ECG Principal Lynne Howell Wiklander writes about how your persuasive arguments can be framed according to audience predisposition.
Recently, the CEO of a Fortune 200 company was preparing for a Board of Directors meeting. This CEO felt the board members tended to be recalcitrant, and while preparing for a critical presentation he expressed the view that “the entire board” was against his new idea. His initial approach to the presentation was filled with defensive statements, and reiterated a doom-and-gloom outcome, particularly for shareholders, if his recommendations were not adopted.
In the course of our discussion I asked him to do an analysis of the prevailing attitudes, person by person, to see where they landed on the continuum of predisposed positions that is found with nearly every group. The three positions are:
- Prisoners – those who are predisposed to being against an idea,
- Angels – those who are fundamentally in favor of an idea, and
- Fence-sitters – those who have not made up their mind.
In an average group, you can assume approximately 15-20% are prisoners and 10-15% angels. That leaves between 65-75% who are fence-sitters!
FOCUSING YOUR ATTENTION AND ARGUMENTS
Most of us have experienced these three predisposed positions, but our instinctive reactions often lead us astray. Often we try to “convert” the prisoners to our point of view, building persuasive arguments intended to change their position. This is not a winning style, as changing the position of true prisoners is a daunting, often unsuccessful, exercise in trying to frame arguments based on an individual having an opposing viewpoint.
On the other end of the spectrum, we tend to enjoy and flatter the angels. We can easily create arguments that reinforce or substantiate a view we share with them from the beginning. Their positive affirmation can bolster us emotionally against the prisoners. Regrettably we often ignore the largest, and potentially most important group – our fence sitters. These are the individuals who need a carefully framed argument focused on defining a fresh point of view.
THE RISK OF INCORRECT FRAMING
While you may not be able to discern the exact position of every listener, there are serious risks associated with assuming a group-wide predisposition. If you assume everyone is a prisoner, your defensive arguments will likely put off the angels who would like to agree with you, and undermine the positive-leaning fence-sitters. But if you assume everyone will react favorably to your proposition, you are in danger of ignoring potential critical concerns and giving fence-sitters the impression that you are naively optimistic.
FOCUS ON THE FENCE-SITTERS
To be successful in persuasive argumentation, you do not have to have 100% consensus. You need a majority to be on the positive side of the spectrum – that is, keep all your angels and gain the support of approximately half of the fence-sitters. While these statistics don't work for every situation, they represent a good rule of thumb. To achieve this, you create arguments that will appeal specifically to most of your fence-sitters. You acknowledge (and thank) your angels, and while you need to acknowledge the prisoners, they are not the group that gets the majority of your attention or arguments.
Creating a well-rounded selection of arguments will help you to appeal to all three audience positions. By putting your focus on the fence-sitters with the intent of moving them towards the angel position you can address all points of view with respect and professionalism while creating arguments that will have the greatest chance of being compelling to all.
When the Fortune 200 CEO reviewed the pre-disposed positions of his board, he discovered that they, in fact, represented a standard distribution of attitudes. Using that information, he reframed his arguments to take the fence-sitters more boldly into account rather than letting the prisoners drive the content. The tactic was not just successful, but some of his more difficult board members became highly vocal advocates going forward. Now there's an angelic ending!