September 18, 2019 / Esther Choy

the key to persuading audiences that think they know everything

Let’s do a word association game. I say “story” and you say…? “Telling!” Indeed, most people would say “telling.” After all, storytelling is everywhere now. There’s a big caveat though. A wise person once said, “to become a great storyteller, one must first become a great story collector.” In other words, you have to prompt others to tell their stories. This is especially important when your task is persuading audiences who, at first, are not persuadable. People who are, in fact, adamant in their views and think YOU are the one that needs to stop bothering them with all this ‘change’ mumbo jumbo.

What do you do then? You sneer at them for their stubbornness? (I hope not!)

You say, “that’s the stupidest view I’ve ever known?” (You probably wouldn’t say that, no matter how much you wish you could, but how do you know your body language doesn’t betray you?)

You could say, “I respectfully disagree,” and launch into your arguments, points of view, mountains of data and proof, and even your most moving stories.

That’s what most people do and fail.

Sorry, but it’s true. Using mountains of data doesn’t work. In these cases, even storytelling doesn’t work.

That’s because none of this gets past people’s motivated reasoning, which Yale psychology professor Dan Kahan describes as “the unconscious tendency of individuals to fit their processing of information to conclusions that suit some end or goal.”

Kahan cites a classic study where college sports fans were more likely to see referees’ controversial calls as fair if they were good for their team. “The researchers concluded,” says Kahan, “that the emotional stake the students had in affirming their loyalty to their respective institutions shaped what they saw on the tape.” In other words, our end goal can actually dictate what we perceive!

If a fact is personally threatening, people are less likely to believe it. For instance, people who receive news that they are ill are more likely to distrust the lab results than people whose tests show that they’re healthy. It’s possible to change their minds, but more information is required to prove them wrong than to confirm that they are right. Add social identity dynamics to the mix, as in the college sports example, and changing minds gets even harder. When a piece of information becomes an article of faith for a group, adopting a different opinion hurts your reputation within the group.

Think experts are easier to reach? Think again. Experts simply have “more tools to curate their own sense of reality,” says Matthew Hornsey, a professor of psychology at the University of Queensland.

What Do You Do Instead?

Start by acknowledging your audience’s point of view. Repeat what they tell you—verbatim— as much as you can. For instance, “So I hear you telling me that Mike slows projects down, so you don’t want him to be in charge of getting the focus group together.”

Acknowledgement is like stabilizing ER patients before you perform life-saving operations. People aren’t ready to hear anything disagreeable until they feel heard. Don’t even think about shortcutting this process by saying, “I hear you, I know how you feel, I understand.” No, you don’t. Or at least, they won’t believe you until you repeat what they say verbatim.


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Ask your audience to walk you through, on a mechanical level, how they came to their point of view. Most people are overconfident on how well they know how things work. But once asked to explain the mechanics, they realize that they actually know very little. So chances are good that your unpersuadable audiences don’t know as much as they think they do. Get them to realize it gently, indirectly and respectfully. Now, you have an opening to their mind and heart. For example, a bank may currently process loans using paperwork and a manual process. But one of my clients wants to help them digitize the process, which requires both an investment and a change in process. My client often hears the bank’s decision-makers say, “this costs too much.” However, the case my client makes is that in the long run, it saves you money.

To make this argument even more effective, I encouraged the client to have the bank walk them through their cost analysis. By listening and having them go through it line by line, the decision-makers can see the gaps as well.

After acknowledging your “unpersuadable” audience, inspire them to envision a different future—one that’s more efficient, collaborative or compassionate. And then encourage your audience to aspire to put that vision into practice. By acknowledging their current story, you can lead them to embrace a new one.

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Photo credit: ALotOfPeople

This article by Esther Choy originally appeared on

Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.

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"This is an amazing and insightful post! I hadn’t thought of that so you broadened my perspective. I always appreciate your insight!" - Dan B.

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