7 Tips for Better Persuasion

When and how to persuade people directly and indirectly.

Posted Jun 30, 2018

The tactics we use to persuade other people often function through the same principles that drive our own decision-making. As a result, the more we learn about the dynamics of our own thinking, the more we can influence the choices of others as well. Given that, in the last article, I discussed how to apply a dual-process model of cognition for better decision-making in our own lives. In this article, I will explore the other side of that coin—how to persuade others, both directly and indirectly, using that model of thinking too.

The main point of consideration here is whether an individual is going to deeply and thoroughly consider the information presented to them, or simply make a shallow and quick decision based on a few cues and their own biases. In other words, we are interested evaluating the likelihood of the individual elaborating (i.e. thinking deeply) about the persuasive message. Therefore, to understand when to persuade others through logic and facts (versus when to simply be charming and likeable), we will turn to a model of persuasion that can help make such a distinction—the Elaboration Likelihood Model.

The Elaboration Likelihood Model

Beginning in the 1970’s, persuasion and attitude change researchers started to notice patterns in how individuals responded to messages designed to influence them. Among others, Petty and Cacioppo (1981, 1986) attempted to explain these patterns through a two-process model of cognition. In their work, they noted two general ways or “routes” to persuade an individual:

  • The Central Route: where an individual thoughtfully and carefully considers the information presented to them (e.g. deciding based on the facts and statistics).
  • The Peripheral Route: where an individual is influenced by some simple cue or feature of the context of persuasion, without giving the information much thought (e.g. deciding based on the attractiveness of the requester, or personal feelings about the topic).

Petty and Cacioppo (1981, 1986) further designed the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) to help predict when individuals would be “likely” to take the central versus peripheral routes in their evaluation of a persuasive message. They suggested two important factors that predicted when an individual might be inclined to take each route: Motivation and Ability. When an individual is motivated and able to think carefully and thoroughly about what you are persuading them to do, they will often evaluate the information you provide to decide. Thus, they will take the central route. If they are unmotivated or unable to think carefully and thoroughly, however, then they will simply make a decision using a few superficial cues and personal biases. In that case, they will take the peripheral route instead.

Subsequent research and evaluation has supported the use of the ELM as an effective framework to help conceptualize marketing efforts and persuade consumers as well (Teeny, Briñol, & Petty, 2017). Some do note limitations of the model, however, particularly in an online context (where individuals may have more time and control to process messages both centrally and peripherally), and with younger children, who may not yet have as clear a distinction in their thinking processes (Kitchen, Kerr, Schultz, McColl, & Pals, 2014). Nevertheless, it is still an effective theoretical framework, particularly to help predict how an individual may evaluate a persuasive message, in a given context (O’Keefe, 2013).

Tips for Effective Persuasion

Beyond the basics above, the ELM also offers seven general principles or “postulates” to guide effective persuasion (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986, Petty & Wegener, D., 1999). Below, I will review them, and provide some tips for your own business and interpersonal persuasive efforts too!

1) People are motivated to hold correct attitudes. People want to know the “right” things to think, do, know (and buy). As a result, if they think you know something important that can help them, they are likely to interact with you too. Therefore, if you want to persuade potential customers, employees, or relationship partners, begin by offering some information or cue that helps them better evaluate their own attitudes—and/or feel more secure in their position. Answer the question…why should they listen to you?

2) Although people want to hold correct attitudes, the amount of elaboration people are willing or able to do to evaluate a message can vary. People may process what you have to say differently at different times. Therefore, when you have something important to say and information to give, make sure to pick a time when the other person is motivated and attentive to share it. Otherwise, if your facts are weak and you’d rather they didn’t scrutinize the details too much, then simply slip your message in when the other person is distracted and occupied.

