Sunday, January 15, 2012

Persuasion: Know Your Audience

I found myself in a strange discussion with my offspring the other day.  My secondborn, a strong-willed five-year-old, was playing on his Nintendo DSi, and told me he was playing a mini-game called "Raft Ree-aht."  I looked over his shoulder, and informed him that the game was in fact called "Raft Riot."  A discussion ensued:

"No, Timmy, it's 'Raft Riot.'"

"Nuh uh, it's 'Raft Ree-aht'!  See?"

"I know, Timmy, it looks like 'Ree-aht,' but it's pronounced 'Riot.'"

"No, 'Ree-aaaaaaahhhhht'!"

Seeing the extent to which my son trusted my reading ability, I retreated and attempted a different approach.  When his brother returned from school, the two began playing the same game together.  Ben, eight, explained to me that the game was called "Raft Ree-aht."  I replied, "Actually, Ben, it's pronounced "Raft Riot."  Ben then turned and said, "Timmy, it's actually "Raft Riot."  And, sure enough, Timmy then turned to me and said, "Daddy, it's actually "Raft Riot."

I reacted first with annoyance that Timmy considered Ben a greater expert on pronunciation than he considered me.  Upon reflection, though, a different (and somewhat comforting) reality settled in.  To Ben, this was a question of pronunciation, on which he considers me an expert.  I've gently guided him in such matters since he was two, and he has thus learned to rely on me as an accurate source.  To Timmy, on the other hand, this was a question not about reading, but about gaming.  And, Timmy's experience playing games with each of us has demonstrated amply that Ben's expertise in that field is decidedly more reliable than mine.

Here, then, lies the writing lesson.  When we write, we have the ability to frame our presentation or argument to best persuade our audience.  Different audiences, however, bring different perspectives that we must engage to accomplish this.  Is the title of a game a question of reading or gaming?  Is winning a football game more a question of scoring more points or allowing fewer points?  Is abortion a question of a woman's (as opposed to mother's) choice, or a baby's (as opposed to fetus's) life?

Importantly, the above examples demonstrate that an attempt to persuade all will inevitably fail.  The questions, then, become clear: whom do you hope to persuade?  And given that target audience, what ideas or beliefs need to be engaged, or challenged?  The latter question turns on what you seek to accomplish.  Seeking to rally support requires engaging beliefs, showing like ideas and purposes.  Seeking to change ideas, a rather more difficult task, means identifying similarities and then using that entrance point to change opinions, to turn ideas back on those whom you hope to persuade.  Think of it as the different challenges of a presidential candidate in a primary and in a general election.  In the primary, the task is showing similarity of purpose and beliefs.  Is a Mormon still a suitable Christian conservative?  Can a pragmatist retain ideals suitable to a liberal base?  In the general election, on the other hand, the question is one of persuading those who may realistically vote for either party.  Can a conservative lead change for the benefit of the less fortunate?  Might a liberal effect positive economic change on a broader scale?  Can a candidate who has spoken to a party core do something to gain the approval of those outside that core?

Identifying your audience, then, goes hand-in-hand with identifying what you hope to accomplish.  Know what your audience believes, how he/she/they arrive at those beliefs, and tailor your approach accordingly.  You won't win everyone, but you will at least engage more effectively, thus giving yourself the greatest opportunity for which a writer should hope.