The Science Behind Turning Words Into Action

Countless writers will quote Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, “I Have a Dream” speech this week. Dr. King’s uplifting words helped pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and inspired a worldwide movement for racial equality. By anyone’s standards, Dr. King was a master at using words to create social change.

We all want our words to inspire people to take action, whether you’re a consultant trying to help people stick to their New Year’s resolutions, a manager trying to get employees to show up on time, or a parent trying to get their kids to do homework.

While there are lot of places where we can find words that will inspire people, like motivational speeches, self-help books, and “lifehacking” websites, most people don’t act on those inspiring words after hearing them. So, how do you know if your message will get people to take action?

Take landing a new client. Imagine upper management is counting on you to develop a knockout presentation that will get a client to join your firm. You pour through websites and videos trying to find the right inspiring content to sway the client, but how do you know whether your presentation will seal the deal?

The Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) examines how people process communications like the “I Have a Dream” speech or other persuasive messages to get people to change. Advertising, marketing, and other sales fields rely on it heavily, but the model is useful in practically any context.

The ELM teaches us that persuasive messages follow one of two routes. If a message is clear and relevant, it is identified as taking the central route to persuasion. For example, political activists would probably process a speech on voting behavior through the central route because they already care about the topic. People who receive messages through the central route are more likely to embrace an idea or product and their behavior will be relatively easy to predict. The second path to persuasion, the peripheral route, is followed when someone has little or no interest in your message, or doesn’t understand it.  People aren’t thinking much when they process messages through the peripheral route so they use cues like body language, cultural context, and listener’s mood to get a feeling about whether they should change their attitude or behavior.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the ELM is that people are more likely to stick with beliefs formed through the central route and abandon their beliefs if they were processed through the peripheral route. This means that you should try to make your message relevant to people if you want them to change, but there are other tools you can use to motivate them even if they aren’t immediately interested in what you have to say.

Keep a simple rule of thumb in mind: focus on the central route if you feel the listener will respond best to logic, statistics, and case histories. Focus on the peripheral route if you think the listener will respond best to positive images/words or emotional pleas, and be sure to frontload your pitch to account for limited attention spans!

Dr. King’s speeches are a perfect example of how the ELM can be used to motivate and influence people. He crafted his talking points to focus on topics that were important to people and used his tone, body language, and charisma to gain support from people who might not have cared about his ideas. When you hear his words being remembered on this holiday, take a lesson from him on how to turn speech into action.

Non-violent direct action seeks to create…a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to dramatize the issue so that it can no longer be ignored... I am not afraid of the word tension. I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, and there is a type of constructive tension that is necessary for growth.” — Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963

Sean Young PhD

UCLA Center for Digital Behavior, Medical Plaza, Los Angeles, CA, 90024, United States

Sean Young, PhD, MS is the Executive Director of the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior. I'm a scientist, innovator, and UCLA medical school professor. I study the science behind human digital behavior (see digitalbehavior.ucla.edu for more info about this field of research).I also assemble technology teams and solutions to improve UCLA Family Medicine patient care. For more info or to contact me: www.SeanYoungPhD.com