Ninja Communications was founded by two professional communicators—Dan Agan and Joe Schreiber—who share a common passion for advancing the cause of science and the success of those who dedicate their lives to it.
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As much as we all like to believe that detached reason and cold objectivity rule our every decision, the hard truth is they don’t. Human thinking teems with idiosyncrasies that affect our judgments and conclusions. Scientists refer to these quirks in thinking as “cognitive biases,” and while they’re certainly not all bad—it’s believed, for example, that many help us simplify the processing of information—tapping into them can amplify our success as influential and persuasive communicators.

Here are four strategies for capitalizing on cognitive biases when communicating to influence and persuade. All four relate to glitches in our thinking that affect the way we make decisions, form judgments, and draw conclusions.


  • Choice-Supportive Bias: “Of course it’s right; I chose it!”


joedan2All of us make choices that are difficult to defend purely on the basis of fact. And once we choose, we adhere to these preferences by focusing on their positives while overlooking any negatives. For example, we cling to the sports teams we choose to support, even though they have repeated losing seasons or lackluster play, by focusing on star performers, past wins, or achievements off the field.

Tapping into the Choice-Supportive Bias: Allow your target audience to make a small choice that sows a preference for you. During a speech, for example, defaulting the audience into choosing between your proposal and a clearly less desirable alternative plays into the Choice-Supportive Bias. Encouraging the target to sign up for a newsletter, follow you on social media, or download a white paper are other strategies to consider. Once they’ve made this mini-choice, they’ll be more likely to accept information from you because it supports their choice (and be more likely to discount information from others that opposes it).


  • Bandwagon Effect: “What are others doing?”


We humans are more lemming-like than we care to admit. For one thing, we conform more than we think. If we all ran around ignoring others and doing our own thing, then groups, and maybe even society at large, would descend into anarchy. For another, few among us charge recklessly into uncertainty. When in doubt, we often look to others for prompts and cues as to what to think and do. The first time you’re confronted with the phalanx of knives, forks and spoons that surround each place setting at a formal dinner, for example, you’ll likely take stock of which utensil others use for each course, and then follow their lead.

Decisions, by definition, entail varying degrees of doubt. Will this work? Is it practical? Will it get me what I want? What are the risks? This inescapable skepticism is the enemy of persuasion, particularly when there’s no ready evidence to suggest others have previously made, and benefitted from, the same choice. Few people relish going out on unproven limbs.

Tapping into the Bandwagon Effect: Erase doubt by showing the audience they’re not alone. They’re joining the flow. Offer up testimonials from satisfied stakeholders, proof of past successes, and evidence of your growing stature and support. Validate that other people eagerly endorse and accept your offer, so the audience is merely jumping on the bandwagon.


  • Loss Aversion Bias: “I hate losing!”



Studies have shown that people are more likely to act to avoid a loss rather than secure an equivalent gain. In one study, for example, college students were more likely to sign up early for classes when threatened with a penalty for later registration, than when offered an equivalent discount for early enrollment.

Tapping into the Loss Aversion Bias: Addressing what is at risk, or what the target audience stands to lose if it fails to act, triggers the Loss Aversion Bias. For example, arguing that failing to act now increases the likelihood of negative consequences, or misses substantial economic opportunities, provides more persuasive traction than presenting counter-equivalent arguments about potential improvements or gains.


  • Emphasis Frames: “I only care if it is important to me!”


This is the most powerful of the four strategies. Emphasis Frames represent one type of Framing Effect Bias. They prioritize the communication of certain facts over others and put them in a context that, because of their consonance with people’s principles, attitudes, opinions, ambitions, and goals, will be more influential.

Given that it’s election season, let’s use a political rally as an example. The speaker at this rally will be someone whose rhetoric is considered inflammatory. Proponents of holding the rally can exploit the Framing Effect Bias by emphasizing that the rally represents a freedom-of-speech issue, because “freedom of speech” resonates with a deeply-seated American principle. Rally opponents, on the other hand, can tap into this same bias by emphasizing that holding the rally represents a significant risk to public safety, playing on the powerful need people have to feel secure. Both are compelling arguments. Which frame prevails, however, will depend on how well each communicator understands and taps into the motivations of the people to be influenced by the communication.

Tapping into Emphasis Frames: Carefully prioritize, and emphasize, those facts that resonate with your audience’s motives and priorities. This doesn’t make any facts you downplay unimportant. They’re simply not as important when it comes to influencing this specific audience. By thoroughly understanding your audience’s aims and attitudes, you can create Emphasis Frames that alter thinking, affect behaviors, and change minds.


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