indeed he structured his book, The Righteous Mind, using this very approach. He tells us,

I have tried to use intuitionism [the theory that decisions begin with emotions] while writing this book. My goal is to change the way a diverse group of readers—liberal and conservative, secular and religious—think about morality, politics, religion, and each other. I knew that I had to take things slowly and address myself more to elephants [our intuition] rather than to riders [our reasoning]. I couldn’t just lay out the theory in chapter 1 and then ask readers to reserve judgment until I had presented all of the supporting evidence. Rather, I decided to weave together the history of moral psychology and my own personal story to create a sense of movement from rationalism to intuitionism. I threw in historical anecdotes, quotations from the ancients, and praise of a few visionaries. I set up metaphors (such as the rider and the elephant) that will recur throughout the book. I did these things in order to “tune up” your intuitions about moral psychology. If I have failed and you have a visceral dislike of intuitionism or of me, then no amount of evidence I could present will convince you that intuitionism is correct. But if you now feel an intuitive sense that intuitionism might be true, then let’s keep going (pp. 59-60).

That’s a pattern we can use too. If, then, we want to encourage people, especially teens, to form a habit of using sunscreen, is there a better way?

Could we connect with them at the emotional/intuitive level before going to a rational approach? We could begin by identifying with our audience about how much we love the tanned look. But instead of then moving to the topic of cancer, what if we stick with the beauty angle? Chip and Dan Heath suggest noting that too much tanning gives you wrinkles.* That distasteful image can get an immediate negative reaction from teens that can guide their thinking.

Will everyone be persuaded? No. But by approaching people as whole people, we are likely to persuade more.

*See Made to Stick, pp. 38-41.

Image by Pierre-Laurent Durantin from Pixabay

Naturally Speaking

Once at a block party as several dozen of us stood around chatting and eating, a neighbor came up to me and said, “The Smiths are moving away next week, and we have a gift for them, but could you say a few words of farewell?”

It was the first I’d heard of this. “Right now?” I asked a bit wide-eyed.

“Yes. I know you can do a good job.”

Well, if she thought I could do it, maybe I could. I then called for attention. I was brief, and I managed to offer a tone that mixed our appreciation for them, our sadness at their departure, and our best wishes and blessing for their future.

Many people fear public speaking more than death. Over years of speaking to small groups and rooms of hundreds, following certain practices have helped me prepare and be relaxed (ultimately allowing me to form a habit of speaking that has even made doing so spontaneously possible).

Be familiar with your material. Read it aloud multiple times. If possible, practice in the room or setting where you are to speak. Wean yourself off your script to notes, then to a note card. This has the added benefit of making sure you take up only your allotted time. Have someone listen to you ahead of time to give encouragement and suggestions. Even if you think you’d feel awkward speaking to just one, it will prepare you for the awkwardness of  speaking to ten or a hundred.

Don’t start with a long wind up about how glad you are to be there. You’ll lose listeners before you start. Jump right into the material with a strong opening statement or story.

Vary your volume. Vary pitch. Vary speed of delivery. Churchill used to write directions to himself in the margin of his speaking notes such as, “Pause as if searching for the right word” [to look spontaneous] or “Weak point, so talk louder.”

Avoid set piece jokes, like, “An alligator walks into a bar . . . !” Rather be humorous like Will Rogers or Garrison Keillor.

Move your body. Hand gestures, sure. Lean forward for intimacy or emphasis. Also move around if possible while speaking. People don’t hear so well, but they see great! Action can grab attention. Practice these aspects as much as what you say.

Use props. This can come off as artificial, but if the prop is natural, it will help you be natural, more conversational. For example, pull something out of your pocket that you usually carry around (a phone, car keys) to illustrate a point. This is an opportunity to move around as well.

Use audience participation. Get people involved by asking questions and calling for a response that connects with your content. Maybe: “People usually have a strong preference for either vanilla or chocolate ice cream. How many of you here are chocolate people? [raise hand] How may are vanilla people? [raise hand].” Or ask them to turn to the person next to them and ask, for example, “What’s your favorite ice cream flavor and why?”

Watch some eighteen-minute TED talks. These speakers are the best, and they get great coaching. Don’t just listen to their content. How did they organize their material? Watch what they do. Make note of what worked. Then think about which of those techniques you could make your own.

You don’t have to employ all these tips. If you just do a few, then I believe (like my neighbor who believed in me) that you can do a good job.

credit: Alexas Fotos (Pixabay)

Why Tell Stories

Teachers and nonfiction writers are sometimes hesitant to tell stories. Just giving the content straight seems so much better. People can get the wrong point from a story, after all. Stories can be subjective, vague, striking different people different ways. We don’t want people confused. And some may like a particular story and others not.

Giving content straight, however, has its disadvantages. Straight content can be limited and give the illusion that we know all we need about a topic in an aphorism or an essay.

If we say God is all-knowing and all-powerful, that is well and good. Maybe we add more. We say God is love, and as a result we also should love. This too is true. We definitely need to know that and believe it. It makes a massive difference in how we understand the Christian life. We have touched the mind in important ways.

And what if we tell a story? What if we tell of a man with two grown sons? The younger son shows immense disrespect for his father, asking for his share of the inheritance. Essentially he is saying he’d rather his father be dead so he can get his hands on the money.

How does the father react? Does he get angry? Does he laugh in his son’s face and mock him? No. He grants the son’s request. Promptly the young man leaves the family and squanders the wealth that he’s been given.

After some time, and having wasted everything, he is destitute and starving. In desperation he decides to return to his father, thinking to make an abject apology and ask for mercy.

All this time the father has been waiting, looking over the horizon, hoping to see his son return. And then, amazingly, he recognizes a disheveled figure, trudging down the road toward the house. The father sets aside his dignity and runs to meet him. Before the son can finish stumbling through his confession, the father calls for the servants to organize a great party for the whole community. Why? To celebrate the return of his beloved son who once seemed dead but is now back, alive.

And we? We have been touched in our hearts. We are moved. We are changed that this is the kind of God we have, a God who loves us even in this way.

image credit: wal_172619 Pixabay

Clinching the Content

“Audiences don’t always hear so good, but they see real well.”

In college I was singing with the University of Denver Chorale when I first heard this. We were backing up the Denver Symphony in a performance of Verdi’s Requiem. During one rehearsal Brian Priestman, the music director, was talking to those of us in the chorus about when we should sit and stand at different points in the piece. We even rehearsed our movements. Priestman said they were an important part of the total experience; how we moved could add drama or emphasis to the end or beginning of a section. “You see,” he explained with a wry smile, “audiences don’t always hear so good, but they see real well.”
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Please Don’t Use the Dictionary!

It’s one of the most common and one of the dullest tools that writers or speakers pull out of their toolboxes–quoting a dictionary definition when trying to make a point. It happens every day whether it’s a blogger, a teacher, a preacher or a speaker. Webster gets quoted to define some painfully ordinary word like professional or accidental or addiction. Why is this such a problem?
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Speaking of Nightmares

Anxiety dreams are common. It’s the day of finals and you can’t find the classroom–in fact, you have neglected to attend class all semester. Or it’s the big game and the coach sends you in as the point guard–only you are short and a really bad basketball player who hasn’t practiced with the team all season. Or you are suddenly called on to give a speech with a few only a minutes’ notice.

Except that the last one wasn’t a dream for me. It really happened once.
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