The Modern Survival Guide #60
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. But it’s hard to do most things alone. In fact, for the larger things in life we usually need to act in groups. Sometimes you might even want a group to do something specific. And that means that, at some point, you’re going to need to inspire people to action.
Let’s talk a bit about what that means, then get into how to do it.
So first of all, “inspiring” action means that you’re not coercing action and you’re not demanding action,¹ but rather that you are convincing other people to do something by finding a way to get them to want to do it. Sometimes that can be easy, sometimes it can be hard, and sometimes it requires a fair degree of manipulation. And I’m not here to tell you that one of these methods is necessarily better or worse than another; this is an article about how things are, not how we would prefer them to be.
So then, how do you inspire action?
The Five Paths to Action
I know of five paths to inspire action in another person. I’m not saying these are exclusive; I’m just saying these are the ones that leap out to me. If you know another on, I’d be delighted to hear about it. But the ways I know are:
- Having an Inspiring Personality
- Calling in Favors
- Appealing to Someone’s Interests
- Calling on Obligations
- Using Emotions
We’ll go through these one by one.
Using Your Personality to Inspire Action
Traditionally, this is what a lot of people think of when they think of “leadership:” using your personality and reputation to inspire other people to do something because you’re simply such a magnetic or trusted person that they want to support you.
Inspiring action by personality alone is tricky and unreliable, though. A lot of it rests on very nebulous concepts (charm, charisma, reputation) that are extremely vulnerable to outside influence and not always subject to your control. And, frankly, a lot of people simply do not have an inspirational personality. It’s one of those things where you either have it or you don’t, and it’s very hard to learn.
In general, I look at inspiring others by personality as at best Step 1 in generating any kind of action. Typically you have to use one of the other methods to follow through. But it’s a good way to get things started, at least.
Calling In Favors
This is one of the time-honored methods of inspiring action, and it basically rests on the quid-pro-quo formula: I do something for you if you do something for me, and vice versa. This is often a non-monetary exchange that may involve two very different actions in pursuit of separate goals.
Calling in a favor rests on the assumption that you either have already, or could in the future, provide a favor in turn for the other person. This can be tricky. You run a risk when calling in favors, because the person doing the favor might request something in exchange that you find objectionable or disproportionate.
Calling in favors is probably the most difficult item on this list to implement effectively, if only because the favor you want may not be the favor you get, and you may not have a sufficient volume of favors stored up to accomplish all the actions you wanted. However, this remains a very useful, time honored and exceeding popular method of inspiring action — especially among the powerful, for obvious reasons.
Appealing to Interest
One of the easiest and most reliable ways to inspire action in another person is to identify things the other person wants and then offer them those things — find a way to satisfy their interests, in other words.
A common example is a strategy of mutual self-interest, which relies on two parties both achieving something they want as a result of a series of actions. Sometimes their objective is the same, and the action is the path to that objective; sometimes an action has multiple consequences, and one of them appeals to one side while a different consequence appeals to the other. In either case, it is very possible to convince others to engage in an action that gives them something they want.
Note that I called this method both easy and reliable. As a result, this is probably the most common method of inspiring action that you’ll see in your life, and I can guarantee you’ve seen it on almost any occasion when you’ve been out in public, because a very common example of interest-based inspiration is a job. This is a classic case: the employer gets something they want (work) and the employee gets something they want (money).
While relying on self-interest is, in my opinion, the best method of inspiring action, be aware that it does require that both parties understand their interests. This is quite often not the case. Many people fail to inspire action because they are relying on other people to understand that something is in their interest, and the other party simply does not have this understanding or perception.
Calling on an Obligation
This is like calling in a favor, except you’re not offering anything in return. Instead, when calling on a obligation you are inspiring someone to action by pointing out that they have a duty or have made a previous promise to do something.
There are many, many ways to call on an obligation. Family obligations are very common in most cultures. Patriotic obligations are also quite common, particularly in democracies. And of course, interpersonal relationships may be built on or around networks of obligation. More than any other kind of inspiration to action, obligations are heavily dependent on individual interactions and personal understandings of the nature of obligation.
