Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Persuasion and Self-Interest

Persuasive speakers often appeal to your self-interest. But which is more persuasive: appealing to your short-term or your long-term self-interest?

I’ve always guessed that the most persuasive arguments appeal to your short-term interests. I want results now … and I assume that most other people do, too. It just seems like common sense. But I haven’t had much empirical evidence to back up my position until I noticed an article on fitness and exercise by Jane Brody in today’s New York Times. (You can find it here).

The article purports to be about exercise but it’s really about persuasion. How do you persuade people to take up exercise and stick with it? Traditionally we have “pitched” exercise either as a long-term benefit (“you’ll live longer”) or as a punishment (“you’re overweight; you have to work out”). As Brody points out, such messages are often sufficient to get people off the couch but rarely sufficient to keep them exercising long term.

Brody sums up the the need to focus on short-term benefits with a quote from Michelle Segar of the Univeristy of Michigan: “Immediate rewards are more motivating than distant ones. Feeling happy and less stressed is more motivating than not getting heart disease or cancer, maybe, some day in the future.”

So how does this affect your persuasive techniques? We’ve all experienced the difficulty of persuading people based on long-term interests. Perhaps you’ve tried to convince your children to study or save for the future. Or argued the politics of long-term environmental dangers. Or debated the future of programs like Social Security or Medicare. You’ll be more persuasive if you can focus your arguments on short-term benefits (and emotions) rather than long-term abstractions.

This may mean that you’ll leaven your argument with feelings and emotions more than facts and data. For instance, if you’re trying to persuade your children to save for the future, you might argue that, “If you save a little each day, your future will be secure.” That’s factual, future-oriented, and long-term. It’s also very abstract and fuzzy, especially to a young person. So you might try a different tack: “You’ll worry less and feel better if you know that your future is secure.” It’s more emotional and more immediate. It’s also more persuasive.

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