Stop preaching to the choir!
Start reaching a larger audience!
The people you talk with and the websites which publish what you write might think you’re great, but the vast majority of people out there aren’t hearing it.
You’re Reaching a Very Small Audience
Communications experts like George Lakoff (who I recently interviewed) and Frank Luntz say that most people don’t make political decisions based on fact and logic. Instead, they make decisions based on their ideas of morality and pre-existing “frames” of reference.
So if you are just reciting facts, you are not going to persuade anyone except the minority of people who reason and make decisions based on logic. (You may say “but all of the websites I read and people I talk to make decisions based on logic”. Okay, but that only means that you don’t read the overwhelming majority of websites or talk to the overwhelming majority of people who make decisions based on other factors. See this and this).
Associating an issue or person with an emotion is called “anchoring”.
Some words convey strong positive or negative emotions, and act as powerful anchor words. For example, in 1995, Newt Gingrich pushed the following positive words for use by politicians:
share… change… opportunity… legacy… challenge… control… truth… moral… courage… reform… prosperity… crusade… movement… children… family… debate… compete… active(ly)… we/us/our… candid(ly)… humane… pristine… provide…
liberty… commitment… principle(d)… unique… duty… precious… premise… care(ing)… tough… listen… learn… help… lead… vision… success… empower(ment)… citizen… activist… mobilize… conflict… light… dream… freedom…
peace… rights… pioneer… proud/pride… building… preserve… pro-(issue): flag, children, environment… reform… workfare… eliminate good-time in prison… strength… choice/choose… fair… protect… confident… incentive… hard work… initiative… common sense… passionate
“National security” is also, obviously, a very powerful anchor. Just using these some of these words to describe one’s position helps to persuade people towards that position.
Gingrich urged the following negative words be describe one’s opponent:
decay… failure (fail)… collapse(ing)… deeper… crisis… urgent(cy)… destructive… destroy… sick… pathetic… lie… liberal… they/them… unionized bureaucracy… “compassion” is not enough… betray… consequences… limit(s)… shallow… traitors… sensationalists…
endanger… coercion… hypocrisy… radical… threaten… devour… waste… corruption… incompetent… permissive attitudes… destructive… impose… self-serving… greed… ideological… insecure… anti-(issue): flag, family, child, jobs… pessimistic… excuses… intolerant…
stagnation… welfare… corrupt… selfish… insensitive… status quo… mandate(s)… taxes… spend(ing)… shame… disgrace… punish (poor…)… bizarre… cynicism… cheat… steal… abuse of power… machine… bosses… obsolete… criminal rights… red tape… patronage
(Gingrich’s buzzwords came from Luntz)
Lakoff and Luntz periodically release updated lists of anchors and frames concerning specific issues. For example, Lakoff writes today that Democrats promoting health care reform should use the words “freedom” and “life”. And Luntz recently wrote that those fighting financial reform should focus on phrases such as “lobbyist loopholes”, “agent of change”, “government accountability”, “bloated government bureaucracy”. (Lakoff is on the left, and Luntz on the right. But everyone should look beyond their partisan biases to their scientific communications insights. They are, after all, two of the leading experts in field of communication).
Let’s take the example of economic policy. You can write about the bailouts, credit default swaps and oligarchy until the cows come home. But you won’t reach anyone who doesn’t already know about those issues.
Instead, start out by framing the issue in terms the majority can understand. For example:
Obama’s economic advisors – just like Bush’s – are wolves in sheep’s clothing. They rewarded the greed which caused the big banks to fail and brought on the collapse last year and the decay of the whole economy. We need real reform and real change, not the hypocrisy of rewarding the banksters with more bailouts. The crisis will not end until we give some some tough love to the banks to really rein in their radical corruption.
(I’m not an expert at framing, so you might be able to do better.)
Note: What should we do when we come face-to-face with a negative but powerful frame promoted by the other side? The best solution is usually to reframe it. Find a better, more powerful frame which encapsulates the truth.
The Religion Frame
The overwhelming majority – 75% – of all Americans consider themselves to be Christian. It is irrelevant for this discussion on reaching a larger audience whether or not those 75% are all living up to their values, whether every word of the Bible is true, whether Christianity is a detrimental force undermining democracy and reason, or whether all organized religion is a con.
What is important is that most Americans are Christian, and so you can’t reach a wider audience unless you speak in language meaningful to Christians.
Let’s take an example. The facts are that governments from around the world have admitted that they carry out false flag terror for political ends. But rounding up the confessions and facts won’t persuade anyone except the small minority of people who think rationally and make decisions based on facts.
To reach a wider audience, I have to invoke Christian values, morality and the frames which are meaningful for people of faith.
