Updated Rules of Persuasion

Posted on May 15, 2024

What’s different about persuadable Americans is that they hold both progressive and conservative political beliefs in their minds. They don’t engage in politics with the emotional intensity of partisans, so they can be persuaded by either set of beliefs. These persuadables have one overriding but vague question in their minds: “Who is on my side?”

The key to persuasion is rather simple: agree with your audience. This was explained nearly ninety years ago by Dale Carnegie in his classic book How to Win Friends and Influence People:

In talking to people, don’t begin by discussing the things on which you differ. Begin by emphasizing—and keep on emphasizing—the things on which you agree. Keep emphasizing, if possible, that you are both striving for the same end and that your only difference is one of method and not of purpose.

Because confirmation bias makes it difficult or impossible to change people’s beliefs, you must use beliefs already in their minds to persuade them that you are on their side. Here are the three best ways to do that:

First: Always begin in agreement.

Start every argument from a point of agreement and then give your audience a bridge from their preconceptions to your solutions.

Finding a point of agreement is not so difficult. The easiest way is to acknowledge a problem from your listeners’ point of view. Average Americans struggle with inadequate wages, unfair job conditions, debt, illness, addiction, worries about their children, their quality of life, and their future. Nobody is going to believe you can address their problems if you don’t make it clear that you understand what those problems are: “Yes, prescription drugs cost too much.” “I agree, landlords can be so unfair.” “I know that our children are at risk.”

When your listeners state a specific concern, empathize: “We’ve got to protect Social Security and Medicare.” “You’re right that we must get a handle on immigration.” “Certainly, cars speed down your street much too fast.”

Or you can agree by stating a policy ideal: “Our military needs to be the strongest in the world.” “We must ensure that every highway bridge in our state is safe, now and in the future.” “Every child in our city should have access to world-class public schools.”

To be clear: we are not asking you to obfuscate or misrepresent your views. You never have to compromise your political principles to begin in agreement, you just need to consider a wider range of possibilities. For example:

  • If your audience is worried about government budgets (even when they’re no current problem), agree that our government has an obligation to be careful with taxpayer money.
  • If someone is concerned about crime (even in a low-crime community), agree that personal safety must be a top priority for government.
  • If an individual thinks the neighborhood is going downhill (even if that doesn’t seem to be the case), agree that we need to preserve the quality of life.

You may wonder, where do I take the discussion from there? What about facts and statistics? What about our progressive solutions? If you start in agreement, your listeners will be far more likely to listen to the rest. Just understand that persuadable Americans are much less likely than partisans to care about policy details. If they believe you’re on their side, they will accept that your policies are intended to solve their problems.

For example, let us say you are talking about making taxes more progressive. Start in agreement, like this:

SAY… Our tax system is unfair. The tax burden on working families has increased while rich people and powerful corporations pocket more and more tax giveaways. And that’s unjust.

Almost nobody disagrees with that. Then you might provide a statistic or, better yet, tell a story that illustrates the issue and finish with a very brief explanation of how your policy is consistent with those statements of shared belief and how it addresses the problem.

When you give a speech, find out ahead of time what concerns your listeners have. If you don’t know in advance, shorten your remarks and allow more time for Q&A. The questioners will tell you what they care about!

When you are in a conversation, listen carefully to what others say—they will provide you with opportunities to agree. Skip the parts where you flatly disagree and steer the discussion toward the elements where you’re on the same side. Demonstrate over and over that you understand the problem, that you empathize with your audience, and that you share the same policy ideals.

Whatever you do, never say—and try to avoid even implying—that your listeners are wrong. That will engage the reactive, emotional parts of their brains and they will stop listening.

Similarly, never let your own emotions do the talking. When you are about to speak in anger, take a deep breath and shake it off. Voicing your emotions will make you feel good—you’ll get a shot of dopamine in your brain—but it will almost certainly end your opportunity to persuade.

Second: Use values to frame the debate.

What do we mean by framing?

We frame by focusing attention to some part of a political debate where our audience is most likely to feel that our argument fits their preexisting beliefs. We insist that our way of looking at a particular issue or election is the key to understanding what it’s about. Think of it as if there was a mural painted on a wall which illustrates all the many arguments that could be made. You want to place a picture frame around one part of the mural and declare that this is what the debate is all about.

In a panorama about Inflation, we want to frame the corporations that raise prices to earn windfall profits, saying this is the key. In the broad story about health care, we want to put a frame around unfair prices and tactics by insurance and prescription drug companies, saying they’re to blame. In the debate about taxation and Social Security, we want to place a frame around billionaires who don’t pay their fair share. MAGA, in contrast, continuously frames misleading anecdotes and outright lies in order to blame people of color, immigrants, and “woke” culture. Usually, the side with the more effective frame will win the debate.

And what do we mean by values?

Values are words with positive meanings built into them. Words like trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous and kind are values that describe personal behavior. But more than that, they implicitly communicate that the behavior is admirable. You could describe the same conduct as brave or foolhardy, you could call a person thrifty or penny-pinching. By choosing to use the value brave over foolhardy or thrifty over penny-pinching, you are framing the behavior as positive.

In politics, values are ideals that describe the kind of society we are trying to build. Political values are frames. When you use values, you communicate two things. Because values are, by definition, beliefs that we share with our listeners, you are in agreement with your audience. And values show that, whatever the specific policy you seek to frame, your overall goals are the same.