It’s also common for obligations to be mixed in with other types of inspiration to action. For example, we’re currently in the midst of a government shutdown, which features about 400,000 federal employees who are working even while not getting paid. In many cases, the government is counting on these individuals’ understanding of their obligation to the American people to keep them working; under normal circumstances they’d be working for pay, as an example of self-interest, and the government would be counting on perceptions of obligation to bolster workforce retention, not workforce attendance.
Using obligations to inspire action is very common, but is neither as easy nor as reliable as the previous methods. This is because people quite often redefine, ignore, or abandon their obligations, in part because obligations rest mostly on the perceptions of individuals… perceptions which are subject to change.
Finally, we come to emotional manipulation. This option is favored by politicians and others who have to deal with large groups of people, in situations when they can’t count on any of the other methods. In essence, inspiring action through emotion rests on creating an emotion in another person, and then offering a path to express that emotion that coincides with the action you’d like them to take.
This works with any of the strong emotions. Fear, lust, greed, anger, joy, empathy, etc. Those commercials with the Sarah McLachlan song? Classic jerking of the heartstrings. Those Trump rants demonizing immigrants? Classic fearmongering. Those weird late-night phone sex commercials from the 90s? Classic lustbunny stuff.
In each case, these people are inspiring action. Sarah McLachlan wants your money to prevent animal cruelty, and she was pretty damn good at getting it (because if you can watch those commercials with dry eyes, you’re some kind of serial killer). Trump was pretty good at getting votes (because legions of folks can’t be bothered to read crime statistics, but can be afraid of Mexicans). And sex work is now and always will be profitable (because propagating the species is important, and your genes aren’t picky about making that point to you).
Emotional manipulation in the service of inspiring action is tricky, though, because you have to keep stoking the emotion you’re trying to exploit. Otherwise, people do just enough to satisfy the initial surge of emotion, and then get bored and wander off to do something else. This is why the most common objective of emotional manipulation is to get people to give money!² And that, in turn, is why politicians hold multiple rallies and phone sex workers bombard the airwaves every night.
So now that we’ve seen five big ways to inspire action, it’s time to consider the question — what does it mean to be inspirational? Well, for the most part, when you meet an inspirational person you’ll notice that they aren’t just using one or another of these methods. They’re using all of them.
Watch the next seriously inspirational speaker you run across. Pay attention to their script and delivery. They will almost certainly use their personal charisma to hook your attention, engage your emotions, appeal to your interests, and call on some kind of obligation or ask you for a favor.
An inspirational preacher, for example, will always have a carefully honed persona and delivery. They will always have an emotional hook in their sermon. They will always explain why it’s in your interest to obey God. They will always appeal to your obligations as a good churchgoer. And so on, and so forth.
Now, a principled observer might notice that I’ve been very clinical in my treatment of this subject and might reasonably say, “But Allen, this seems so… manipulative.” Well, here’s the dirty secret: it is. But not all manipulation is bad. In fact, we actively rely on it for the good maintenance of society in more cases than you’d probably like to think about or admit.
So get this through your head now — if you want to inspire action in your fellow human beings, that will entail some level of manipulating those same human beings, because eventually you’re going to want them to do something they’d rather not do. Accept that right now, or give up on being inspirational.
But please don’t give up, because ultimately we need inspirational people. The modern American would much rather watch Netflix and sit on the couch playing Xbox than do many, many things — like volunteer for their local homeless shelter, or pay attention to politics, or go to church, or contribute to a GoFundMe for their neighbor’s cancer treatments. We need people who are inspirational to keep our society hanging together.
And ultimately, you can’t and shouldn’t count on anyone else to be that inspirational person. If you want to change things, you have to be that force in the world. So go out there find those emotional hooks! Identify those areas of common interest! Figure out what your neighbors value and would be willing to work for! And work on your speaking voice. Because the future rests on YOU.
¹Where coercion implies the threat of force, and a demand implies that you are requesting action while offering nothing in exchange.
²Let’s recall the point of money — it’s a method of storing action and power until you need it, in a non-degrading form.