In the last academic year, a number of prominent college controversies have made the headlines. In the larger picture, we see daily news on Yik Yak and civility on campus, to questions of bystander accountability and alcohol policies. On a smaller scale, our students are weighing the opinions of parents and peers in making decisions on a future path. There are a lot of contributing voices and a lot of opinions. So how does a professional or organization go about taking a stance and persuading an individual or a community?
In his Harvard Business Review article, “How Doctors (or Anyone) Can Craft a More Persuasive Message,” Steve Martin tackles the task of persuasion. His advice is widely applicable, and it has some interesting points to keep in mind as we work with individual students, colleagues, and general student populations as a whole. “In today’s information-overloaded world, in which we’re exposed to lots of conflicting messages, people often act more on the basis of who is communicating the message rather than the actual message itself,” says Martin. From Twitter to TV, we are receiving messages of all sorts.
So how do we make our message stand out in a room of many?
Martin explains that most people spend so much time crafting the actual content of the message that they ignore what most audiences are more focused on: the person delivering the message. Martin outlines three characteristics to keep in mind when wanting to be a persuasive messenger.
Showcase Your Abilities
Expertise essentially boils down to how well qualified you are to discuss a topic. (Seems like common sense, right?) This can be particularly important when considering a messenger’s title or profession — audiences want to hear from a person of authority. Martin’s article focuses on authorities in healthcare scenarios, but it is applicable to the work of Student Affairs professionals. In any situation where the goal is to ease anxiety and reduce uncertainty, an expert will be the most impactful messenger. This could take the form of advising appointments, hall meetings, or statements made in relation to recent events on campus. All of these scenarios take place in our daily lives as professionals of student development.
Trustworthiness and credibility go hand-in-hand, according to Martin. Especially in the coverage of a crisis scenario, we all like to know that the authority speaking on the subject recognizes the doubts, fears, and uncertainties that have crossed the minds of audience members. Martin suggests briefly addressing that these fears and uncertainties exist; it provides a dose of realism and honesty to the argument. Instead of eliminating them, place them strategically just before your strongest argument. This allows audience members to see that you have thought of all the potential outcomes and still stand by your message.
Find Common Ground
In the same way that we value an expert opinion, we also value a messenger who is similar to ourselves. It sounds contradictory at first, but we want to see an expert who relates to our everyday life. Higher Education and Student Affairs organizations caught onto this a long time ago. We see student tour guides, peer mentors, and alumni involvement foster the connection between the institution and current students. In my experience with prospective undergraduate students (and their parents), I see the level of attention increase and level of anxiety decrease when a current student is explaining information and answering their questions. After all, a current student is much more of an expert than I am at explaining the typical concerns and joys of campus life.
Persuasion isn’t a skill set aside for a large issue, like an organization’s suspension or racial tension on campus. Nevertheless, it is supremely important in these instances. It is applicable to almost any interaction we have with students. Persuasion is simply qualifying the knowledge we have and being clear with why we are sending the message. With other professionals, supervisors, and students knowing the basics of how to strengthen your role as a contributor to the larger conversation, you can add an additional element to your already stellar argument.