- “Punish the sinners”
- Expose the “wolves in sheep’s clothing”
- “Root out evil”
- “Protect national security”
You could say something like:
Traitors in Washington have – for a long time – committed sins against our country which are threatening our national security. Instead of using the world’s greatest military to fight bad guys, there are sinners who have hijacked our defense apparatus for their own evil purposes.
If you think that this is beneath you, you are mistaken. Specifically, the first step is to climb up from the fog of unreason to logic. Congratulations, you’ve done that.
But the second step is to translate that logic into language that the majority can understand. If you don’t do that, you have failed as a communicator.
For example, good science writers don’t use a bunch of technical jargon. They translate that jargon into plain English that everyone can understand, and use everyday images that people will get. The same is true for any communication.
(And if you are an atheist and speaking in religious language seems dishonest, think of this as speaking a little Spanish when you travel to Mexico or a little French when you go to Paris: you’re trying to converse a little in the “local language”. Even if your accent is horrible, you’ll get credit for trying.)
3 Brains Are Better than One
If you want to reach a larger audience, you also have to stop talking to only one out of three brains.
Yup, every person actually has 3 brains. Top-notch communicators appeal to all 3 brains.
The 3 brains are:
- (1) The human brain (neocortex), where we handle logic, abstract thought, words, symbols and time. This is the one you’ve been preaching to and reaching only a small audience.
- (2) The reptilian brain, which focuses solely on survival, fight-or-flight, and getting away from pain. This is, largely, what fearmongering politicians try to stir up.
- (3) The mammalian brain, which handles emotions: love, indignation, compassion, envy, hope, etc. This is what, largely, what Obama’s “hope” politics has focused on.
Most people incorrectly assume that if enough facts and logic are presented, people will believe the truth. In fact, psychologists, marketing experts and trial lawyers have found that facts are less persuasive for most people than emotions in reaching decisions.
The reptilian and monkey portions of our brain reach decisions based upon survival and emotion before the neocortex can make rational decisions. So facts alone won’t convince most people. Instead, stories, images and emotions are what sway most people.
For example, one political psychologist writes:
If you appeal primarily to people’s reason without first getting them to feel the significance of the issue you’re talking about, they’re not going to be interested. From an evolutionary standpoint, our emotions play two major roles. One, our emotions appear to capture our attention, so if you don’t make emotionally compelling arguments, if you don’t use stories or examples to grab listeners, they won’t hear important things you have to say. The other role of emotion, which is probably most crucial, is that emotions motivate us — positive feelings pull us towards things that are generally good for us, and negative emotions move us away from things that are generally bad for us.
People are driven primarily by one of two emotions:
- (1) Moving away from pain. People whose primary drive is to move away from pain usually believe that the world is primarily a scary and dangerous place, and that people are basically bad. Conservative political advisors typically try to manipulate this emotion.
- (2) Moving towards pleasure. People whose primary drive is to move toward pleasure usually believe that the world is fundamentally a fair and good place, and that people are basically good. Liberal political advisors typically try to manipulate this emotion.
If someone falls into the first category, discussing how truth will help them avoid pain will be effective. For people in the second category, stressing the pleasure that truth will bring will be useful.
Of course, if you are communicating with more than one person at a time, you should mix both messages.
These illustrations brilliantly illustrate how those in power can manipulate these two emotions.
Motivating people through a moving away from pain/fear strategy works very effectively in the short run. This is because the reptilian brain reacts first and overrides the higher thinking functions. But, over time, it stops working, and the moving away from pain strategy eventually becomes ineffective. In the long run, hope and a positive vision works better than fear. The fact that we went from Bush to Obama make sense in this light.
Seeing, Hearing, Touching
Most modern people process information primarily through their visual sense. Some process information through hearing. Other process information kinesthetically (through touch and feeling).
People not living in modern societies process information primarily kinesthetically, as that is how we are biologically wired. As stated above, we are wired to make decisions largely based on feeling and emotion.
As a neuroscientist points out:
Smells and tactile stimuli are routed immediately through the amygdala the emotional seat of the brain most responsible for the fear response. To give you a simplified explanation, this means that smells and touch can evoke much more vivid memories and emotional responses than sights or sounds.
Sights and sounds are shunted first to the thalamus. The thalamus deconstructs your vision into basic chunks of information: shape, size and color. Audio signals are similarly reduced to information about volume and dissonance. Only after this has happened does the signal get passed to the amygdala and the frontal cortex. As a consequence of this slightly more circuitous route, visual and auditory cues often trigger emotions that feel less intense than those of smell and feel.
