Research – Make it Persuasive / Sticky

I think the power of persuasion would be the greatest superpower of all time.

Jenny Mollen

Persuasion is an attempt to get a person to behave in a manner, or embrace a point of view related to values, attitudes, and beliefs, that he or she would not have done otherwise. (Stand up, Speak out  2011)

The history of persuasion dates back to the time of the ancient Greeks. The likes of Aristotle defined three forms of what they called proof or reasons an audience would agree with a presenter. They were:

  • Ethos, which relates to your credibility or the degree to which the audience trusts you as a speaker.
  • Pathos, which refers to the emotional connection your audience has with you and your message. This can include such things as beliefs, values and culture.
  • Logos, which refers to the logic employed in structuring your presentation. It needs to be well structured and sequenced and have robust evidence.

Below we have summarised a number of theories on persuasion from Dillard & Shen 2013 .

Social Judgment Theory

What is it

The Social Judgment Theory is based on the idea that beliefs are perceived, and therefore judged, the way that physical quantities are perceived and judged. (Dillard & Shen 2013 p. 90)

The claim is that the effect of a persuasive communication depends upon the way in which the receiver evaluates the position it advocates. (O’Keefe 2016)

How do we apply it.

In essence people are more likely to adopt your position if it aligns with their beliefs on a topic and less likely to adopt it if they don’t. Sounds fairly obvious. However, the implication is that we need to understand whether the audience’s beliefs align with ours on a certain topic or not, because if they don’t we have a lot of work to do. The other side of the coin is that we can’t be overly complacent if they do align – we still need to do the work! Because as Dillard and Shen state, the willingness of an audience to adopt a given position is strongly influenced by the presenters credibility on a topic and their ego. (p. 91)

Cognitive Dissonance

What is it

Cognitive dissonance theory is an aversive motivational state that occurs when an individual entertains two or more contradictory attitudes, values, beliefs, or behaviours simultaneously. (Barrett, O’Connor-Ledbetter & Pine chpt 11.5).

Cognitive, refers to our thoughts and dissonance refers to a lack of harmony. For example doing something we know is bad for us, but continuing to do it anyway even though it’s uncomfortable. Then to reduce the disharmony or dissonance we seek out ways to justify our actions.  

So, we know our weight is unhealthy which is making us tired and unproductive, but we continue to make poor food choices. Then, rather than changing, we justify our decisions by telling ourselves we deserve it or had a really good workout and need the energy.

How we apply it

If we wanted to persuade someone to have a more healthy diet we need to increase the dissonance until the change occurs. But according to Barrett et al., three things need to be in place.

  1. We need to articulate to that person a very clear consequence of not changing their diet
  2. The individual must have a freedom of choice and they must feel that they are not being coerced or manipulated and
  3. The decision to change must be internally justified such that they can rationalise the benefit in a way that is meaningful to them. For example, “you will look really good by eating more healthy foods” may not resonate, but “you will have more energy to play with the kids!”, might.

Elaboration Likelihood Model ELM

What is it

Developed by Petty & Cacioppo (1984) the ELM suggests that persuasion is carried out by one of two ways. Centrally routed or peripherally routed messages.

The centrally routed messages rely on the audience being motivated to listen and able to understand the message. If these two are present and the argument is strong, then the audience is open to being persuaded.

Peripherally routed messages are useful when the audience isn’t motivated to listen to the information and need to be persuaded by emotional appeal.

How we apply it

Strong centrally routed messages are easy to apply. For example a strong and well evidenced solution to a clients’s problem that has been articulated by a client will most likely result in a favourable response. It should be noted however that a weak and poorly evidenced solution will not only receive a negative response but possibly move the client more favourably to an alternative solution.

It should be noted that peripheral routed messages are not as effective in the long term as centrally routed messages. You can use the peripheral type of message by referring to someone in authority or someone who is respected by the audience who has adopted the recommendation you are proposing. These are two of Robert Cialdini’s 6 Principles of Persuasion: reciprocity, scarcity, authority, consistency, liking and consensus. (Cialdini 1993)

For example, you might say “we are proposing we use Software ABC as our platform to communicate with clients because our industry peak body refereed to it as the most effective and best value for money software on the market.


Barrett, K, O’Connor-Ledbetter, A & Pine, K Introduction to Public Communication, Department of Communication, Indiana State University

Cialdini, RB 1993, Influence : the psychology of persuasion, Rev.edn., Morrow, New York.

Dillard, JP & Shen, L 2013, The SAGE Handbook of Persuasion : Developments in Theory and Practice, SAGE Publications, Inc, Thousand Oaks, Calif.

O’Keefe, DJ 2016, Persuasion : theory and research, Third edition., SAGE, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Petty, RE & Cacioppo, JT 1984, ‘”SOURCE FACTORS AND THE ELABORATION LIKELIHOOD MODEL OF PERSUASION”‘, Advances in Consumer Research, vol. 11, pp. 668-672.

Stand up, Speak out,  2011, University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing viewed <>.