There is a Golden Rule in persuasion or any type of communication. When you violate the Golden Rule, you not only fail to persuade, you often make matters worse. You portray yourself as the attacker, the victimizer. It gives your recipient cause not only to dismiss you but dismiss your entire message, no matter how righteous, logical or fact-based.
A mentor of mine shared this with me fourteen years ago. I’ve tweaked it over the years to improve on it.
I had come to see him after a sales call. I was feeling dejected over a missed opportunity. I sat down with my mentor to triage what had happened.
“There was nothing I could do,” I said. “He just wasn’t getting it.”
He chastised me for violating his axiom which had been drilled into my head before. I now call it the Golden Rule of Communication.
It is ALWAYS the communicator’s responsibility to ensure her message is received, understood, incorporated into the recipient’s belief system and acted upon promptly. It is NEVER the recipient’s responsibility.
My reader doesn’t get it — It’s not his job to “get it,” it’s your job to explain it clearly.
My reader is dumb. He can’t see the obvious. — No, your reader is not dumb. Your explanation failed to convince him. Instead of blaming him, find ways to improve your message.
Now that you know the Golden Rule of Communication, how can you improve your messaging and accomplish your communication goals?
Let’s begin with the basics.
Identify Your Primary Audience
Who is your ideal audience? Describe her in detail. Include beliefs, hobbies, habits, fashion preferences, music tastes and any other information you can gather. Create an avatar — a fictional persona who typifies your target audience.
Are you writing to people who agree with you or people who disagree with you? You cannot effectively communicate to both at the same time.
Effective written communication begins with research. Identify who are you writing to; what do they feel, think and believe?
Identify Your Goals
Now that you’ve identified your audience, you determine your goals. If you write to people who agree with you, you’re acting more like a cheerleader or preacher. It’s your job to inspire the crowd, rile them up, excite them and move them to action. You have a lot of latitude in this role. Your audience will look past minor errors, questionable facts and aggressive positioning.
If you’re writing to people who disagree with you, it’s your job to persuade them to your way of thinking. This is a far more demanding role than that of the cheerleader. It requires patience, restraint, empathy and detachment.
Align Your Audience With Your Goals
It’s easy to lose yourself in your passion. Your words represent what you feel. That’s not always the right strategy, especially when you’re communicating to a hostile audience.
For example, you can write about social injustice and why we need to rise and take action to correct it. That sounds okay if your audience already believes what you believe.
But what if your audience does not believe your cause represents an injustice?
The minute you tell someone they’re wrong for believing what they believe, you lose any chance at winning them over.
How do we write to a skeptical or hostile audience? Shame, bully or insult? No. Those tactics might provide you with emotional satisfaction, but they fail to change minds. Recall the Golden Rule. It’s your responsibility to communicate and persuade. It’s not their responsibility to be influenced.
Our experiences, environment and upbringing influence our beliefs and outlook on life. It’s natural to approach a skeptical or hostile audience with the perspective of your worldview.
This approach rarely produces the results you desire. You might see your intended audience as the enemy. It’s tempting to attack, berate, embarrass and shame. You expect they’ll finally come to their senses. Of course, this never works. They only dig in deeper and fight back, or they discredit you and disengage.
We need to remember we’re the communicators. It’s our responsibility to present our message in a manner that will promote acceptance and an honest evaluation of what we write.
Put yourself in her shoes. What experiences, upbringing and environmental differences influenced her beliefs? How might you plant a seed that causes her to rethink her belief system? Is there a story you can tell that will challenge her views in a small way? It’s easier to chip away at a core belief — attack one small piece at a time. Inducing a sweeping change in someone’s belief system is almost impossible.
Don’t Draw Conclusions
People are smart, and if they’re not, they believe they are. And since we’re taking responsibility for our communication, we need to treat people like they are intelligent because this approach is more likely to win their approval.
You accomplish this is by allowing people to draw their own conclusions. Yes, you can lead them to your desired outcome, but you have to give them the power to conclude. Nobody wants you to shove your beliefs down their throat.
A tried and true method is to tell a dispassionate story. By dispassionate, I don’t mean boring. In a good novel, we become involved in the story and its characters. The author is almost invisible. We know she’s there in the background, but it’s not top of mind. That’s how you should write to a hostile audience.
Tell a story, but let the story demonstrate your points. Let your reader draw the obvious inferences. It’s tempting to inject your opinion and reinforce your points. That approach insults your reader’s intelligence.
It’s like that game of connect-the-dots you played as a kid. In the adult version of persuasive writing, you connect all the dots except the last one. Leave that one to the reader. It shows your reader respect and allows him the fun of figuring it out himself.
Watch Your Words
We often violate this neutrality rule with our choice of words. Your words can identify you as a partisan trying to push an agenda. The verbs, adjectives and nouns you choose reveal your beliefs even if you don’t explicitly state your position.
Compare these two sentences.
“The racist representative lashed a verbal tirade at a young woman seeking birth control. Listen to his abuse.”
“Representative Smith debated a young woman over birth control availability. Here’s what they said.”
The first sentence tells the reader exactly what the author thinks (racist, lashed, tirade, abuse). The second one prepares the reader for a story. The reader can then draw an independent conclusion — at least, it will feel like an independent conclusion. Even if you agree with the assertions of the author of the first statement, the heavy-handed approach will often annoy readers.
“I agree with your positions, but can’t you at least let me make up my mind.”
Here’s another example you see just about every day.
“[Insert Name] shuts down Trump with a brutal rebuttal.”
Notice the verb “shut down” and the adjective “brutal.”
Those words indicate your intention to force an opinion on me before I’ve had a chance to review for myself.
Lead your readers down a path that you choose, but allow them to connect the final dots. Have faith in their intelligence. True, most won’t change their minds, at least not right away. Persuasion is difficult and time-consuming. But bullying, yelling and taking a heavy-handed approach prove far less successful.