If you are trying to persuade someone in a written message or speech, they need to carefully consider your position. And for them to take the time to do it, the issue must be personally relevant.

Social psychology experiments show that persuasion does not occur when readers skim or when a listening audience is daydreaming. So when you are writing a persuasive message, the challenge is to craft one that the audience is motivated to think about. Nothing is so important to motivating an audience to think as relevance.

What makes an issue relevant

  • It is deeply significant to the audience
  • It carries potential ramifications for the audience. Perhaps they are involved in the issue, they are part of the decision-making, or they could face consequences of the outcome.
  • It is personally meaningful to the audience in some other way.

When the arguments are strong (logical and clear, with solid evidence), people who consider an issue to be highly relevant will carefully consider the message and are likely to be more influenced by it.

One experiment involved two groups of students at a college. Group A was told that the university might implement a new policy requiring seniors to pass a special exam in their major before they could graduate. Group B was told that university in a different city was considering the policy.

Both groups then heard a radio editorial containing either strong or weak arguments supporting the proposed policy.

When the speaker advocated that the policy be implemented at their own college, the strong arguments in the editorial had a greater influence on Group A students than on Group B, because the issue was more personally relevant to Group A. This would be a policy that would directly affect them, so they thought more carefully about the message, and more of them were persuaded to support it.

Group A students who heard weak arguments favoring the policy were not persuaded and reacted unfavorably.

Trustworthiness

Another factor in determining whether people are motivated to think carefully about a persuasive message is whether you are a trustworthy source. People want their attitudes to be based on correct information, and trustworthiness affects how confident they feel about the accuracy of your facts. When you are perceived to have expertise, people are more comfortable accepting your position.