Framing and Action Forces: Effective Persuasive Practices
Much of our communication time is spent trying to motivate and influence others. However, many people approach persuasive communication from an informative perspective. They feel if they teach people why they see something the way they do, then others will clearly come to see the world the same way. Thus, many persuasive arguments end up simply being lists of facts and evidence. There is clearly more involved in being effective persuaders than simply firing facts at people. In what follows, I provide two powerful approaches to persuading others – Framing and Action Forces.
Frame to Gain
Let’s say you are faced with an awful choice. You have a debilitating disease and your doctor informs you that your only hope of returning to your desired way of life is to take advantage of an experimental treatment. Would the likelihood of your accepting the treatment change if you were told the treatment had a 67% failure rate as compared to if you were told it had a 33% success rate? If you are like most people, your acceptance of the treatment would be drastically affected by the wording — many more people agree to take the treatment when the treatment’s success rate is presented. Language matters in persuasion. How you position your desired change can increase the likelihood of your effectiveness.
Whenever possible frame your messages in terms of potential benefits and successes. By doing so, you short-circuit the natural human tendency to be risk-averse. People will go to great lengths to avoid potential negative outcomes – much greater lengths than they will go to attain potential positive ones. A simple example of this affect can be seen in terms of how much people are willing to pay for a car someone else owned. If you list this car as a “used” car, people will pay less for it than if it is listed as a “certified previously owned” vehicle. The word choice and framing you use affects perception, which in turn affects attitudes and behaviors.
Broccoli is the bane of my existence. Trying to get my kids to eat this cruciferous vegetable has been frustrating me for years. Then one day, I decided to try some of the persuasion principles that I teach my MBA students, and to my delight, I was able to get my kids to eat there veggies without starting WW III.
When attempting to change a behavior or attitude, you must consider the action forces that promote and inhibit the change you are pursuing. Most persuasion efforts focus on promoting forces by explaining why you should make the change being suggested: Eat this broccoli because it will make you strong. Invest in this company so you can make great future returns. Drive this car so you can impress a prospective romantic partner. Promoting forces represent the benefits, incentives, or avoided negative outcomes of enacting the change. Most advertising promotes change.
However, promoting forces are not always enough to affect change. You must consider the inhibiting forces that prevent someone from changing. In the broccoli battles I had, my kids understood very clearly the benefits of eating their greens and they were even excited by the elaborate rewards I concocted (e.g., each bite of broccoli translated to two bites of ice cream). However, they could not get beyond the texture and taste. These visceral responses prevented them from consuming the broccoli. With a little culinary cover up (e.g., dipping sauces), I was able to remove the inhibitory forces and achieve victory.
Failing to address inhibitory forces can actually decrease the likelihood of behavior change. People can get very frustrated if they desire the change you are promoting but can’t get beyond the forces restraining the behavior. For example, consider a typical campaign to get sedentary people to exercise more. The promoting arguments are clear and desirable – greater health, more energy, etc. However, the lack of time and potential pain that comes with new exercise regimens can prevent people from starting. People bombarded solely with promoting messages might begin to resent those trying to help them be healthy since they are unable or unwilling to exercise. A more complete and effective campaign would focus not only on the benefits of exercise, but one developing less strenuous and less time consuming work outs.
The bottom line here is that effective persuasion requires more than simply informing your audience of facts that support your view or desired change. You most take time to craft your persuasive messages so that they appear beneficial to your target while also considering what forces may inhibit them from taking on your desired change. Further, you must frame and word your persuasive intent in a positive manner. Thus, as with most things involved in effective communication, you must undertake thorough audience analysis. You need to understand what motivates your audience as well as what restrains them.