Reading books and browsing the internet are exercises in very visual mediums that are only rarely accompanied by sound, touch or smell. If you’re trying to communicate through either of these mediums, you are immediately handicapped out of three senses.
So what does this mean on a practical level?
Unless you communicate using a person’s primary mode of learning (called “submodality”), you won’t be speaking in his language, and so probably won’t be able to persuade him.
Moreover, studies show that communications which rapidly switch back and forth between visual, auditory and kinesthetic cues best help the listener focus on the message.
Therefore, the world’s top communicators will frequently and rapidly switch between “seeing”, “hearing” and kinesthetic words.
Some examples of visual words and phrases are:
“I see what you mean.”
“Look at what’s happening.”
“Can you picture that?”
“What’s the big picture?”
Some examples of hearing words and phrases are:
“I hear you.”
“If you listen carefully, you’ll notice . . .”
“Can you hear their cries for justice?”
“That’s the sound of democracy.”
Some examples of kinesthetic words and phrases are:
“What would that feel like?”
“Pulled the rug out from under us.”
“Tearing a hole in the Constitution”
“Getting tripped up on . . .”
“They’re stabbing us in the back . . .”
An example switching submodalities could be as simple as: “I want to talk with you about the stories that we tell ourselves, the way we view the world and the way we feel as Americans.”
Obviously, multimedia is necessary for a website. Pictures which convey other senses are also effective. For example, photos of people smelling things will trigger the olfactory part of your readers’ brain.
The unconscious mind hears any statement using the word “you” as being directly at that particular listener.
Using a “you” statement when you are in a confrontational situation with someone will usually polarize the listener and destroy any possibility of influencing him.
A trick for getting around this is to use an “indirect you”; that is, speak in the third person. Here are some examples:
“[third person] was saying …”
“He said ‘you wouldn’t believe’ . . .”
“She said ‘you can’t imagine how difficult . . .”
“He said ‘you would have to be, you know, disconnected from life to ignore . . .”
“She said ‘you’d have to be almost criminally disconnected from humanity to . . .”
“He said ‘you wouldn’t believe’ . . .”
“And I said to him, ‘you know, I agree.”
“Many people tell me that what they would like to say to [listener or listener’s group] is ‘you guys are . . . .’”
If you shift the rhythm of your speaking or writing, or the pace of your video or movie, the listener or viewer will have pay attention to follow you. This draws him in, and forces him to pay attention (and thus be receptive to your message). If you listen to a world-class speaker, they will pause more than you might assume, and speak quieter in parts.
Pacing your presentation is important.
It can be powerful to tell a story in the future, as if its happening now. Then work your way back to the present, to connect the future and the present.
Masterful speeches can work back and forth and back forth among different time frames, interweaving present, future and even past events to make one’s point and give the listener a feeling of continuity in one’s vision.
Similar to switching between timeframes, one can switch between levels of complexity: from the individual, to the group, to the societal, to all of humankind.
Tell how something will benefit the individual and also society. Don’t just get stuck on one level or another.
The unconscious mind usually doesn’t hear negatives. It hears “not” as “is” (how do you react to “I am not a crook”?). And it doesn’t hear “un” or “dis”, or even “I will stop” or “I will end” sometimes.
As summarized in an article in the Washington Post:
The psychological insights yielded by the research, which has been confirmed in a number of peer-reviewed laboratory experiments, have broad implications for public policy. The conventional response to myths and urban legends is to counter bad information with accurate information. But the new psychological studies show that denials and clarifications, for all their intuitive appeal, can paradoxically contribute to the resiliency of popular myths.
This phenomenon may help explain why large numbers of Americans incorrectly think that Saddam Hussein was directly involved in planning the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and that most of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Iraqi. While these beliefs likely arose because Bush administration officials have repeatedly tried to connect Iraq with Sept. 11, the experiments suggest that intelligence reports and other efforts to debunk this account may in fact help keep it alive.
The Post concludes that the studies show that “rather than deny a false claim, it is better to make a completely new assertion that makes no reference to the original myth”.
So try to avoid negatives and stick to positive statements.
There is alot of information conveyed above. You will probably need to re-read this essay to get all of the fine points.
But if you’re short on time, Thom Hartmann summarizes some of the most important elements of successful and persuasive communication based on modern discoveries into how people actually make decisions:
“Tell a story to capture their attention. Build into the story visual and auditory metaphors and elements, each designed to evoke emotional responses. Embed into the most emotional parts of the stories the information you want remembered. And pace the story so that listeners and viewers move to your beat
Note: If you have any ethical reservations about using these techniques, please note that I am only advocating using them to promote the truth. I am completely opposed to using psychology or marketing techniques to spread disinformation.