Barriers to Persuading an Audience

Learning Objectives

Explain how to overcome common barriers to persuading an audience.

Persuading an audience to change their beliefs or behaviors can be challenging because audiences are often resistant to change. This reluctance to change means that in order to persuade an audience, a speaker needs to overcome the barriers put up by that audience.

As Dr. Meggie Mapes says, one of the strongest barriers against changing our minds is a broader bias against change.[1] Research indicates that we do not like change—it causes stress and requires effort, both of which we all have a tendency to avoid. Moreover, risk aversion research shows that when it comes to change, we are more concerned with what we lose than with what we gain. As the economic psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have pointed out, in decision-making, “losses loom larger than gains.” [2]

Humans also selectively expose ourselves to messages we already agree with rather than seeking out messages that may challenge our beliefs. The term “filter bubble” which refers to how online platforms like Google and social media present us with information that reinforces our interests can feed into this selective exposure.

To Watch

In this TED talk, author and activist Eli Pariser talks about the causes and effects of online filter bubbles.

You can view the transcript for “Beware online “filter bubbles” | Eli Pariser” here (opens in new window).

What to watch for:

In the page on Speaking for Change, we described the need to “create actionable steps for audiences that are attainable within their sphere of control.” Speaking about the internet on the TED stage in 2011, Pariser finds himself in an interesting position: some of the most powerful people in the tech industry—the very architects of the internet—are in the audience. Toward the end of his speech (around 7:50), Pariser addresses Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page—and, by extension, their company and their industry:

“I know that there are a lot of people here from Facebook and from Google—Larry and Sergey—people who have helped build the web as it is, and I’m grateful for that. But we really need you to make sure that these algorithms have encoded in them a sense of the public life, a sense of civic responsibility. We need you to make sure that they’re transparent enough that we can see what the rules are that determine what gets through our filters. And we need you to give us some control so that we can decide what gets through and what doesn’t.”

Social psychologist Leon Festinger developed a theory called cognitive dissonance that describes the mental conflict that occurs when our beliefs about the world are contradicted by new information. This cognitive dissonance produces a tension that we respond to by rejecting, ignoring, or explaining away the new information. That rejection allows us to reconcile contradictory information and get rid of the dissonance.

As you might recall, we mentioned that the etymological root of persuasion comes from the root word for “sweet” or “agreeable.” To overcome the barrier against change in our audience, we need to make the change more agreeable to them. Mape offers speakers some suggestions for how to persuade an audience:

  • Instead of asking your audience to make major changes, ask them instead to make smaller, more incremental changes.
  • Focus on the positive consequences or benefits of the change you are advocating. You are trying to help your audience see that the stress of changing a belief or behavior will be worth it. Explain what benefits or advantages the audience will receive if they adopt your message.
  • Identify what negative consequences will occur if the audience doesn’t change their mind. If the audience does nothing and no change happens as result, what will be the negative effects of that choice?[3]

Try It

  2. Kahneman, Daniel, and Amos Tversky. “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk.” Econometrica, vol. 47, no. 2, 1979, pp. 263–291, 279. JSTOR.