In this post, I’m going to share some of my most trusted and well-worn tools for crafting persuasive messaging. It doesn’t matter whether I’m writing a headline for a blog post, a script for an advertising video, or a political mailer. The process and tools I use are the same.
The Human Action Model
Everything I do is based on the Human Action Model because my job is to persuade people to take action. I’m trying to persuade them to schedule an oil change, request a consultation, register for a webinar, or vote next Tuesday. And despite what some (many?) may want you to believe, there’s no difference between those tasks. Persuasion is persuasion and the human brain works the same in all of those contexts.
In Storytelling for Digital Activism, I talked about the Human Action Model:
The Human Action Model is something every activist should be familiar with. It also happens to be my personal favorite and go-to framework for crafting content. It’s derived from Human Action: A Treatise on Economics by the Austrian economist and philosopher Ludwig von Mises. It states that human action is guided by self-interest in pursuit of a state superior to the status quo. It’s a bit of a twist on the hero’s journey and perfectly suited for activism because it leverages storytelling to create action.
The Human Action model has three key components:
- A sense of unease
- A shared vision of a better future
- A path to get there
When you break this down, it’s actually mind-blowingly simple. Another way to think about this is a straightforward journey from point A to point B. Your audience is currently sitting at point A but they don’t want to be. That’s the sense of unease you want to aggravate. Point B is where they would rather be. That’s the better future you need to articulate. And then you need to provide them with a path to get there.
So the template I use is: “You/we are here. You/we want to be here. Here’s how you/we get there.”
The decision of whether to use “you” or “we” is not trivial. When it comes to consumer or business marketing, “you” is more prevalent because we’re appealing to an individual’s wants and needs. When it comes to activism, “we” is frequently more powerful because we’re often appealing to a cause higher than ourselves. There’s no right or wrong answer here, but I wanted to highlight the difference.
Now let’s talk about some techniques for articulating Points A and B.
One Sentence Persuasion Course
The goal in articulating “Point A” is to create a sense of unease. I’ve had a tool in my pocket for years that helps me tremendously to do this. It’s called the One Sentence Persuasion Course from Blair Warren.
People will do anything for those who
encourage their dreams,
justify their failures,
allay their fears,
confirm their suspicions,
and help them throw rocks at their enemies.
This is a powerful sentence that strikes at the nerve of many of our cognitive biases that rule our decision-making. You can use it reliably to help craft persuasive messages.
The path forward needs to be simple and understandable. A 3,000-word position paper might be well-received by academia and policy wonks, but by and large, the only constituents who will read such a thing are your supporters and your opponents. The typical citizen wants to hear something simple and plausible. Bonus points if you can make it “sticky.”
Made to Stick
In their book Made to Stick: Why some ideas survive and others die, authors Dan and Chip Heath describe six principles to create messages that are memorable or “sticky.” These can be represented by the acronym “SUCCESs”:
Call to Action
If you’ve done a good job at painting the point A and B picture, people will be motivated to take action. This is a vital moment you must not squander! Part of your path forward should include a role for them. What do you want them to do? How can they help? In some cases, the message might be to vote for you. Maybe it’s to donate or volunteer. It could even be as simple as sharing your content. Make it clear, simple, and easy to do.
One of the most successful campaign slogans in modern history was President Obama’s “Hope and Change.” At first blush, this may not seem to fit the Human Action Model or my “Point A to Point B” template but it does. The word “hope” suggests that we’re in a place that necessitates it. It actually creates a sense of unease while simultaneously hinting toward a better Point B. What exactly are those points? That’s the beauty of this approach; It’s whatever a person substitutes for them. Specificity is often a liability when it comes to activism. The vaguer you can be, the more people will interpret your message the way they want, and the less you can be painted into a corner. And what’s the path forward? “Change.” What kind of change? Again, it’s in the eye of the beholder. It’s whatever the person wants it to be.
“Make America Great Again” is similar although it’s missing the path forward. It does a very good job of creating a sense of unease and a better future. While it’s missing the path forward, Trump did articulate those in very sticky ways during his campaign through phrases like “build a wall” and “tough on China.”
When I ran for school board, my message was “Close the achievement gap by getting back to basics.” This had all three components. I enhanced this message for different target demographics. For parents, it was “You deserve better.” For educators, it was “You are not trusted to do your job.” For retirees, it was “You’re not getting your money’s worth.”
This technique can be applied to any content regardless of its length, whether it’s a campaign slogan or fundraising email or a three-minute video or a half-hour speech. Point A. Point B. Path forward. It’s that simple.