I promise not all my posts will be about “Swinging London,” but this one is, like my first post, about an event available to the technical-writer-about-town. In this case, it concerns a presentation called Science and the dark art of persuasion, which was held at the Royal Institution of Great Britain on 12 February 2013.
The Royal Institution (RI) was founded in 1799 with the aim of introducing new technologies and teaching science to the general public. Many important scientific discoveries have been made in its building, such as the discovery of ten chemical elements, the atomic structure of crystals and the invention of the electric generator. The RI still supports public engagement with science through its public lectures. You sit down on a seat in the theatre where perhaps Einstein or Stephen Hawking sat before you—an incredible thought.
It’s often at the intersection of one area of study and and another that you can gain useful insights, and sometimes there are lectures at the RI that touch on on the world of the Technical Writer.
For example, in November 2011, Dr. Aleks Krotoski presented The Serendipity Engine. Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt had claimed that the search engine was serendipitous—more about delight and happy accidents than data. Aleks highlighted the problems with the way the Web currently works—linguistic barriers, echo chambers—and she proposed a vision of how the technology could be developed to provide more “accidental information.” If such a technology were developed, then perhaps it could be applied to the fields of learning and technical communication. Here’s a link to the audio archive of that event.
The reason why Science and the dark art of persuasion interested me, was because we’re noticing the techniques of persuasion appearing in some Web-based Help. Indeed, we cover some of these techniques in our advanced technical writing course. So, although the debate was on what scientists should know about persuasion, and whether they should ever use these techniques, it seemed likely that the information would also be relevant to technical writers.
Here are some of my notes from the event:
- It’s in people’s nature to want to agree—pain receptors in the brain light up when we disagree (Prof. Bruce Hood)
- It’s not lack of information that stops change. You need to know your audience so you can help remove barriers to change (Dr. Felicity Mellor)
- Data is meaningless until you use metaphor to give it meaning (Dr. Felicity Mellor)
- Persuasion is fine until it becomes manipulation, deception or dishonest (Dr. Helen Czerski)
- If you use rhetoric to persuade, your success will depend on your content, your understanding of the audience, and your credibility as a speaker (Dr. Felicity Mellor)
- The identifiable victim—if you identify with someone (the speaker or a story about a person), you’re more likely to be persuaded to do something (Prof. Bruce Hood)
- People are persuaded by personal experience (Prof. Barry Smith)
- If you repeat back a sentence to someone, they are more likely to like you and be persuaded by you (Prof. Bruce Hood)
- Using the phrase “according to new research” has a powerful influence on people (Marcus Brigstocke)
- You can probably persuade anyone of anything with a kitten (Dr. Helen Czerski)
There are a few of these ideas that could be applied to technical communication:
- We could use case studies to get the user to identify with a particular situation
- We could get people to agree to read instructions before they start a task
- We could tell them other people are doing the activity we want them to do
- If the user’s own questions and phraseology were used in the user documentation, it might be more persuasive
- We could definitely include more kittens in our content
What do you think? Should technical writers use the dark arts of persuasion? Do they use persuasion techniques already? Where are the boundaries between what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable?
Use the comment box below to share your thoughts.
Ellis Pratt is sales and marketing director at Cherryleaf. Ranked the most the influential blogger on technical communication in Europe, Ellis is a specialist in the field of creating clear and simple information users will love.