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Skip to 0 minutes and 11 seconds Persuasion is typically in advertising and public relations. But sometimes you could have certain forms of journalistic writing that aims to persuade as well. I’m talking specifically about opinion writing. So for example, sometimes letters to the editor when citizens send letters to the editor, to the local paper, they often aim to persuade their fellow residents to take certain actions or to change their opinions. And other times, newspapers take certain political stance or express opinions on topics. And with those opinions, they also aim to persuade some of their readers to follow suit. So for example, a few years ago I lived in an American town which went through a change of their tobacco control laws.

Skip to 1 minute and 9 seconds And they eventually voted to - eventually the city council decided to ban smoking in bars and restaurants. During this whole process, a lot of people from the community wrote letters to the editor to the local paper for months and months. And they expressed their opinions for or against this future law. And they also tried to persuade others to take some action against it or in support of it. Persuasion is attitude change or opinion change which results from exposure to information delivered by others. When you write opinion pieces, there are several techniques that you can use in order to inspire others to change their opinions or their attitudes. First, you can structure the argument in different ways.

Skip to 2 minutes and 3 seconds Second, the source of the argument is also a factor in the persuasiveness of the message. And by source, I mean either the author of the message or people who are interviewed in the actual piece. And also, the way that the message is framed and certain content features of that message also may affect how persuasive it is. So we’re going to talk about these three different areas in a bit.

Skip to 2 minutes and 35 seconds When we talk about structuring the argument and the structure of an argument, what I mean is whether you present a one-sided or a two-sided argument about an issue. And there has been research done of which type of presentation is more effective. Research shows that both one-sided and two-sided arguments are equally effective in persuading people. However, they are effective for different types of people. And so one-sided arguments are more effective with people who already have a positive opinion about the issue being discussed. And two-sided arguments are more effective with people who have a negative opinion about the issue.

Skip to 3 minutes and 20 seconds On the other hand, also one-sided argument have been found more effective with less educated people, while two-sided arguments are more effective with people who are more educated. And so what do I mean by one-sided versus two-sided arguments? For example, if you’re writing an opinion piece about say mammograms and screening for breast cancer among older women, to create a one-sided argument, you would have to only talk about the benefits of women screening themselves for breast cancer. So you would talk about how early screening would save their lives, of how many women get discovered with earlier forms of breast cancer because of screening. You would basically tout the benefits of such actions.

Skip to 4 minutes and 13 seconds If on the other hand you decide to present a two-sided argument, you would talk about the benefits. But you would also talk about the drawbacks of regular screening. So a drawback could be the fact that actually mammograms are pretty uncomfortable and sometimes plain painful for many women. Another drawback could be the time and effort wasted in scheduling an appointment, in going for a visit. And there could be other drawbacks that are more specific to certain women as well. So again, if you’re writing a one-sided argument on the issue of breast cancer screening, you would only talk about the benefits of that. Or you could only talk about the drawbacks.

Skip to 4 minutes and 57 seconds But if you’re writing a two-sided argument message, a two-sided message, then you would talk about the pluses and the minuses of the topic. The second feature of a message which could affect its persuasiveness is the credibility of its source. By source, I typically mean the author of the message. So the person in this case who would write the opinion piece would be its source. Sometimes the people quoted in a longer story may also be seen as sources. So basically what they say would affect the persuasiveness of the overall message. There’s been a lot of research done on sources and how they affect what people think about the message overall.

Skip to 5 minutes and 44 seconds And it’s been found that what people think about the source and how credible they find it affects the persuasiveness of the message. So in a way, the more credible the source, the more persuasive the message. But what affects, on the other hand, the credibility of a source? What features of a source make us think that he or she is credible or not? Things that have been examined in research as features of that source which could affect its credibility are, for example, the sincerity of the person, their expertness or expertise, their professionalism, their dynamism, their objectivity, and their overall trustworthiness.

Skip to 6 minutes and 32 seconds One example, one popular example, of the power of sources in persuasive messages is the use of celebrity and celebrity endorsements in many aspects of communication these days. So for example, you know, if a certain charity group takes David Beckham to be their celebrity endorser and they use him to support their messages about say children and exercise or children and education, because David Beckham has high source credibility and is a very likable person, chances are that those messages would go well with the public.

Skip to 7 minutes and 12 seconds However, there has been research which shows that celebrities taking up too many causes or advertising too many products may actually hurt their credibility, because people see them as not focused anymore and maybe giving their persona to too many causes. So that ultimately, if spread out too much, may hurt the credibility of the celebrity. But so this is another area that will affect the overall persuasiveness of the message that you write, the sources that are backing up your message or you as the source of that story. The third persuasive technique that I want us to discuss is how the message is framed, or certain content features of that message. And here specifically I want to talk about fear appeals.

Skip to 8 minutes and 7 seconds Fear appeals is when a message presents a scary scenario or negative consequences of something in a way and thus it aims to scare you into doing something or into changing your opinion about something. The first fear appeals were used back in the ’50s. And they were about dental hygiene. Doctors had these messages that scared people into brushing their teeth. And if they didn’t, they would lose all their teeth or something like that. Since the 1950s though, today’s persuasive messages have become a lot scarier than those back in the day. So for example, you probably have seen a lot of adverts nowadays that would try to get you to quit smoking, for example.

Skip to 8 minutes and 58 seconds And they show you black lungs or dead people or holes in your throat. These are all ways to scare you into stopping smoking. Or you may have seen ads about safe driving that try to persuade you to put your seatbelt on. And so you would see a lot of scary car crashes with dead people again and bodily harm and body injuries and so on. And so again, these messages, these persuasive messages are trying to convince you to start wearing a seatbelt regularly. There has been a lot of research on fear appeals in the past 50 years. And generally it shows that fear appeals do work. So scaring people into doing something is typically effective.

Skip to 9 minutes and 46 seconds However, there’s always a “but” in any kind of research. And it’s never straightforward. Scaring people may be good to some extent. But fear appeals are like salt. A little bit of that is a good thing. But too much and you spoil the dish. It’s the same thing with fear appeals. Too much messages that are too scary actually cause people to withdraw from them and to stop listening or watching them, because they overwhelm the audiences.

Skip to 10 minutes and 21 seconds And so in some cases, fear appeals can be counterproductive as a result of that. Also, only scaring people without providing them ways to deal with the threat is not effective either. So recently researchers have started talking about not just that we shouldn’t just scare people into doing something, but also provide them ways in which they can mitigate the threat. Provide them ways in which they can handle the threat that we’re talking about. One important decision regarding fear appeals is whether the situation will be presented through a loss frame or a gain frame. A loss frame is when you describe certain actions as a way that if you don’t take this action, you would lose something.

Skip to 11 minutes and 11 seconds So for example, if you don’t do safe tanning or if you don’t go for breast cancer screening, you’ll die. So you lose life. A gain frame, on the other hand, is what you would gain from doing the same behaviour. So if you do practise breast cancer screening or if you do practise safe tanning, you would gain years of life. And you would gain enjoying your loved ones for longer. So the positive versus the negative consequences of your actions. And research has shown that actually using the loss frame and talking about the negative consequences, the things that you would lose as a result of not doing something, is more effective, more persuasive.

Theories of persuasion

How does persuasion work? Is structure as important as style when it comes to convincing your audience?

Watch Dr Eckler’s video above where she describes the intricacies of influence and how journalists often adopt ‘tricks of the trade’ in swaying readers.

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This video is from the free online course:

Introduction to Journalism

University of Strathclyde