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Creating Persuasive Arguments: How to Change People's Minds

Many of the frameworks we talk about are based on behaviour. And many demand a change in behaviour. After all, if we carry on doing what we've always done, we will always get what we've always got. This brings me to a consideration of how we change people’s minds and their behaviour. There is a lot written on this subject. Nudging people bit by bit is a theory much talked about by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. As the word “nudge” suggests, their theory is based on the belief that micro targets should be aimed at specific groups of people rather than trying to alter massive groups with big instructions.

Daniel Kahneman has addressed the subject with his system 1 and system 2 thinking. System 1 covers the fast reactions we would expect if we were to meet a tiger in the jungle. System 2 thinking is the slow, reflective processing that takes place over time.

It is this reflected thinking that is discussed in a book by David McRaney called How Minds Change. It seems that it is much harder than we think to get people to change their minds. You would imagine that one of the best ways is to present people with facts. John Maynard Keynes famously said : "When the facts change, I change my mind - what do you do sir?" Apparently "sir" doesn't. This is because facts that challenge our beliefs threaten us. We dislike having our views challenged because it makes us look idiots and it also separates us from our friends with similar views. And yet, those of us in business are always trotting out facts to present our case and trying to get people to change their behaviour.

It seems that we have a better chance of changing behaviour if we do what McRaney calls "deep canvassing". This is listening in depth as to why people have certain beliefs rather than trying to convince them that they are wrong. As we listen to their explanations there may be opportunities to get them to think and reflect and in so doing there may be chinks of light that shine through. People need to work out for themselves why they may be wrong rather than be told so by some smart arse.

I can see the logic in this and it could be a good framework. However, I can also see that it is likely to be a long slog and we don't always have time for that. I am sure that our advertising colleagues will recognise the value in this approach. Decide on your objective, find the target audience that could be receptive to your message, and design the message to sit comfortably. Repeat until conviction is achieved.


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