Rules of Persuasion

Voicing Our Values—Top Five Rules of Persuasion

In a democracy, we pursue our goals through persuasion. We construct and deliver arguments to gain votes in order to advance our policies and ultimately build a better world. Even though persuasion is central to political success, we rarely talk about how to do it better.

For a PDF copy of Voicing Our Values—Top Five Rules of Persuasion, click here.

That’s the point of our book, Voicing Our Values: A Message Guide for Candidates. It suggests how progressive lawmakers, candidates and activists can improve the way they talk about a wide range of issues, from the economy, healthcare and immigrants’ rights, to marriage equality, reproductive rights and gun violence. But no matter the issue, there are basic principles that make any argument more persuasive. Here are five rules that always apply:

Rule #1—Understand Your Audience

Most Americans are partisan Democrats or Republicans who really cannot be persuaded. In 2012, only about 10-20 percent could possibly have swung between Obama and Romney. The rest, 80-90 percent, were set in stone. So the target group of persuadable voters is often small.

Those persuadable voters aren’t like us. They don’t pay much attention to public policy. They are neither staunch conservatives nor avowed liberals. They don’t often read political news or watch it on TV. In general, they’re the citizens who are least interested in politics. After all, if they understood the stark differences between the parties, they would already have taken a side.

We cannot persuade them by assuming they know what we know or by using the statistics, ideological language, and insider catchphrases that progressives use when talking to each other. Persuadables don’t speak our language.What_we_say.jpg 
The solution is to take persuadable voters as they are, not as we wish they were. Accept that they have biases and beliefs that are different from ours, understand them, and speak their language instead of ours. (For poll-tested advice about language that works, issue-by-issue, see

Rule #2—Start in Agreement

One of the greatest books about persuasion was written more than 75 years ago. Here’s a key piece of its advice:

In talking to people, don’t begin by discussing the things on which you differ. Begin by emphasizing—and keep on emphasizing—the things on which you agree. Keep on emphasizing, if possible, that you are both striving for the same end and that your only difference is one of method and not of purpose.

Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

People carry many preconceptions in their heads. When new facts don’t fit peoples’ preexisting beliefs, they are almost certain to reject the facts, not their preconceptions. It is extremely rare, in the short term, to change anyone’s belief. Pollsters have known that for years.

So, to accomplish our goal of persuasion, we have to find a point of agreement and work from there. We need to provide voters with a bridge from their preconception to our solution. Our goal is not to change people’s minds, it is to show them that they agree with us already. We do this by using empathy and expressing our values.

Rule #3—Use Empathy

The easiest way to connect with voters is to empathize. Demonstrate that you understand their problems and concerns. Voters quite reasonably conclude that you can’t fix their problems if you can’t understand them.

Before you make your pitch, find out what voters think. If you’re walking door-to-door or talking to individuals one-on-one, ask them what the community needs to fix. If you’re speaking at a meeting, find out the audience’s concerns ahead of time. And obviously, if you’re paying for mass media, research public opinion first.

You never have to compromise your political principles to demonstrate empathy. Rather, search for some element of the debate where you can sincerely agree. For example:

  • If a voter is complaining about taxes (even in a conservative fashion), agree that our tax system is unfair.
  • If the voter is worried about government budgets (even when there’s really no problem), agree that our government has an obligation to be careful with taxpayer money.
  • If the voter is concerned about crime (even in a very low-crime community), agree that personal safety must be a top priority for the government.
  • If the voter thinks the neighborhood is going downhill (even when that doesn’t seem to be the case), agree that we need to preserve the quality of life.

Start any political conversation this way. And then reinforce your empathy with shared values.

Rule #4—Express Your Values

In politics, values are ideals that describe the kind of society we are trying to build. The stereotypical conservative values are small government, low taxes, free markets, strong military, and family values. These oversimplifications are very popular.

Here’s how progressives can respond. When you’re talking about an issue where government has no proper role—like free speech, privacy, reproductive health, or religion—talk about your commitment to freedom or use a similar value from the chart below. When you discuss an issue where government should act as a referee between competing interests—like court proceedings, wages, benefits, subsidies, taxes, or education—explain that your position is based on opportunity or a value from that column. When you argue about an issue where government should act as a protector—like crime, retirement, health care, zoning, or the environment—stand for security or a similar value.


You can also put these values together and say you stand for “freedom, opportunity and security for all,” a progressive statement of values that polls very well. But more important, it’s an accurate and politically potent description of what we stand for. The right wing favors these principles for some—the affluent. Progressives insist on providing freedom, opportunity, and security to all Americans. Yes, we have other values like compassion, cooperation, communalism, generosity, and mercy, but they don’t project strength so they don’t work as well with persuadable voters. Instead, those tend to evoke negative stereotypes about progressives—that we’re weak and unrealistic. Stick to strong progressive values that help win elections.

Rule #5—Embrace Your Audience

It is hard to convince persuadable voters to support a policy that appears to benefit people other than themselves, their families, and their friends. Celinda Lake, one of our movement’s very best pollsters, explains that “our culture is very, very individualistic.” When faced with a proposed government policy, “people look for themselves in the proposal. People want to know what the proposal will do for me and to me.”

So whenever possible, show voters that they personally benefit from our progressive policy, even when that benefit is indirect. For example, when arguing for Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, say something like: “It will benefit everyone. It will energize our local economy and create thousands of new jobs. It will save millions in taxpayer dollars that are currently spent treating uninsured people in emergency rooms. And it will help our own hard-working families and friends who are hurting in this economic downturn.”

When it’s just not possible to avoid talking about other people receiving aid, make sure to describe them as deserving. You can explain they are the vulnerable in society—such as children, the elderly, and the disabled—who cannot reasonably take care of themselves. But when the recipients are able-bodied adults, suggest that they are hard-working and/or supporting families. Bill Clinton’s steady repetition of “work hard and play by the rules” was designed to communicate that program beneficiaries were deserving of help. That phrase still works.

Progressives ought to have the upper hand in any argument. Our policies benefit the great majority of Americans, the “99 percent.” Our values reflect the aspirations of the vast majority of our fellow citizens. We’re on the voters’ side. But we need to sharpen our persuasion skills a bit so the voters will believe that.

Resources for progressives on political persuasion:



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