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Want to Persuade Your Audience? Use Positive Language

Kirsten Liston

Last week, in the SCCE webinar “Using Modern Communication Techniques to Write a Better Code of Conduct,” our own Meghan Daniels talked about the tactic of using positive language in a Code.

So: “We compete fairly,” not: “We don’t collude with competitors.”

Reporter Elizabeth Bernstein explains:

We all altercast, for better or worse. Want your co-worker to stay late and proofread a report you wrote? Mention that she is a good writer and really knows the subject. Hope to talk your meat-and-potatoes friend into trying the new Vietnamese restaurant? Tell him you admire his adventurous spirit. Want your husband to clean the garage? Point out what a supportive husband he is and how you know he wants you to be happy.

With altercasting, the goal is to describe your audience as if they were already successful at doing something you wish them to do—in order to induce a subliminal desire to do that thing even better.

For example, one research study found that 5th graders were more likely to clean up their classroom not when they got a lecture about tidiness but when they were told the principal already considered them the tidiest students in the school.

The Journal further added that it’s important to:

  • Cast that person in a role they want to be in.
  • Emphasize the relationship—and your appreciation of that person.
  • Include the phrase “are you willing” when making a request (in other words, show you recognize the other person has a choice—this counter-intuitively makes people more likely to cooperate).

So how can you incorporate altercasting into your Code of Conduct? Here are a few ideas:

  • CEO letter: Say something like: “I continue to be proud of the high level of personal integrity that our employees demonstrate every day at work. Again and again, I hear stories about (company name)-ers going out of their way to make sure a job is done right. These are exactly the actions we want to demonstrate, both to one another and to the outside world.”
  • Introduction/Ethical Decision-Making: Say something like: “When hiring, we look for people who can act as leaders in their roles. And no matter our role or level, each one of us is here in part because we have the capability to act as leaders when it comes to demonstrating integrity and making good decisions.”
  • Risk topics: Introduce topics in aspirational terms, in language that is likely to resonate with most people. For instance: “Our strength in the market is driven in part by the way we work with one another—respectfully, considerately, and with an openness to different perspectives and ways of thinking.”

Of course, to be credible, your statements have to be believable to your audience and in line with the employee culture they live in every day.

So borrow these statements, or create new ones that are even better suited to your organizatiuon. The only criteria is that, to paraphrase Dale Carnegie, you give employees “a fine reputation to live up to.”

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