Quick: name the three reasons humans communicate.

If you haven’t answered yet, either you haven’t thought enough about basic human communication, or you’ve overthought it.


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We communicate – in verbal, written, or nonverbal modalities – to persuade, inform, or mark special occasions. That’s it. So, after a few words about informative and special occasion communication – purely for context and to get it out of the way – we’re here to talk about persuasion.

Informative communication includes descriptions, narrations, explanations, recipes, product ingredients, progress reports, scientific formulas, blueprints, baseball box scores, or anything else that adds to the receiver’s store of knowledge.

Special occasion communications are awards (giving or accepting), dedications, entertainment, memorials, tributes (including anthems), eulogies, heroic symphonies, dance, wedding speeches, cheers for a home run. In short, anything not routine is special occasion.

The wide range of things that informative and special occasion cover notwithstanding, studies have shown that of all the time we spend with others, upwards of two-thirds of it is either persuading or being persuaded. Most prominently, this includes sales, marketing, advertising, product packaging, proposals, goal setting, fund raising, and political campaigning.

Shouldn’t we be better at what we do most?

Observations over 15 years of teaching graduate communication and leadership courses revealed two startling realities: (1) When asked in open-ended ways to name different communication reasons, 80 percent either didn’t name all three or invented more than three. (2) When asked to list one persuasion method, 75 percent could not generate any. (More on methods later.) When given hints, almost all readily identified more than one.

Many professionals in every field (sad to say), have never thought about persuasion beyond believing that it depends on who talks the loudest, longest, or last. But clearly, to the enlightened, there is a science, art, and magic to persuasion.

The Science of Persuasion

Persuasion depends on four factors: credibility, authority, relevance, and feedback. We generate the first three, we receive the fourth. Therefore, the first three constitute the science of persuasion; they are planned and can be replicated. The fourth, discussed later, is undeniably the art of persuasion, needing creative interpretation and artistic, even athletic adjustment.

To be credible, an idea must be believable, sensible, and practical (to some degree) or any combination thereof. What does that mean? Albert Einstein used to say, “If you can’t explain something to a six-year-old, you don’t know it well enough yourself.” If it is not initially credible, persuaders must derive credibility by explaining it through logic, reasoning, examples, or analogies.

Next, an idea must come from someone whom we recognize as an authoritative voice. If we are that person, fine. If not, we must borrow that authority by quoting experts or citing reputable research.

Relevance depends on an idea being significant to us, one we’re likely to accept, approve of, defend, and allow to pass through our paradigm structures.

The Art of Persuasion

Dealing with feedback is the artful part of persuasion. Feedback is constant and must be continuously gauged by the sender. For example, how is the receiver interpreting your message? How can you determine that? This is an intimate dance, performed by the persuader and the persuaded, that provides milestones along the path to recognition of the persuasion itself. It’s not just an end result; it’s part and parcel of the adjustment process. You’re like the quarterback calling an audible, the tennis player adjusting to your opponent’s wicked serve, the stand-up comic whose stuff is not going over but you still have five minutes of material to do. How astutely you recognize these scenarios and how athletically you adjust, that’s how persuasive you’ll be.

The Magic of Persuasion

Making persuasion happen is where the magic comes in. Understanding the above, it’s appropriate to identify and enlist specific methods of persuasion, most common of which are logic, emotion, proof of concept, endorsement, expert testimony, urgency, reasoning, and – get this – fallacies. (For this part of the topic, reference is made to www.fallacyfiles.org – a scholarly study with more than you’ll ever need to know). The point is, though, that if you engage in fallacies – red herring, ad hominem, either-or, bandwagon, slippery slope, personal belief, among many – you are guilty and can expected to be called out by even a mildly sophisticated listener. And there goes your persuasion.

But when you decide on the best method for your message – emotion in ads for animal rescue, Michael Jordan’s endorsement of Nike shoes, bandwagon in auto commercials, or urgency in a task force committee meeting – then the magic starts.

Remember this. We all want to be persuaded. A little thought about a relatively simple exercise will give your audience what they want – through the science, the art, and the magic of persuasion.

By Eli Amdur, Contributor

© 2020 Forbes Media LLC. All Rights Reserved

This Forbes article was legally licensed through AdvisorStream.

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Tami Romanchuk, CFP, CLU
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