In my days as a campus recruiter, I was often called upon to meet with prospective student athletes (and their families) to give them helpful information about the university admissions process. At some point along the way, one of the coaches informed me that 100% of the athletes with whom I met signed with the university. I was delighted, yet somewhat shocked, to hear that information since I truly was not trying to be persuasive in my conversational approach – I was simply being informative yet sincere. I bring this up because our words (and behaviors) inspire action (or inaction), whether we realize it or not.
Fast forward a few years into the classroom, and I am influencing students to essentially buy into course concepts every day. I find that whatever seeds I plant into the minds of my listeners typically get regurgitated. For example, if I tell my students that a project is relatively easy, they buy into that idea and provide me feedback that it was, in fact, easy. If I tell students that same project will be difficult or challenging, they face it with fear and a sense of being overwhelmed. What happens when people get overwhelmed? They shut down. Language matters. How we frame ideas matters. As educators, we need to set a persuasive tone and use influential language that is filled with possibilities and opportunities so that our students flourish. We regularly draw upon Aristotle’s persuasive appeals when teaching imperative lessons, but is there anything in particular we can do to help our ideas stick?
Let’s change the narrative to being “positively influential”
Sometimes, people attach a negative connotation to the word persuasion. When I think back to my days in recruitment and my present-day classroom discussions, I never felt like I was “persuading” anyone. When I overthink my persuasive tactics, I worry I might come across as “rehearsed” or “sales-y”; I prefer to use the phrase “positively influential”. The best way to plant positive seeds is to do it in such a way that people do not even realize they are being influenced. It is important to note that being influential is both language-based and behavior-based. In your approach to be influential, consider employing some of these ideas to drive home ethos, logos, and pathos even further:
Use confirming language. Young, moldable minds believe what we tell them to believe. Confirming language such as, “I really liked your contribution to today’s discussion,” lets students know that you are listening to them and that you truly value their input. This has a great impact on their own identify and can affect their academics, how they communicate with others, and ultimately, how they influence others. Paula Denton, EdD and author of The Power of Our Words: Teacher Language that Helps Children Learn and Founder of the Responsive Classroom, notes, “teacher language influences students…It shapes how students think and act and, ultimately, how they learn.” While Dr. Denton’s focus is on interactions within an elementary setting, it is safe to assume that language matters well beyond grade school years. Dr. Denton suggests that by being direct, by conveying our faith in students’ abilities, by focusing on actions, by keeping things brief, and by knowing when to be silent, we are fostering a respectful and positive community.
Speak to your listener’s needs. People buy into ideas when it benefits them. Make the information matter to those who are in your presence. It is up to your audience to determine if your message is communicated effectively. Nancy Duarte speaks about the power to change the world in her TedxEast Talk; more specifically, she notes, “It's easy to feel, as the presenter, that you're the star of the show. I realized right away, that that's really broken. Because I have an idea, I can put it out there, but if you guys don't grab that idea and hold it as dear, the idea goes nowhere and the world is never changed. So in reality, the presenter isn't the hero, the audience is the hero of our idea.”
Be an Equal. It is important to be able to command a classroom so that we do not lose sight of our desired objectives, but one of my mentors once advised, “you gain power when you lose the power trip.” I have found this approach to work great in a classroom.
Be Honest. Even if people ask you hard questions, be honest in your approach to providing information and answering questions. People appreciate honesty and would rather not be persuaded through a false hope; false hope leads to disappointment and distrust.
Be Responsive, Timely and Follow Through. Do what you say you’ll do. If your listener has a question with which you do not have a firm response, you may offer to get back to them. Always get back to them in a timely manner. You will build respect and trust.
Be Genuine and Kind. Providing information in a genuine and sincere way comes across in various ways. From the tone of our voice to our gestures to our facial expressions to eye contact, these nonverbal behaviors are typically not rehearsed when we are speaking in the moment, authentically. Being authentic creates a sense of trust.
Tell a Story. Offering a story helps seal a relatable appeal. One of my mentors once told me, “if you start getting some glazed eyes in the audience, tell a personal story to reel them back in.” People remember stories because they can visualize them, and it also reassures them that you are also a human.
Whether we are inside or outside of the classroom, from what we say to how we say it, we are planting seeds in the minds of those who are giving us their attention. Words and behaviors are powerful tools and we should use them in such a way to help create successful contributors to society. If we do a great job as educators, we will see those seeds flourish into something phenomenal.