Monday, June 15, 2015

Is Showing Both Sides Persuasive?

A friend of mine who got a master's degree in public relations at an East Coast university shared a link to a blog post written by one of his professors in that program, an adjunct who works at a major PR firm's office near the university. In this post, the author was discussing the wisdom of including an opposing point of view when writing an op-ed or position paper on behalf of a client.

The gist of this man's argument was that doing so was not his job. After all, he was hired by the client to present the client's point of view. He did note that mentioning alternative views in order to point out their flaws may be necessary on occasion. But generally, he opined, it was a waste of time and space to devote attention to the other side.

I have an....alternative view.

In the blog post, my friend's former professor puts forth a position based on a preference for efficiency and fiduciary responsibility. He also notes his years of experience. I would suggest that a concern for the effectiveness of actually persuading an intended audience should be a consideration as well. Indeed, if you can be more likely to persuade, you are hardly wasting space. Also, if a concern is doing what the client wants, do they want someone merely to write or do they want it to have the benefit of persuasion?

So the question really is not about how someone has written op-eds throughout their career, or the preference for loyalty to the client's point of view. It should be about the outcome in the minds of readers. And for that, we need to consider broader evidence from empirical research that informs persuasion theory.

In the just-published third edition of the book "Persuasion: Theory and Research" by Daniel O'Keefe," a required text in my Corporate Communications Writing class in the future, there is a helpful chapter on message factors. On the subject of one-sided vs two-sided (including alternative points of view) messages, the research results are more nuanced than a simply include or don't include the opposing point of view.

Basically, including alternative points of view--and then refuting them--(called "refutational two-sided messages") are dependably more persuasive than one-sided messages. However, two-sided messages in which the opposing points of view are merely acknowledged and not refuted are slightly less persuasive than one-sided messages.

In other words, raise the opponents' points of view, but be sure to knock them down. Readers don't take messages in a vacuum. They may be playing devil's advocate or wondering about other perspectives in their mind. If you address is head on and can argue against it, you have a better chance of winning them to your side. Or, if they had not considered alternatives, but you raise them, you look more credible, competent and therefore persuasive. Raising and refuting alternatives also has what's called an inoculation effect, meaning that later when someone else raises the opposing opinion, readers have been prepped with foreknowledge of the argument and why it is not sufficient and can be "immune" to its persuasive appeal.

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