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Persuasive Communication

By Robert F. Abbott
Posted Saturday, January 1, 2005

Is all communication persuasive? Sometimes, it seems it is. At the least, we can say much of our communication includes a persuasion component.

Consider this article, which takes an editorial rather than an overtly persuasive approach. Yet, the underlying premise is that strategic communication works more effectively than communication without a conscious purpose. So, I'm trying to persuade you that one approach (the strategic) to communication works better than another.

Consider, too, the three most intriguing words in the English language: "I love you." At the same time, these words can be both self-sacrificing and self-serving. In the self-serving sense, we use the words because we want something from the person to whom we've uttered them.

Given our need to persuade through communication, let's explore a key starting point for getting the results we want.

Because persuasive communication focuses on the other person, we need to have that other person firmly in our sights when we write or speak. In other words, communication will be most persuasive when we build the message around the other person, rather than ourselves.

So, if you want to persuade me to do something, your communication should focus on my response. And to get a response from me, you'll have to address the issues in my terms, not your terms.

In sales and marketing, this idea is well developed. Copywriters and others know their chances of getting a sale go up dramatically when they communicate benefits. They point out how the reader or listener will come out ahead by buying or using their products. "Buy this shampoo and you'll have a more active social life," for example.

The link between product and consumer needs involves the connection between features (what the product does) and outcomes for users. In the case of the shampoo example, let's say the product's features include a new moisturizer that makes our hair more attractive. In turn, more attractive hair means we're more likely to enjoy a busier social life. So, the marketer who emphasizes the outcome or benefit (a more active social life) will sell more shampoo than a marketer who focuses on the product or its features (new moisturizer).

In non-sales fields that idea of addressing the needs of readers and listeners isn't nearly as well appreciated. Consider internal memos, composed and circulated by millions of well-meaning managers and supervisors. Many of them focus on the needs of the manager or the organization, and not on the reader, the person who needs to be persuaded by the writer of the memo.

Would internal memos work more effectively if their writers focused on the reader instead of themselves? Would people making in-house presentations get better responses by building their pitches on the needs or aspirations of the audience? I think so. The experience in sales has shown, overwhelmingly, that benefits outsell features (features being the characteristics of the product or service being sold).

When you next set out to send an important message, pause long enough to ask yourself whether persuasion is your goal -- either directly or indirectly. If you do want to persuade, then ask yourself if you've focused sufficiently on the recipients. That's the starting point for persuasive communication.

About the Author
Robert F. Abbott writes and publishes Abbott's Communication Letter. Each week subscribers receive, at no charge, a new communication tip that helps them lead or manage more effectively. Click here for more information: (