Do you ever use persuasion in learning experiences? Although the persuasion may be subtle, I’m guessing the answer is yes. Whether implicit or explicit, we often attempt to influence the attitudes and behaviors of a target audience.
Persuasion is an Important Element of Learning Design
Learning designers often infuse persuasive messages into a learning experience because the need for training and support are often triggered by a transition in the workplace. For example, when you design performance support materials for new procedures, you might also persuade people that this is a positive change. In an attempt to convince the audience that the new way is the best way, persuasion becomes part of the subtle underlying message. As you know, most people don’t want their old ways of doing things to change.
Then there are times when persuasion is more explicit. Such as an attempt to sway a target audience into changing their habits and attitudes. Persuasion can even be part of an organization’s internal marketing effort. Campaigns to quit smoking, increase exercise, find volunteers for a charity event, or use hand sanitizer after seeing patients are examples of explicit persuasion.
Persuasion is an important element of learning design, but we may not know much about it. What exactly is persuasion? What works? And how are people persuaded?
Persuasion can be defined as “an interactive process through which a given message alters an individual’s perspective by changing the knowledge, beliefs, or interests that underlie that perspective (Miller, 1980).” In plain terms, persuasion is a communication that tries to get other people to change a belief, attitude or behavior.
Scholars think of persuasion as a continuum of change that is part of a gradual process rather than a change that happens immediately. Persuasion is ongoing as a person re-examines his or her values and beliefs in light of gaining new knowledge. Researchers point out that although the communicator (you) provides the information, in reality, people persuade themselves.
The Central Route to Persuasion
In 1986, Petty and Cacioppo introduced an influential model of persuasion. Known as the Elaboration Likelihood Method (ELM), it describes two routes of information processing that might occur in a recipient: the central route and the peripheral route. It assumes that an individual’s ability to process messages and motivation are important factors in success.
The central route to persuasion focuses on the quality of the argument in comparison to the individual’s prior knowledge. This results in an acceptance or rejection of the content. This route is based on an individual’s cognitive ability, interest, and motivation to process a persuasive message. According to the model, this route results in a more stable and persistent change.
If your audience is likely to process the message through the central route, use rational messages that are relevant to their work or life. Tout the benefits of a new approach. Demonstrate increased efficiency and productivity. For instance, show how new regulations will make the environment better or safer; demonstrate how you can use the new enterprise software on your phone, etc.
The Peripheral Route to Persuasion
On the other hand, the peripheral route to persuasion is based more on non-cognitive factors that surround the message. This could be based on:
- the emotional impact of the communication
- the credibility and characteristics of the sender
- the visual design
- the length of the message
This route is for those who do not care as much about the quality of a rational argument. It is often the approach you find in commercials and advertisements. Researchers consider the peripheral route somewhat weak and unstable in terms of influencing lasting change.
If your audience is likely to process the message through the peripheral route, you can tell persuasive stories that arouse emotions. Appropriate humor may also work. Or find influential leaders or well-liked employees who will demonstrate and model new approaches. See A Quick Guide to Attitudinal Training for more on this.
Note that even audiences who are persuaded through cognitive arguments can be motivated and influenced through a peripheral route too.
Factors Affecting Persuasion for Learning
Before you design your next persuasive message, consider these factors that influence attitude, value or behavioral change:
- Characteristics of the learner: prior knowledge and relevant beliefs influence persuasion.
- Ability to process a message: stronger comprehension skills result in deeper processing of the message, which may make it more convincing.
- Ability to retrieve relevant beliefs: this makes it more likely the person will process the message and be persuaded.
- Characteristics of the message: the strength of the communication and the content itself affect persuasiveness. In general, presenting both sides of an argument and then refuting one is an effective approach. Also, generating an emotional reaction can improve message effectiveness.
- Interest in the topic: as a person’s interest in a topic increases, their beliefs are more likely to be modified (probably because the person will be more reflective). You can increase interest by providing related content prior to an event and also by making the topic relevant to the learner’s world.
- Continuous messaging: It takes time to persuade, so it should occur in multiple phases. Similar to acquiring knowledge and skills, a single message will not be enough. You will need to help the audience appreciate the new value, behavior or procedure.
- Emotional component: Rational decisions are at least partially based on emotions. Appeal to both the cognitive and affective aspects of the audience.
Consider finding creative approaches to persuasion, such as:
- Make it easy to change by reducing friction
- Create motivating challenges that involve small steps to change
- Use role plays and simulations
- Invite participants to temporarily adopt an opinion that is the opposite of what they believe
- Miller, G. R. On being persuaded: Some basic distinctions. In M. Roloff, & G. R. Miller (Eds.), Persuasion: New directions in theory and research, 11–28, 1980. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Morris, J.D., Woo, C.M., & Singh, A.J. Elaboration likelihood model: A missing intrinsic emotional implication. Journal of Targeting, Measurement and Analysis for Marketing, 14, 79–98, 2005.
- Murphy, P.K. & Alexander, P.A. Persuasion As a Dynamic, Multidimensional Process: An Investigation of Individual and Intraindividual Differences. American Educational Research Journal: 41.2: 337-363, 2004.
- Seel, N.M. Persuasion and Learning in Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning, 2600-2604, 2012.
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Connie Malamed says
Love your analogy and insights. Thank you Heather!
Heather Boyle says
With a 20 year background in sales, I earned a graduate degree in eLearning and ID. During my training, I was shocked by the similarities between the steps to making a sale and designing effective eLearning. (Not only persuasion but needs analysis, etc.) To me, ID became making the knowledge sale. Learners are buyers. One year post-grad, and selling eLearning design and development, I understand that buyers are also learners.
Thank you for a great article and articulating and providing the science behind how I’ve always felt. Thank you!