3) Variables can affect the amount and direction of attitude change by: (A) serving as persuasive arguments, (B) serving as peripheral cues, and/or (C) affecting the extent of the person’s thinking about the message. Given that, think about what you have at your disposal to persuade. If you have clear facts, information, and statistics to support your points, then make a central, persuasive appeal with them. If you are charming, likeable, or have an emotional topic, then approach things from a more peripheral and indirect route instead.

4) Affecting motivation and/or ability to process a message can either enhance or reduce argument scrutiny. With that in mind, which way do you want to guide your audience—centrally or peripherally? If you want the central route, then explain why your message should be important to them (improving motivation), say things in a way they can understand, at a time they can focus (increasing ability), and then share that information with them. Planned meeting times, or online advertisements are excellent for this approach. If you want the peripheral route instead, then make your message seem less relevant to them, and communicate it in a way that doesn’t allow longer deliberation. We see this often in a quick radio advertisement, or a “by the way” comment at the office or at home.

5) As motivation and/or ability to process arguments is decreased, peripheral cues become more important to persuasion. Despite our best efforts, it is a challenge to get people to pay attention for any length of time. As a result, a great deal of persuasion does rely on simple cues, rather than thoughtful consideration. Therefore, remember to pay attention to those cues in some way as well. For example, convey expertise in how you dress, or be friendly and likable in your behavior. Put a few graphs or testimonials in your advertisement or report, even when someone doesn’t have time to read them. Wait until your love interest is in a good mood before you ask them out…

6) Variables affecting message processing in a relatively biased manner can produce either a positive or negative bias toward the persuasion attempt. People are not pushovers though. They have their own mind—and often defend their beliefs. This is particularly true when they are knowledgeable about a topic, believe they may disagree with you, and/or are on-guard and expect you to persuade them. Therefore, if you face a knowledgeable, disagreeable, and/or hostile audience, then prepare your facts and take the central route. If they are uninformed, agreeable, and not on-guard to resist persuasive appeals, then you can use more peripheral cues to easily nudge them instead.

7) Attitude changes from the central route will be more persistent, more likely to impact behavior, and will be more resistant to later change. As with anything else, there are no shortcuts in truly effective persuasion. Yes, you may peripherally influence someone in the moment with a charming smile or emotional appeal, but that usually will not last (at least, not without periodic prompting). Therefore, if you want more enduring change in how someone thinks or behaves, then you need to take the central route. In that case, gather the facts, provide the information, explain in a way that is relevant and clear to them—and you are more likely to create lasting change too.

Looking for more?

For more information on how these central and peripheral routes influence our own decision-making processes, see my article on the Persuasion, Bias, and Choice blog: 5 Tips for Better Decision-Making

For more information on how these fast and slow decision-making processes impact our romantic partner choices, see my article on The Attraction Doctor blog: Who is Attractive and Compatible as a Romantic Partner?

© 2018 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.

References

Kitchen, P. J., Kerr, G., Schultz, D. E., McColl, R., & Pals, H. (2014). The elaboration likelihood model: Review, critique and research agenda. European Journal of Marketing, 48(11-12), 2033-2050.

O'Keefe, D. J. (2013). The elaboration likelihood model. In J. P. Dillard & L. Shen (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of persuasion: Developments in theory and practice (pp. 137-149). Thousand Oaks, CA, US: Sage Publications, Inc.

Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1981). Attitudes and persuasion: Classic and contemporary approaches. Dubuque, IA: William C Brown Publishing.

Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1986). The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 19, pp. 123-205). New York, NY: Academic Press.

Petty, R. E., & Wegener, D. T. (1999). The elaboration likelihood model: Current status and controversies. In S. Chaiken & Y. Trope (Eds.), Dual-process theories in social psychology (pp. 37-72). New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.

Teeny, J., Briñol, P., & Petty, R. E. (2017). The elaboration likelihood model: Understanding consumer attitude change. In C. V. Jansson-Boyd & M. J. Zawisza (Eds.), Routledge international handbooks. Routledge international handbook of consumer psychology (pp. 390-410). New York, NY: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.