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How To Persuade: Who Is Your Audience

Submitted by Joel on Sat, 06/05/2021 - 04:34

This post is the first in a series that will, hopefully, help people in two very important ways: first by helping them communicate their ideas and second by helping them better understand their own ideas. While I admit that I am not a celebrated expert in the field of communication or argument, I have studied it quite a bit and have a master's degree in sociology, which I would argue studies how people make decisions (along with psychology and marketing). This is not meant to be a scientific exploration with cited materials, but my own ideas on how to approach arguments with friends, family, or even complete strangers. 

Who Are You Trying To Persuade?

The first step in trying to persuade someone to your viewpoint, is determining what type of person they are. Once you understand that, you can determine which keys might work to unlock the door to their mind. One thing that is very important to understand, though, is that each person has a different approach to each individual topic. Just because a person is generally open-minded, he or she might be very different on specific topics. 

To determine how your audience might respond to your arguments, you must start with a sub-step: having a good idea about why you believe something. My assumption is that you already have this done. You've researched the topic enough to form an opinion on the topic and can discuss it to at least a small extent. In order to illustrate this, I will use four discussion topics from my own beliefs.

  • I should support Cardiff Cricket Club
  • A peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a glass of milk is a healthy meal
  • The Earth is spherical
  • Nuclear power should be more widely used

Each of these topics I believe, but in different ways. This is true as of my writing of this, and if I change my mind on any of these topics, I will not be updating this post. These aren't meant to start a discussion,  just to illustrate how a person might approach topics differently. 

  • Cricket
    • Different from the other three because I don't have a strong opinion about it.
    • I don't know a lot about cricket, but I'm not really into sports, so I doubt I'll ever be into cricket.
  • PB&J
    • I don't know a lot about nutrition.
    • I believe PB&J with a glass of milk is very good for you.
    • I'm not going to research it, and I don't really want to.
  • Globe Earth vs flat Earth
    • I'm very interested in this topic and have done quite a lot of research.
    • I can back up why I believe as I do, and you're likely not going to change my mind.
  • Nuclear power
    • I find this topic interesting and very important.
    • I haven't done as much research as I could, but I'm pretty knowledgeable on the subject.
    • You could change my mind with a good argument and evidence.

These four opinions that I hold fall into four main categories that I think most opinions fall into. In my mind, there are two aspects to an opinion: How open you are to other opinions and how skeptical you are on the topic. For cricket, I'm open-minded and rather gullible. For PB&J I'm closed-minded and gullible. For Globe Earth I'm closed-minded and skeptical. And finally, for nuclear power I'm open-minded and skeptical. 

Gullible vs Skeptical

I know many of you will dislike the term 'gullible', but I think it's very fitting. A skeptical person wants reasons to back up the claim, while a gullible person will likely have very weak or non-existent evidence. There might be better terms to use than 'gullible' or 'skeptical', but the idea is how much actual evidence you have when forming your opinion on this topic. We're all gullible in many, many topics. We believe what we do mostly because we haven't really thought much about it. If we're skeptical about a topic, we need evidence. We need to hear from those we trust providing strong arguments on the topic. 

Open vs Closed-Minded

Another label that might be controversial. Basically I'm trying to get across how open a person is to having a different opinion. A person that has never been to a city and is just starting to research attractions will be very open-minded as they have nothing really to go on. If your mind is set, even if it's because you have very solid evidence, you still are being closed-minded because it will take quite a lot to convince you otherwise. Sometimes, even your own senses won't convince you to change your mind. 

Which Opinion Is Best?

There's really not a good or bad for a general regard. I think most people have a rather closed-minded viewpoint on murder or theft, for instance, and I'd argue it's a good thing. Each topic we encounter, we'll be more or less susceptible based on our perceptions and experiences. Because there are two categories each with two options, each opinion we have falls into one of these four categories:

A) Gullible and Open-minded
B) Gullible and Closed-minded
C) Skeptical and Closed-minded
D) Skeptical and Open-minded

When going into a discussion, I think we should strive to be D, but sadly too many of us are B. My topics up above are ordered in the same way, so I'm A on cricket, B on PJ&J, C on Globe Earth, and D on nuclear power. If I were to enter a discussion on the topic, I would do my best to fight against my current disposition, though, and strive to be a D. Sadly, I would likely fail on each of those topics, though. 

For cricket, I'm an A because I simply don't care enough about sports to be discerning. If someone with passion regaled me with interesting stories, I would easily be convinced that Cardiff was the team to support. If someone else came along to talk about cricket, I'd likely give up on my support for Cardiff. I'd likely be quite fickle about it and the last person to have my ear on the topic would be the most influential because I really just don't care that much about it.

