Persuasion can make more of a difference than you expect

Aug. 18, 2005
Persuasion, propaganda, coercion and brainwashing are tools that can make a difference.

Leaders communicate in a compelling manner when they’re trying to get funding for new technology, trying to promote predictive maintenance or merely trying to get the work team to act in some counterintuitive manner. Getting people to change their opinion and behavior is a useful skill in any corner of the grand arena we call maintenance. In fact, you might even find some of the tips we uncovered to be useful in your off hours, if you have any.

Persuasion, however, is only one of several effective ways to get people to go along with your plans, ideas and ambitions. Explaining how these skills work is the reason we took another dive into that morass we call the Web. This time, we’re in search of practical, zero-cost, noncommercial, registration-free Web resources that will help you get your way. Remember, we search the Web so you don't have to.

From academia
Persuasion is a learned skill that you can develop either by means of your own trial and error process repeated endlessly during a lifetime or by seeking out gurus who are willing to impart the necessary knowledge for a price. I’d vote that the latter method is more cost-effective in the long run, especially if you can get it right here in Plant Services, where Web-based knowledge comes to you free of charge. As an example of this largesse, I direct your attention to www.as.wvu.edu/~sbb/comm221/comm221.htm, the home page for Communications 221, a course taught by Steve Booth-Butterfield, adjunct professor at the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, West Virginia University. Features include a set of lecture notes he calls “Steve's Primer of Practical Persuasion and Influence,” course outlines called “Persuasion and Influence Notes” and “Publications and Presentations,” which are the results of his research. This is a good place to begin your journey in persuasion.

Make sense
Any argument you use, if it’s to be minimally persuasive, must make sense. Your logic must hold its own in the face of disputation that’s sure to arise before you finish making your first statement. If your audience won’t listen with a fully open mind, at least get them to leave the door slightly ajar. It’s critical that whatever reasoning you offer flows smoothly from major premise to conclusion, with nary a hiccup. Support this approach by investigating the offerings at the Purdue University Online Writing Lab. Start with “Argumentation/Persuasion: Logic in Argumentative Writing,” found at http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/general/gl_argpers.html. Here is guidance regarding using a logical vocabulary, reaching logical conclusions as well as avoiding fallacies and improprieties that can slam an open mind shut in a heartbeat.

The doorway to logic
Jonathan Davis is a British subject who spends a lot of time thinking about logic and persuasion and publishing his conclusions to the Web from his flat in London. At least, that’s a possible conclusion you’ll draw if you investigate his “Thinking Straight,” a portal that focuses on topics such as critical thinking, fallacies, propaganda, media literacy, coercive persuasion, statistics, brainwashing, skepticism, debunking, rhetoric and argumentation. Although he provides a staggering number of links to Web content, each is identified by a concise description of what you’ll find if you click on it. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think www.limbicnutrition.com/critical is going to take you more than a single lunch hour to explore properly.

Dismantling resistance
The Economist, a newspaper that espouses free trade and free markets in its anonymous, plain-language articles written from the perspective of the political center, also weighs in on the topic for the month. “Persuasion” discusses psychological research that indicates, no matter how hard you try, your resistance to persuasion is a variable. The article also says that one’s feelings of potential regret affect the effectiveness of the persuasion needed to move someone to the point of making a decision. In short, resistance can be manipulated. Keep that in mind when you try to pitch your next great idea. Convince your desk rodent to scoot over to www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=1109515, and you’ll be rewarded with the details.

The trouble with conformity
Charlan Nemeth and Jack Goncalo at the University of California, Berkeley, published a 29-page scholarly work that focuses on the dynamics of small groups of people who try to come to an agreement about an issue. “Influence and Persuasion in Small Groups” discusses the research and conclusions from a variety of studies to explore how people react to events. A common thread is the presence of a majority or minority opinion. Much of this material should prove valuable when you’re involved in a committee charged with making a difference. Learn how groups treat dissenters, regardless of the correctness of the dissent. People tend to conclude they’re wrong if their viewpoint runs contrary to that of the majority. That’s the problem with conformity -- it could be dead wrong. For example, consider the idea of groupthink as it applies to the Bay of Pigs and Watergate. Anyway, you can get the goods from http://repositories.cdlib.org/iir/iirwps/iirwps-102-04. You’ll find the graphic elements referenced in the text at the end of the document.

Fight the force
There’s more than a subtle difference between persuasion and coercion. Just ask anyone who has ever felt events pushing them in undesired, perhaps self-destructive, directions. David Straker at changingminds.org in Crowthorne, England, assures us that we can fight it. If you visit his Web site at http://changingminds.org/explanations/theories/coercion.htm, Mr. Straker will show you how to be sure it’s coercion you’re facing and give you four ways to get yourself out of the uncomfortable situation.

