Effective Advocacy: Understand Strategies for Influencing and Motivating Others
As part of building our foundation as effective advocates, we need to be able to understand how we can influence and motivate others—whether we want to convince decision makers to support a policy change, or we want to shift public opinion.
The field of social psychology looks at “how people influence each others’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.” (See more about understanding how we behave and why.)
Researchers and advocates have identified numerous strategies we can use to influence and motivate others, as well as pitfalls to avoid. Here are some examples:
1. Show how your cause or your goals are aligned with their values.
Find out what they care about—job security, safety, family, kindness, responsibility, reelection—and frame your communications to show how their values intersect with your cause.
You can also use the common language of the deeply held values that many of us share—freedom, justice, security, peace, truth, love—and encourage people to take actions that uphold these values and to create a future that honors and supports these values.
When engaging with the public against a power holder, you can emphasize the gap between that power holder’s actions and those common values.
For more on the importance of framing with values, see Common Cause Foundation.
2. Demonstrate your credibility.
Your credibility (and the credibility of any organizations, partners, coalitions, etc.) as an advocate for your issue of concern matters. People will want to know what expertise or qualifications you have and why they should listen to you.
You don’t have to be an expert on a topic to be a credible advocate. Think about what meaningful connection you have to the issue. For example, perhaps you or someone you love is affected by a proposed piece of legislation, or you are a healthcare worker and you’re speaking about health-related policy change, or you’re a parent who is concerned about your child’s future. There is almost always a way to make a meaningful connection to your issue of concern.
- Do you have the authority to speak on behalf of those who would benefit from your proposed solution?
- Who in your group or coalition has special expertise in relevant areas?
- Who has what kind of influence with decision makers and other relevant key individuals or groups?
- What more can you do to strengthen your credibility?
Acting and speaking with integrity, honesty, and accuracy are also essential. Once credibility is lost, it’s very difficult to reclaim, so ensure that your facts, statistics, assertions, actions, and associations reflect accuracy and credibility.
3. Use their language and framing.
In his book Don’t Think of an Elephant, George Lakoff outlines the language and framing that conservatives and progressives tend to respond to, based on their underlying values. For example, principles such as discipline, security, self-interest, and personal responsibility tend to resonate with people who identify as politically conservative. And principles such as empathy, cooperation, collective responsibility, and fairness tend to resonate with people who identify as politically progressive.
People’s demographics, geographic areas, education levels, religious affiliations, and other factors all influence the language and framing that they find meaningful–and those they find objectionable.
Use the language and framing that will best resonate with your target or audience. (See more about language and framing here.)
4. Avoid emphasizing a victim’s innocence.
In order to reduce their own discomfort, people tend to denigrate or blame others (such as human and nonhuman victims of violence and exploitation), so consider refraining from talking about “innocent immigrant children” or “innocent animals” in your language and framing.
Research shows that victim-blaming is a common human reaction and that it is often tied to a lack of empathy, a desire to see the world as a just and fair place in which good people are rewarded and bad people are punished (so if you’ve been harmed, it must be your fault), and a need not to feel vulnerable.
As psychologist Juliana Breines said, “The more innocent a victim, the more threatening they are.”
Research also shows that using framing and language to focus on the actions of the perpetrator can reduce victim-blaming of those who have been hurt.
5. Share stories of individuals.
Instead of focusing on large numbers or statistics, share stories of individuals. Studies show that people respond more positively to the stories of individual people or animals.
For example, instead of sharing facts about the millions of children forced into labor, tell one child’s story. Include details that make her fully present to your audience, and provide an image if you can.
6. Show how your desired action is tied into social norms.
Positive peer pressure can be a powerful tool. As researcher and social psychologist Robert Cialdini says, “The mere perception of the normal behavior of those around us is very powerful.” One classic example is a study on the impact of the “smiley face” strategy used by some utility companies to encourage consumers to save energy.
The “Don’t Mess with Texas” campaign, started by the Texas Department of Transportation in 1986 to help reduce litter, has been successful in reducing litter and continues today.
Hearing other people condemn racism made white people more likely to “express significantly stronger antiracist opinions.”
And research has shown that knowing that other people are eating fewer animals can inspire more people to also eat fewer animals.
Faunalytics has a helpful fact sheet on leveraging social norms.
7. Focus the “blame” on the entity or system and highlight the power of individual responsibility.
People don’t like to feel guilty or to believe that they’re causing harm, so, when possible, avoid emphasizing an individual’s role in supporting the problems you’re addressing. Focus on the negative impacts of the corporation, the government entity, and/or the system, but also highlight the individual and collective responsibility we have to create a better world and to use whatever privilege and power we have to make a positive difference. Show people what actions they can take to do more good and less harm.
8. Use choice architecture.
You can influence people’s choices by “organizing the context in which people make decisions.” Examples might include an advocacy campaign urging a local government to center fair-trade products in their purchasing criteria; a grocery store putting plant-based meats in the same section in which people are used to buying meat and dairy products; or a teaching institution emphasizing alternatives to animal testing as the primary focus of its research program.
9. Use “just enough” pressure.
When targeting an entity such as a corporation or government agency, apply only as much pressure as is needed to get the change you want. If policy makers are encouraged to change with only a small amount of pressure, they’re more likely to attribute the change to their own desire to do so and are more likely to maintain the new policy.
Language and framing strategies deserve their own section. You’ll find that here.
Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us about Spreading Social Change by Nick Cooney
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini
Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by R. H. Thaler and Cass Sunstein
For more information about influencing behavior, see: