How To Be Effective At Persuasion For Learnin


persuasion-and-learningDo you ever need to persuade an audience during a learning experience? Although the persuasion may be subtle, I’m guessing the answer is yes. Designers often embed persuasive messages into a learning experience  because the need for training and support often results from a change or transition in the workplace.

For example, when you need to teach or provide performance support for new software, new regulations or new procedures, the learning experience requires persuasion. The reason? Most people don’t want their old ways of doing things to change. In an attempt to convince the audience that the new way is the best way, persuasion becomes part of the subtle underlying message.

When the purpose of the learning experience is to change habits and attitudes, your persuasion may be more explicit. It can even be part of an organization’s larger internal marketing campaign. Learning why one should make smart lifestyle choices, volunteer for a charity event or use hand sanitizer after seeing patients are examples of explicit persuasion.

Persuasion is an important element of instructional design, but we don’t know enough about it. What exactly is persuasion? What works? And how are people persuaded?

Persuasion Defined

Persuasion can be defined as “an interactive process through which a given message alters an individual’s perspective by changing the knowledge, beliefs, or interests that underlie that perspective (Miller, 1980).” In plain terms, persuasion is a communication that tries to get other people to change a belief, attitude or behavior.

Scholars think of persuasion as a continuum of change that is part of a gradual process rather than a change that happens immediately. Persuasion is ongoing as a person re-examines his or her values and beliefs in light of gaining new knowledge. Researchers point out that although the communicator (you) provides the information, in reality, people persuade themselves.

The Central Route to Persuasion

An influential model of persuasion was introduced in 1986 by Petty and Cacioppo. Known as the Elaboration Likelihood Method (ELM), it describes two routes of information processing that might occur in a recipient: the central route and the peripheral route. It assumes that an individual’s ability to process messages and motivation are important factors in success.

The central route to persuasion focuses on the quality of the argument as compared with an individual’s prior knowledge, which results in an acceptance or rejection of the content. This route is based on an individual’s cognitive ability, interest and motivation to process a persuasive message. According to the model, this route results in a more stable and persistent change.

If your audience is likely to process the message through the central route, use rational messages that are relevant to the audiences’ experiences in the workplace. Tout the benefits of a new approach. Demonstrate increased efficiency and productivity. For instance, show how new regulations will make the environment better or safer; demonstrate how you can use the new enterprise software on your phone, etc.

The Peripheral Route to Persuasion

On the other hand, the peripheral route to persuasion is based more on non-cognitive factors that surround the message. This could be the emotional impact of the communication, the credibility and characteristics of the sender, the visual design and even the length of the message. People who are influenced through the peripheral route do not care as much about the quality of a rational argument. This is often the approach you will find in commercials and advertisements. The peripheral route is considered somewhat weak and unstable in terms of influencing lasting change.

If your audience is likely to process the message through the peripheral route, you can tell persuasive stories that arouse emotions. Humor may also work, when appropriate. Another approach is to find influential leaders or well-liked employees who will demonstrate and model new approaches.

Note that even audiences who are persuaded through cognitive arguments can be motivated and influenced through a peripheral route.

Factors Affecting Persuasion in Learning

Before you design your next persuasive message, consider these factors that have been shown to influence attitude, value or behavioral change:

  • Characteristics of the learner: prior knowledge and relevant beliefs influence persuasion.
  • Ability to process a message: stronger comprehension skills result in deeper processing of the message, which makes it more convincing.
  • Ability to retrieve relevant beliefs: this makes it more likely the person will process the message and be persuaded.
  • Characteristics of the message: the strength of the communication and the content itself affect persuasiveness. In general, presenting both sides of an argument and then refuting one is an effective approach. Also, generating an emotional reaction can improve the effectiveness of a message.
  • Interest in the topic: as a person’s interest in a topic increases, his or her beliefs are more likely to be modified (probably because the person will be more reflective). You can increase interest by providing related content prior to an event and also by making the topic relevant to the learner’s world.
  • Continuous messaging: It takes time to persuade, so it must occur in multiple steps. Similar to acquiring knowledge and skills, a single message will not be enough. You will need to help the audience appreciate the value or behavior you want to instill.
  • Emotional component: Rational decisions are at least partially based on emotions. Appeal to the cognitive and affective aspects of the audience.

What are the most effective persuasion techniques that you use? Answer in the Comments below.


  1. Miller, G. R. On being persuaded: Some basic distinctions. In M. Roloff, & G. R. Miller (Eds.), Persuasion: New directions in theory and research, 11–28, 1980. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
  2. Morris, J.D., Woo, C.M., & Singh, A.J. Elaboration likelihood model: A missing intrinsic emotional implication. Journal of Targeting, Measurement and Analysis for Marketing, 14, 79–98, 2005.
  3. Murphy, P.K. & Alexander, P.A. Persuasion As a Dynamic, Multidimensional Process: An Investigation of Individual and Intraindividual Differences. American Educational Research Journal: 41.2: 337-363, 2004.
  4. Seel, N.M. Persuasion and Learning in Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning, 2600-2604, 2012.

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