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The Power of Persuasion

Let’s face it. All too often, sustainability communications focus on a particular issue, rather than a particular audience. Little attention is given to what motivates a group of people to listen to a message, let alone take action in response to that message. It’s as if we’ve lost the art of persuasion at a time when persuasion is possibly the most powerful tool we have.

The grand-daddy of persuasion, Aristotle, knew that persuasion puts people in the picture. His theory of persuasion asserts the need to demonstrate credibility (ethos), to appeal to people’s logic (logos) and – most powerfully – to engage their emotions (pathos).

The power of pathos has been demonstrated throughout history. It is the driving force of propaganda. In the absence of logic and credibility, powerful emotional appeals have been known to move entire nations to act in the most astounding ways. If only the sustainability movement could harness such power!

Love and fear are well known as potent human emotions. Fear, for example, has been a popular choice for sustainability communication to date. Recent sustainability studies clearly demonstrate, however, that whilst fear (the lynchpin of propaganda) might incite change in the short-term, it fails miserably as a driver for long-term behavioural change. This is not least because the sustainability threats used to promote fear (such as climate change) are largely invisible. Ultimately, people don’t wish to live in a state of fear – especially in response to threats they cannot see (and probably don’t understand). So in short, forget the fear and consider your emotional alternatives.

Love is an interesting option. How might we communicate love in sustainability and environmental communication? Should we be creating messages that promote love for the environment, animals, water, life? It’s a nice idea. And frankly, we should promote such things if we truly subscribe to an environmental ethic. But if persuasion is our goal, we need to face the facts. The vast majority of people love themselves, other people, and the creature comforts of the human world much more than they love the natural world.

If you want to increase the emotional appeal of your sustainability communication, pay attention to how your message (in particular, the action you wish to promote in response to a particular issue) benefits your particular audience. Every individual, every group, is different. So think deeply into what’s in it for them, in particular. How will it make them feel good about themselves and others? Given many consumers prioritise their families and finances, how will your message / issue / program improve their relationship with their loved ones, bank accounts, the well-being and prosperity they secretly (or otherwise) crave?

Remember: people are motivated more by emotion than they are by rationality. A wise person once said, “There is no such thing as a rational human”.  But emotion alone is not enough: If we are to draw on the wisdom of persuasion, we need first to appeal to people’s hearts…and then to their minds.

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