Monday, November 8, 2010


This has been stuck in my head as I've been reading through Influencer by Patterson, Greny et al. It's a book about how people change their minds - in some ways a practical companion to the Heath Brother's Switch - and it's chock full of interesting stuff. But the bit that's been riding me has been that about persuasion and how it works.

See, verbal persuasion (making a good argument and so on) works pretty well in lots of situations so long as the recipient trusts your intentions and your expertise and so long as they're not already invested in the subject. If another cook offers you a tip on how to prepare garlic, odds are good you'll change your behavior and give it a try provided you don't think they're trying to pull a fast one. But for less tractable issues, ones where there's already an investment or other sorts of gravity? Well, the book puts it quite well:

Consequently, whenever you use forceful and overt verbal persuasion to try to convince others to see things your way, they're probably not listening to what you say. Instead, they're looking for very error in your logic and mistake in your facts, all while constructing counterarguments. Worse still, they don't merely believe you're wrong, they need you to be wrong, in order to protect the status quo. And since the final judge exists in their own head, you lose every time.

I read that and had to go dig up a highlighter to mark it, because I had never seen every argument on the internet, ever, described so succinctly.

The author's go on to assert that the best real persuader is personal experience, and I have to agree with that. Seeing and doing real things impacts people profoundly, in a way that just thinking or talking about it does not. But they concede the problem with that is that experience can be hard to come by, especially specific experience. And that is where stories come in.

The book has an interesting output driven view on stories as our most effective tool for creating vicarious experiences. That is to say, if you can't actually be there, a good story from a good storyteller is the next best thing in terms of power to influence how you think. This is not news - marketing has been telling us for years that we sell with stories, but I found this the most practically explained framework for the idea to date.

And it also has me thinking about what we mean when we say stories. What's interesting about this approach is that it talks very little about how to tell good stories, instead acknowledging that it can be done well or poorly and moving on, and just concentration on the _outcomes_. This fascinates me because, I think, it highlights some of why the term is so contentious in gaming as some people talk about inputs and others talk about outputs, and are then so busy stabbing each other to sort it out.

Anyway, I'm still chewing on this, but I needed to get it out of my head and into circulation.


  1. "Story" in my experience seems to be a kind of placeholder for one of many different things that people want to explain or describe but don't. I've known people who say they like Dragonlance because "it puts story ahead of rules" or something. What does that even mean? Railroading? Characterization? Metaplot? They don't know when I ask them. They just repeat the word "story."

  2. I'm less interested in defining story than I am in using it as a tool. This is good stuff. Also sheds light on the forum vs blog thing for me. It's harder to establish an assumed context of trust in the former.

  3. Or, put another way, persuasion via Telling Someone About It is trying to find a way around the maxim that people need to figure things out for themselves.

    When I think of how a family full of teachers and writers go about teaching and writing, what usually leaps to mind is a meaningful breath followed by a tale - long or short, depends on which one of you is talking - but it is always a tale. No one ever says, "Deborah. You're wrong. Go figure it out." or "Deborah, ." Usually, it begins as a question.

    There's a reason they usually have my attention.

    But I also think the effect you're talking about has much less to do with the crunch vs intangibles balance that people seem to mean in gaming when they say 'story'. You are talking about communication. They are talking about why they show up to the table at all.

  4. I really like this. Translating it to game terms offers some interesting ideas as well:

    The idea of persuasion in an RPG is a sore spot for many and at least half (or better) of all role-players prefer to keep the act of persuasion as strictly a role-playing action rather than bringing dice and mechanics into it. But I still like mechanical representation for persuasion for a number of reasons I've mentioned quite often.

    But what this is asserting is that proper persuasion is more akin to teaching (perhaps even with XP expenditure) rather than just a social roll or GMO to determine if the persuasion worked.

    Now the question is how to make that work in a fun gamey way... I'm thinking a trade-off of sorts. The character takes from it a minor edge (minor or temporary Aspect?) and in return sways to the persuader's method of thinking.

  5. It's one of the reasons that myths have such great power. They are stories that strongly resonate with the listener, that draw them into to journey or experience being undertaken. The listener identifies with the protagonist of the story, and by doing so innately accepts their ordering of the world. Carry it far enough and it's possible to reorder the world to accept the mythic structure.

    [And if that's not a definition of role-playing, I don't know what is. Although in this case there is less of an innate acceptance of the ordering of the world (since the player has a greater control of the story). Then again, in proper oral traditions, the telling of a myth is always adjusted for the audience; something that we lose when we reduce the story to the printed word.]

    And as you say, the best way to manipulate someone with persuasion someone is to show that you share a common belief structure (enabling them to trust you), and then bend the mutual belief structure towards the desired result by applying selective reasoning. It also helps if the mark has a weakness (say greed or vanity or doxophobia) that can be exploited (their belief structure is weak in that direction and vulnerable to be shifted that way). For example, it is the mark's greed that normally allows a con to succeed. The thought that they are putting one over on someone else blinds them to what is being done to them.

    This sort of judo is much more effective than attempting to demolish your opponent's ideas with hard strikes/arguments against individual beliefs. Both can work, but it's a lot of hard work demolishing each individual part of the structure of belief that already lies there and then raising a new one. Especially whilst your opponent is attempting to reinforce his own structure and demolish yours.

    Although a good rhetorical argument does keep you warm in winter. <grin>

  6. I will never object to argument as sport, so long as everyone's on board (I have occasionally tripped up on that last qualifier)

  7. If you're interested in the semantics or philosophical term of "story," that's one thing. But it seems to me that most people can agree on what a story is, so you're looking at types of stories. And you're talking about two different types: stories that persuade, and stories that entertain/engage while gaming.

    First, you're talking about stories that convince or teach. These stories usually contain 1. people similar enough to the target of your story, 2. events that the target of your story can accept and imagine, and 3. a convincing (usually clever or touching) explanation of some truth and how it transcends the specific story.

    Note that at least two and usually three of those features contain reinforcements for convincing people that you're telling a story about _them_. So, telling a good story that is designed to persuade is about being very similar to your target audience or otherwise understanding them very well. Being similar is easy, but narrowly useful. Understanding others well enough to trick them is not exactly something about which you can write a short how-to.

    I can see where those things overlap with telling a good story for a game, but it honestly might be something as varied as taste.

    However, the whole inputs/outputs/crunch/fluff/etc. thing, in my experience, is not actually about storytelling - it's shorthand for explaining design content, almost like genre terms for literature, film, or music. Most people get the picture, but the contention is where people over-analyze, abuse, or simply misunderstand these terms and their purpose.

    When you look at a term like "immersion" in describing game design, it becomes clearer. When people use that word, all they're usually referencing is what _kind_ of abstraction they're comfortable with in their game experience, not _how much_. "Immersive" is basically a genre tag that indicates no explicit story stick mechanic for players - as opposed to a commentary on how a story is told.

  8. @Helmsman I've had a lot of similar thoughts, and someday will actually write the social combat system that boils down to "You can't control people's outputs, only their inputs, but sometimes that's enough"


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