The stereotypical conservative values are small government, low taxes, free markets, strong military and traditional families. When conservative values are stated this way, our side too often has no effective response. Progressives usually want to answer the conservative approach not with our own values but with a laundry list of policies. Or, when we do use values, they tend to evoke negative stereotypes about bleeding-heart liberals: compassion, cooperation, and concern for our fellow citizens. These may appeal to our base, but they do not persuade undecided Americans.

There’s another way. It is a set of political values that are poll-tested and proven to work.

When you’re talking about an issue where government has no proper role—like free speech, privacy, reproductive rights or religion—declare your commitment to freedom or use a similar value from the chart below. When you discuss an issue where government should act as a referee between competing interests—like court proceedings, wages, benefits, subsidies, taxes or education—explain that your position is based on opportunity or a value from that column. When you argue about an issue where government should act as a protector—like crime, retirement, health care, zoning or the environment—stand for security or a similar value.

FAMILY OF PROGRESSIVE VALUES

Freedom or similar values: Liberty, Privacy, Basic rights, Fundamental rights, Religious freedom

Opportunity or similar values: Equal opportunity, Justice, Equal justice, Fairness, Fair share, Level playing field, Every American

Security or similar values: Safety, Protection, Quality of life, Employment security, Retirement security, Health security.

Moreover, put these values together and explain that you stand for freedom, opportunity and security for all. This phrase polls better than conservative values, and more important, it’s an accurate description of what we stand for. The right wing favors these principles, but only for some—the affluent, or perhaps, for white people. Progressives insist on providing freedom, opportunity and security to each and every American.

Imagine you are a state legislator visiting constituents door-to-door and you are asked what you’re going to do to clean up the stream that runs through a particular neighborhood. And cleaning up that stream is not really the state legislature’s job.

A typical progressive might launch into an explanation of the clean water legislation he or she supports. A particularly inept one might say the stream is the responsibility of the city or county and there’s little the state can do. A good communicator would start in agreement:

SAY… It’s a terrible shame that our stream has deteriorated like that. It’s unsafe, it’s unhealthy, it’s wrong for our community.

Why? The only way to connect with this resident is to agree wholeheartedly. Note that you should call it our stream and our community, even when you live in a different neighborhood. If you can, go on to say you remember what the stream was like when it was clean and beautiful. Then frame the issue with your positive values, your goals:

SAY… I believe we need to make it a top priority to ensure cleaner streams and safer parklands. We need to protect the quality of life in our community.

These are values that you share with every voter: cleaner, safer, and a better quality of life. At this point you are welcome to explain your clean water legislation but keep it simple; you have probably already won a friend. The average voter is really only listening for one thing: Are you on my side? By using shared values to frame the debate, you demonstrate that you are.

Every time you have the opportunity to speak to a persuadable audience, don’t forget to express your values. Even if listeners grumble about your policy solution, you might very well win their support if you have made clear that you share the same concerns and are trying to achieve the same goals.

Third: Show listeners how they benefit.

Progressives favor policies that benefit society at large. We want to help the underdog. We wish that a majority of Americans were persuaded, as we are, by appeals to the common good. But they aren’t.

In fact, it’s quite difficult to convince average citizens to support a policy that appears to benefit people other than themselves, their families and their friends. Celinda Lake, one of our movement’s very best pollsters, explains that “our culture is very, very individualistic.” When faced with a proposed government policy, “people look for themselves in the proposal. People want to know what the proposal will do for me and to me.”

That means, whenever possible, you need to show voters that they personally benefit from your progressive policies. Usually that’s not so hard. When talking about climate change, emphasize how it affects the listeners’ children and grandchildren. When arguing for criminal justice reform, show how it makes us all safer.

Sometimes it’s more of a challenge. For example, if you’re arguing for programs that benefit people in poverty, do not focus on the way your proposal directly helps the poor, instead find a way that it indirectly benefits the middle class. Persuadable voters are rarely in poverty themselves and they will relate better to an argument aimed at them.

For example, when you argue for an increase in the minimum wage:

SAY… Raising the minimum wage puts money in the pockets of hardworking Americans who will spend it on the things they need. This, in turn, generates business for the local economy and eases the burden on taxpayer-funded services. It’s a win-win. Raising the minimum wage helps build a fair economy that works for everyone, not just the rich.

Why? Every progressive policy benefits the middle class, often directly but at least indirectly. In contrast, nearly every right-wing policy hurts the middle class, even if it more directly hurts the poor. Since persuadable voters are nearly always in the middle class and they want to know how policies affect them personally, you must tell them.

That does not mean you can explain your positions without mentioning program beneficiaries. In fact, the example above mentions them. The important thing is to connect with persuadables and frame the debate for their ears.

Americans are not very kind to the poor. Outside of the progressive base, a lot of voters assume that people in poverty failed to help themselves, don’t take advantage of opportunities “given to them” and they should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” Unfortunately, you cannot argue voters out of this belief. So, when you refer to lower-income Americans, you need to go out of your way to describe them as deserving the same chance to succeed as everybody else.

By telling average Americans how your policies directly or indirectly benefit them, you are once again staying in agreement and demonstrating that you are on their side.

 

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