Monroe still works: effective persuasion in the Internet age

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Monroe’s Motivated Sequence is not a new idea. It’s hard to pick up a basic public speaking textbook without finding an explication of it.

So why doesn’t it get used more? I suspect it’s because it isn’t new. But it still works.

For readers who are familiar with it: I want to tell you why you should give it a second look, and tell you where I see people having trouble applying it. For those who haven’t heard of it: I want to tell you about it, and help you avoid common pitfalls.

Alan H. Monroe, a professor of speech at Purdue University, first described the sequence in the mid-1930s. According to ChangingMinds.org, it was influenced by Dewey’s reflective thinking practice and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and it certainly does fit with both. It has stood the test of time, because it just works. It is simply a consistently effective way of moving an audience to take action.

For any speech, you need to constantly ask yourself, “At the end of my speech, what do I want my audience members to think, feel, or do?” Monroe’s Motivated Sequence stands out as an approach to lead audience members to do something.

  1. First is the Attention step. A lot of beginning speakers miss a vital point here: it’s not just getting attention, but getting attention for your topic. People tend to go to one extreme or the other here: either focusing just on getting attention (for instance, telling a joke), or giving a perfunctory introduction (or skipping it altogether) and jumping right into the speech.
  2. The Need step sometimes gets skipped, and sometimes becomes the entire speech. In this step, you not only establish that there is some problem or something that is lacking, but you also establish that it’s one that matters to the audience. A speaker who assumes the need is obvious may fail to make that audience connection. On the other hand, some speakers spend the whole speech on this and then leave the audience frustrated, having made them aware of the existence and importance of the problem without giving any sort of relief in the form of a solution. Bottom line: unless the audience feels a need, they won’t care about the solution you offer.
  3. The Satisfaction step is probably the likeliest step to get included (unless the speaker falls into the smother-them-with-the-need trap). This is the step in which you explain the solution you propose. The main trap here is that the speaker will think a simple explanation is enough to move an audience to action. Taking a speech through this step can lead to a decent speech to convince, but if you’re seeking to move an audience to action, you must go further.
  4. The Visualization step is where you really start to move people to action. Here, you want people to feel the effects of living your solution (or, perhaps more powerfully, of not). This is like the test drive when you’re shopping for a car.  At the end of the Satisfaction step, you want people to think, “I see how that would solve the problem.” But at the end of the Visualization step, you want people to think, “Holy Cow! I can see me doing that.” Or, “Holy Cow! I can see the bad things that will happen to me if I don’t do that!” The Visualization step, through the use of your descriptive language and your stories, makes it real for the listener.
  5. The Action step brings everything together in powerful focus. If you settle for, “Somebody ought to do something,” you will fail. Everyone knows the stereotypical Indian bed of nails trick, in which the magician carefully lays down on a bed of hundreds or thousands of sharp nails. Because the magician’s weight is spread across all those points, none of them has enough force to penetrate skin. If you want to penetrate, put all the force behind one point. So it is with moving people to action. Don’t tell them a half dozen things they could do, or even two or three things you would like for them to do. Focus on One. Single. Thing.

That’s Monroe’s Motivated Sequence summed up. Later, we’ll focus on how to craft an effective Action step, which seems to be the part most people struggle with.

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Author: Donn King

Donn King works with people who want to forge top-notch speaking skills to increase their influence and impact so they can advance their career or business. He is associate professor of communication studies at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as a speaker and writer. His background includes ministry, newspaper, radio, small magazines and other publications, as well as co-authoring a textbook and blogging.