For PB&J, I'm a B because I love it so much that I really just don't want to hear what you have to say about the topic; you won't change my mind. I take the love for PB&J personally. Sadly, my pride would likely take over in any discussion and it would be very hard for me to overcome my personal prejudice to actually care about what you had to say. I believe that a PB&J sandwich with a glass of milk is a nice balanced meal and if research confirmed it, I'd believe it, and if it denied it, I'd not believe it. It's a sobering reality to admit, but it's true. Also, I haven't had lunch yet, so maybe my stomach is typing this more than my brain, but still, PB&J is the best! 

For Globe Earth, I'm a C because I'm fascinated by the idea that people actually don't believe in something considered as 'obvious' for centuries. The sociologist in me wants to interview dozens of "Flat Earthers" and see what demographics they have in common. But I wouldn't be trying to understand their arguments. I'd be trying to understand how they got to be so deluded. I'm absolutely closed-minded on this topic and it would take a mountain of evidence to convince me otherwise. Because there's a mountain of evidence that would have to be surmounted in order to disprove a Globe Earth. I'm skeptical about it. I've just seen the existing evidence and it is truly insurmountable in my mind.

Finally, for nuclear power, I'm a D because it's a really interesting topic to me and I think it's important how we generate our power. My opinion is that nuclear power is mostly clean energy and it's worth not burning fossil fuels. Solar and wind power just isn't quite there yet, so we should be doing nuclear for another generation or so. But, because it's so important, I think it should be decided by a panel of people way smarter than I am, and I'd love to hear their reasoning for it. Sadly, it's just complex enough that hours and hours of studying likely wouldn't inform me enough to impact my opinion. So an expert could change my mind, but it would definitely take some evidence from worthwhile sources.

Being gullible is rarely a good thing, but we only have so much time in this world. If you're uninformed, you're going to be a bit gullible. For me, going into a discussion as an A means you're really just making small talk about a topic you don't care much about. Small talk is fine, but don't waste the person's time pretending that you care about the topic if you don't. Going in as a B, though, is always a bad thing. Don't discuss a topic unless you're either willing to change your mind or be skeptical about it. Sadly, in my experience, most people you will be entering a discussion with will be a B.

How To Identify a 'B'

When you start in on the topic, are they combative? Combative people are almost always the closed-minded ones, but they could still be a skeptical C, which means that, with evidence, you might still have a productive conversation. How can you tell if you're talking to a C or the dreaded B? Does every sentence contain an insult (maybe not about you specifically, but about the viewpoint)? Do they ask you what you believe or do they tell you what you believe? B might as well stand for 'bad faith', because they're going into this discussion mostly to make themselves feel better. They want to tear YOU down, not your argument. Discussion with a B is often not worth it, to be honest.

Let's take the Globe vs Flat Earth. If I entered as a B, I would be starting off with stuff like, "You really believe that gravity doesn't exist?" or "You know that people have known it was a sphere for thousands of years, right?" Instead, as a C, I would do into it differently: "Walk me through your reasoning. Let's start with gravity." Let them explain their thoughts instead of me telling them what they believe. I would have a hard time approaching it as a D, though. Gravity, to me, dispels the myth of a Flat Earth, so I want them to start there. My mind is made up, so I want to present them with MY arguments that they have to overcome. If I were to approach it as a D, I would simply say, "Walk me through your reasoning." That's it. Let them present their evidence to me. I don't want to be an A, because I care about the topic too much. An A might say, "I've always wondered why so many thought it was a globe! How long have you been into Flat Earth?"

So as a C, if I presented them with "What are your thoughts on gravity?" If they responded with something similar to "Gravity is so stupid! If I put ten pounds of oil on top of one pound of water, the oil should PUSH to the bottom of the water with gravity! It's about BUOYANCY! Gravity believers are just sheep that will believe anything NASA tells them!" You're dealing with a B.

And it's important to note that most arguments you see on Twitter are between two Bs. Like this: "Flat Earth is so dumb! They don't believe in GRAVITY! Duh, why don't we float away?!" "Don't believe the gravity lie that NASA feeds you! It's about buoyancy. Air is less dense, so it floats above us! We're spinning a thousand miles an hour, so we should shoot off into space! Which is also a lie that only space sheep believe!" 

Final Takeaway

Don't be a B. Ask questions. Let them answer. Hopefully they'll ask you questions and you can discuss. How they respond to your questions and how you or they phrase questions will determine if they are an A, B, C, or D. In the next post, I'll discuss how to respond once you've figured out the kind of person you're discussing with. Even a B can be persuaded! But if there's one thing that you should take from the above is how YOU approach a topic. Do your best to not be a B! 

But don't come at me with your anti-PB&J propaganda! (Just teasing!) (But seriously, step off my PB&J!!)

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