Persuading in Purgatory

During five years of fighting for justice as a community organizer, I also taught public speaking at a local university. My two jobs actually influenced each other quite a bit: from organizing, I took to the classroom a deeper understanding of how to engage my students in their own exploration and learning (we're always developing leaders!); from the classroom, I was reminded of the critical importance of good communication techniques in moving forward our cause. If I wanted to be a powerful nonprofit professional who could make real change, I needed to know how (and be able to teach others how) to communicate our cause.

I actually am one of those weird people that love public speaking. I started in fourth grade by winning our school district speech contest, and then competed throughout high school. I learned that one component of success in  our personal and professional lives is that it's not just about what you put into it, but also about how you communicate it. So no matter how much you hate public speaking, it is imperative that you learn how to communicate your message and persuade others for your cause. Whether it is to one person or 100, understanding your audience and crafting a targeted message can make or break your success.

Some of you may be wondering why this blog post is titled Persuading in Purgatory.  The first lesson in learning to persuade is asking yourself who you are talking to.  In community organizing, we often say that when thinking about who to influence in order to make the change we seek, we have to understand that there are the "angels" (those who will always be with us, no matter what), the "demons" (those who strongly oppose us no matter what...sounds a bit harsh, I know) and those undecided folks "in purgatory."  The organization I worked for was founded by a Jesuit priest, hence the very Catholic references.  Our purgatory brothers and sisters became our target audience, the ones who - if persuaded effectively - could make the difference in an important policy being passed or a change taking place.  They are the swing-voter, effectively, and they can make or break your effort, whether that is fundraising, community development, or whatever effort you need community support on. 

In reality, things are a bit more nuanced.  There are more than three categories of people, and we will at times find ourselves in a room with mixed audiences.  Additionally, we always need to cultivate and grow our support base, while minimizing the negative impact those who oppose us may try to make.  Each of these audiences requires a tailored message to reach and persuade their minds and hearts (and hopefully pocketbooks too!).

The image below is a useful tool to think about where your audience lies in support or opposition to your cause.  On the far left you have people who strongly oppose your cause, then those who mildly oppose it.  In the middle are those "in purgatory," the neutral folks who may not know about your cause, may not care about it, or do not have a strong opinion either way.  On the right are those who mildly and strongly support your cause.  Wherever they fall, your goal is simply to move people a little bit further to the right. 


My goal for a strong opposer, then, is not initially to get their support - it is simply to have them oppose my cause or campaign a little bit less, or maybe even become neutralized. Perhaps over time, with multiple conversations or engagements, I can move them to support, but in one conversation, that goal is unrealistic and I can miss an opportunity to meaningfully engage them if I do not have clear and realistic goals. With the Purgatory folks, my hope is to move them to support, and move my supporters to take action. 

Each group or audience has unique goals and therefore unique messaging.  For those further to the left (opposers) you will use a more ration-based messaging.  Give them the stats, show them the facts.  As you move to the right, the more emotional the message becomes.  Tell stories, get them moved and inspired.  Always use a mix of both facts and stories, but cater the messaging and what you focus on to the audience.

It is also important that you think about your audience's values.  What is it that drives their opposition or support?  And for those in the middle, what are core values that you hear and see reflected in this group of people?  If you aren't sure, get an idea of their values by reading up on a group before you speak to them.  Whether it is a city council, a church group or a neighborhood association, each will have a set of values that guide them and can be found through online research, observation, and talking to others.  Whether their language supports things like "family values," "diversity," "equity," or "community," put your message into language that relates to them.  I'm not asking you to sell out your cause or to water your message down; I am inviting you to utilize messaging strategies in a way that place your work and cause in a framework so that others can understand.  Speak their language, and they will listen.

I didn't get into the actual techniques of public speaking here, but I plan to do that in a later blog, so keep your eyes out!  The one thing I'll say here - practice!  It doesn't matter how much passion you have or how much experience in public speaking - even the best and most committed speakers need to practice. Your argument is far more powerful when it flows with ease.

Never hesitate to reach out if you would like more training on public speaking, and best wishes on moving others to support your work!



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