Writing to Persuade: Three Kinds of Evidence You Need

You can learn a lot about being persuasive from two sources: The current state of American political parties and commercials for headache remedies.

Fighting Red And BlueAt the start of 2015, the president of the United States faces a difficult problem: He must deal with a legislature controlled by the opposing party. Obviously, since the president can veto any legislation he doesn’t like, negotiation skills are going to be essential on both sides for either side to get what they want. For both parties, having public opinion on their side will be key asset (as James Haner discusses, in this scenario public opinion forms part of the common ground that’s so important in negotiations). Persuading the general public that the party’s policies and views should prevail is going to be essential for both parties. There are lessons that you can learn from this situation that you can apply when you’re attempting to persuade others.

For example: You may have noticed that that on many occasions you’ve presented a compelling argument to another person, complete with incontrovertible evidence…and completely failed to convince that other person. Political parties face this problem all the time in getting public opinion on their side: There are a large group of citizens who simply don’t agree with a political party, no matter what arguments the party advances.

When they can’t convince the other person, many people assume that the other person must have some secret agenda that prevents them from being persuaded. And, since that agenda is secret, that agenda must be despicable — the other person must be “up to something”. The actual reason the other person doesn’t agree is more boring: People didn’t find the argument you presented to be compelling. The other person doesn’t have a “secret agenda”; instead, the other person just believes in different kinds of evidence than you do.

Learning from Commercials

You’re actually very familiar with the idea that different people want different kinds of evidence — look at commercials for headache remedies, for example. These commercials fall into at least three groups:

  • One set of commercials present an ordinary person talking about using a particular remedy and how it cleared up his or her headache quickly. These commercials are aimed at people who are convinced by people “just like them”: if it worked for that person then it will work for them
  • Another set of commercials present an “expert” (typically wearing a white lab coat) who explains why a particular remedy works better than another remedy: This commercial is aimed at people who value the opinion of others who are well-informed and have studied a topic.
  • The third set of commercials consist of studies that demonstrate that one remedy works better (or faster) than another: These commercials are aimed at people who value numbers and statistical evidence independent of people’s opinions.

Together, these commercials demonstrate something the called Toulmin method (named for Stephen Toulmin). In the Toulmin method, persuading people consists of a claim, some data…and the warrant. The warrant is what demonstrates to the audience that the data is valid and proves the claim (the warrant is often so well known to the writer and the audience that it doesn’t need to be explicitly stated). A crucial part of a successful warrant is ensuring that you pick data that your audience will find compelling.

The problem that political parties face is that the citizens of their country form multiple overlapping audiences. Often, to appeal to their primary voters, the parties have to depend on warrants that other voters actively reject. The good news here is that you probably don’t have this problem. Often, you have only a single audience (sometimes, just a single person: Your boss). When you do have multiple audiences, they often share many concerns and can be treated as one audience. Even when you have audiences that don’t share common concerns, there’s nothing stopping you from presenting data with different warrants: one set of data for each of your audiences (I’ll discuss this tactic at end of his column).

The Three Kinds of Evidence

In a business environment you’ll probably find that your audiences fall into one of three groups, each of which wants different kinds of evidence. We can call those three audiences “details”, “big picture,” and ”people”.

1) The Details

The “details” audience want to know all of the relevant numbers and how everything will work together. Their attitude is “If you take care of all the little things then the big things will fall into place.” To convince this audience, you must provide enough specifics to show that you know what you’re talking about. Often this turns into tables of numbers and step-by-step plans. If you don’t demonstrate that you’re familiar with all of the facts, the “details” audience will say “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

2) The Big Picture

This approach will, however, drive the “big picture” audience crazy. The “big picture” audience concerns itself with the overall goals of what you’re trying to do. Their attitude is “If you know where you’re going then you have a good chance of getting there.” To convince this audience, you must show that you understand the impact of what you’re doing and that you have a clear (and important) goal that you can use to guide your plan. If you present the tables of data that fascinated the “details” audience then the “big picture” audience will say “You’re getting lost in the weeds” (at best, the “big picture” audience might be interested in a graph that summarizes the data).

3) The People

The “people” audience think that both of these approaches miss the point: The real issues for the “people” audience are “How will you get people on board with this and what impact will it have on them?” Their attitude is “You can’t do anything without getting other people involved and, if you’re not helping other people out, you won’t get anyone involved.” If you can show that you’ve considered how other people are going to be affected then you will find it easy to convince the “people” audience that you have a good idea. If you focus on the details and the big picture, this audience will say “You don’t understand: In the end, it’s all about the people.”

Tactics: Delivering Your Argument

Dealing with all three of these audiences is easiest  in a written document. In a written document, you can include the big picture portion of your argument in a clearly labelled section (clearly labelled so that the “details” and “people” audiences can skip the section). You can do the same for the “people” portion of your audience. However, you should put the specifics that the “details” audience wants in one or more appendices (Learning Tree’s business case course discusses this strategy in more detail).

If you have to appeal to all three audiences in a presentation then it’s harder to appeal to one of the audiences while keeping the other two audiences interested. If you have to make your argument in a presentation then your best choice is to separate the audiences and tailor your presentation to each group. Another tactic is to actually avoid making your case during your presentation. It often makes better sense to approach members of each audience separately before your presentation and use the opportunity to make the argument that appeals to each member. In your presentation you can simply refer to that argument and move on.

Being persuasive isn’t hard to do, provided that you understand who you’re trying to persuade. It begins by recognizing that people who don’t agree with you aren’t being difficult, they’re just being different. Once you recognize their differences, you can deal with them.

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