Clear thinking needed
Many people want to persuade you to do something. You’re being bombarded with information and requests from every direction and through every conceivable delivery method. The flood can be overwhelming, and one way to cope with the overload might be to take the easy way out: suspend critical judgment. Doing that, however, leaves you susceptible to propaganda. As a public service, I direct your attention to www.propagandacritic.com, where Aaron Delwiche of San Antonio, Texas, offers a site dedicated to the analysis of propaganda. Go there for a definition of propaganda, an explanation of the common techniques, guidance on spotting logical fallacies and examples of wartime propaganda from both sides of the firing line.

Advertising gimmicks
According to Francie Quaas-Berryman in the English Department at Cerritos College in Norwalk, Calif., the advertising to which we are exposed every day is a form of propaganda. Its goal is to make us voluntarily accept a particular point of view. Advertising persuasion techniques include appeals to fear, guilt and scarcity as well as something called the granfalloon technique. Some of these principles might prove useful in trying to convince some gatekeeper that you’re entitled to what lies beyond. If you can convince the gatekeeper to fetch and deliver the goods being guarded, you truly deserve the appellation of silver-tongue devil. Send that fast-talking mouse to http://www3.cerritos.edu/fquaas/resources/English103/ageofpropaganda.htm so it might return with “Notes from The Age of Propaganda.”

The dark side
No doubt, everyone reading this column has, at one time or another, been persuaded to hand over perfectly good money to a scammer. The differences probably lie only in the amount of money involved. According to research, the common element is victim greed. Lately, the ubiquitous Internet, our favorite medium, makes the temptation to transfer all your money to someone else that much easier. Consider the daily ration of compelling, spammy deals that promise to make you rich. On the other hand, the Internet makes it possible to research scams, both historical and current. Consider Les Henderson, from Azilda, Ontario, who has collected a surprising amount of material about scams, some of which I’ll bet you didn’t know existed. Con your way over to www.crimes-of-persuasion.com/contents.htm [hyphens either side of of], where you’ll see how the dark side of persuasion caters to human desires. Every child should learn about these scams and how to defend against them before they leave home to conquer the world.

Beware the con job
A field that involves a great deal of persuasion is the practice of social engineering. As benign as that name might sound, it actually refers to an efficient way for an evildoer to exploit the weakest link in computer security -- the human operator. The social engineer searches for a mark who willingly reveals passwords, user names, social security numbers, bank account numbers and other security-sensitive information. The likely avenue for passive exploitation is e-mail (think spam). On the other hand, the active approach uses the telephone. Read up on social engineering at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_engineering_(computer_security) to arm yourself against this form of spying.

More social engineering
The search for material on persuasion turned up a Latvian Web site on which the only English content was an article attributed to Kevin Mitnick and titled “The art of friendly persuasion.” The saga tells the tale of a real smoothie talking his way through the layers of security surrounding a multi-branch bank. Please take the time to read the story at http://x-f.e-net.lv/teksti/kevinmitnick/theartoffriendlypersuasion and hope that it’s not particularly descriptive of where you stash your cash. Truly, the human element seems to be the weakest link in any security scheme. Nevertheless, one must give the protagonist some credit for boldness. The tale appears to be based on material from “The Art of Deception (Controlling the Human Element of Security),” a book by Kevin D. Mitnick, William L. Simon and Steve Wozniak.

So, who is this Mitnick guy? According to Tsutomu Shimomura, a computer specialist, Mitnick is the worst kind of computer hacker, maximally evil in both intent and deed. But, then again, Shimomura was involved in Mitnick’s capture and penned a book about the case. You can read the background at www.takedown.com.
A study in chutzpah
It’s one thing to read about social engineering, but it’s quite another to peek over the con man’s shoulder to watch him in action. The following pair of Web citations chronicles what happened when a Loss Prevention Supervisor engaged a silver-tongued devil to probe the security measures at a big-box store. The first URL gives you a blow-by-blow chronology showing how the con man fleeced one store out of nearly $3,600 worth of computers. The second shows what happens when the management at a second store was forewarned that something is going down. He’s cool as ice and you can read the stories at http://lineman.net/node/270 and http://lineman.net/node/284. Don’t try this at home.

Persuasion: The novel
In August 1816, Jane Austen completed “Persuasion,” a 24-chapter book that you can now read online, thanks to the Etext Center, an initiative at the University of Virginia Library at Charlottesville. That institution of higher learning seeks to post classical text and images online for your viewing pleasure. Austen’s complete work is available at http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/AusPers.html, but don’t go there if you think this has anything to do with daily life in the factory.

Without comment

So, there you have it. If nothing else, use these Web resources to convince someone to do right by you. Talk your boss into a raise. Convince the production department that it actually makes economic sense to shut the operation down to perform maintenance. Give it a try. I know you can do it.

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