Thursday, April 03, 2014

Writing tips: Persuade by making it matter to your audience

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You can’t persuade an audience with unproven ideas, nor can you fire one up without appealing to their values.

Read this opening to a seminar on secure information technology practices and then answer this question: do you care?

“Why is security important to us? Because the effectiveness of our programs, activities and services depends on the level of trust our partners have in us. Central to that trust is rigorous stewardship over our digital and physical assets...”

The statement is true, as far as it goes. But for the average worker, it’s not compelling. There are too many steps between the proposition and the audience’s own life.

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Someone else, working for an organization that I don’t work for, won’t trust our website as much? Holy spam, Batman! Let’s get to that IT security seminar now!

Better: “Why is IT security important to you? Because without taking these precautions, you risk exposing confidential organizational or even personal information that could be used in fraud.”

Remember what people value

Whenever I have to write something persuasive, I like to recall Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If you’re not familiar with it, follow the link, but basically, Abraham Maslow studied people and their behaviour, and organized common motivators into a hierarchy. The lower or more basic the desire, the more powerful. Maslow also stated that humans do not, generally, focus on higher needs until they’ve fulfilled the basic ones.
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So if we want to motivate people, we have to make sure we’re evoking those basic, animal needs: food, warmth, security, belonging, esteem. A job may supply those things, so promoting the employer’s success can work. Anything that contributes to the bottom line is persuasive to the extent that the audience believes the employer’s success is critical to their own.

The incidence of fraud, identity theft and other crimes facilitated by the Internet proves that people feel IT security is pretty distant from their own needs — until they get stung by some kind of scam.

The path from the IT department’s guidelines to your own security isn’t obvious, but it is real. Our job as communicators is to clear that path.

How to make it matter

Here is a suggested outline you can adapt the next time you have to get a group to buy into something important, but new or abstract to them.
  1. Start with an example — like “Erica bypassed the spam filter and filled out this sensitive information on a website. Then the information was published and her employer fired her.”
  2. Explain the problem and summarize the solution — like “Erica did not verify that the form she filled out was actually on the website of the organization she thought it was. She should have made sure that the URL had a lock symbol and began with https://”
  3. Broaden or generalize the problem — use more examples from the audience’s own workplace or experience. Make them as realistic as possible.
  4. Explain the problem, the consequences and the solutions fully. Keep the language clear and simple. Use active sentences so that the audience can follow the guidelines.
  5. End with more realistic examples — “If you encounter x, do y.” Provide solutions that the audience can use right away.

Make change less scary and difficult
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Change is hard, because it opens us to the unknown. If you want to persuade an audience to change the way they work — or do anything, for that matter — you have to prove to the audience that it’s important to them (not to you), and you have to make accomplishing a change as easy as possible.

Do you have an experience to share?

Have you been to a seminar or read a document that tried to explain how important something was, but failed because you still didn’t care afterward? Tell us all about it in the Comments.

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