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Copyright 1999,
Dorian Scott Cole
 Motivational Writing
The Art of Empowering Others Through Story

What is empowering through writing? | Links to examples|

What is empowering through writing? Motivating?

There are a variety of reasons to motivate people through the media, including through stories. Advertisers want to influence you to buy something - you see products used or displayed in movies and this is paid advertising. Whether you really want or need it is not necessarily a primary consideration. Advertising can be manipulative. By manipulative, I mean that people are influenced by others - influenced to do something that if they gave greater consideration they might not. Advertising is usually harmless - I sometimes write advertising literature myself, but I relate the ad to real needs and try to influence people to at least have a look at the product.

Influencing people to be well-behaved is another reason to try to motivate people. That type of motivation is often coercive and manipulative, even if it includes appeals to sound reasoning and good examples. This often is programming - putting in so much of certain information that the person can see no rational choice but to do what is required of him. Unfortunately behavior relates to attitude and emotion, and rationality is a weak consideration.

Another reason for motivating people is to get them to support a cause, such as charity, religion, and other worthwhile things. This type of motivational effort usually appeals to people's sense of good will (or guilt), and sympathy for the beneficiaries, and sometimes to what people "should" do. Again the presentation is often manipulative, even though most of us willing accept this kind of manipulation. 

I have worked with motivation from several different perspectives. In college in psychology, I tried an experiment with motivational writing "to influence" people to exercise. The results weren't bad, but I was perplexed that even though some were convinced that they should do some cardiovascular exercise to stay healthy and not deteriorate, they indicated that they would not, even though they believed they should. 

In the Church I was placed at an extreme perspective on motivation. Generally religious organization don't pressure people to do things. Should I "convince" people of what they should do and be, or was that manipulative? And if I did, whose decision would it be - mine or theirs - and who was then responsible for their behavior - me or them? I concluded that it was not my role to convince others. It was my role to invite others and to lead those that were already convinced.

In public relations, I was in an unusual perspective. I was the person in the middle, between the organization and the public. I could influence either. The goal is often to "put the right spin" on organization events or positions so that public motivation is quelled from negative action and compelled toward positive action. My goal was usually to properly position the organization so that the organization was worthy of beneficial opinions and benevolence. PR people aren't often lucky enough to work in a flexible environment - they are usually just the messenger.

In business I was placed at another extreme. I had the power to pressure others into compliance, and I had the voice to convince them. Often in business this is necessary, although with the group I worked with, in eight of ten people it was not necessary. I saw other's pressure and convincing language fail more often than it succeeded.  The more effective method in business is to address the attitudes (fears, etc.). But that's another topic. I concluded that manipulative motivation is a tool that will often backfire in business.

Then there are kids. Aargh! Nothing works with them.

Women? Gentle persuasion. But I'm not a woman, so I have nothing accurate to say on that perspective other than that I have been led to honey more often than honey lets me know.

So, if I am talking about motivational writing, chances are I am not talking primarily about speaking convincingly, or pressuring people, or enticing them, or anything that will make the decision anything less than their primary desire. You may not think that that leaves very much. What it leaves is all the right things - the things that really work. 

What this leads to is the ability to write a story (and to do many other things) and avoid the temptation to "preach," to coerce, to produce guilt (which is often counterproductive), to play the facts in a "convincing" way, to play on fears, to program, or to do the myriad of other things that writers do to write effectively to motivate people, and to ultimately write more effectively. (Not that there is anything wrong with hoping to influence people toward good causes.)

Empowering people, as I use it, involves the following:

  1. Knowing what people would want to do if they could. 
  2. Understanding and identifying obstacles (usually identification with others, or fears, which are protective attitudes). 
  3. Removing obstacles through creating a better path forward (identification, fear reduction through experience). 
  4. At the appropriate time, providing rational reasons and encouragement for doing something. 
If you provide arguments up front, the person simply becomes defensive (his protective or other attitude intervenes) and he becomes more firmly entrenched in his negative position. When emotion argues against reason, emotion usually wins. If you begin with a rational argument, you may have lost before you begin.

How do you know what people would want to do? Take hints from the positive things they say about themselves (things they are proud of), and from what the person seems to have a capacity for. They will also tell you through the negative things they say about other things - the things that they have a protective attitude about. But in writing we are typically not talking to individuals. However, we do have the ability to do research. We can also use ourselves as examples. You can also assume that most people want to do the things that will make their life better or other's lives better. If a person really doesn't want to do something - they are left the freedom to choose. No harm is done through empowerment.

Below is a list of hyperlinks to articles that I have written over the years. I will add to them as I have time and the desire. One of my past responsibilities was driving safety. When you have people driving in a dozen states every day, you can't control their behavior, so how do you help them to have a safe attitude? Safe driving will follow from a safe attitude and training. Without a safe attitude, all the training in the world won't help. In this first series, I addressed their existing attitude toward driving - individualist, maybe macho, pride in natural abilities, pride in experience, a little daring, fun, and control.

I sometimes hear the same attitude from the police - a disdain for training. Sometimes I hear it from commercial pilots, in a cocky, prideful: "Only the bad pilots need to use the trainer every few months - the rest of us aren't helped by it." Spontaneous response must be a value taught in pilot schools. How does the pilot know he is prepared if he has never encountered the failure situation? Failures don't happen often, and most never happen until their first time. In martial arts and sports, the way to become ready and proficient is to imagine the attack and your response, and then practice doing it. Having responded to the attack several times, the correct response becomes much more predictable. Attitudes and images can bring us down.

The things that sum up these attitudes and images is James Dean, Hollywood drivers, stunt drivers, bootleg runners, hot-rodders - all fun images. And most drivers who identify with these attitudes and images are very skillful and have very few accidents in spite of their aggressive driving. But with fifteen people driving over a dozen states in unfamiliar areas in all types of weather with all kinds of idiots out there to challenge them, it is only a matter of time before an accident severely limits a life or cuts it short, without doing something to put the odds in our favor. Of course, then it is the attitude that "When your time has come..." The biggest attitude problem of all is the refusal of responsibility for one's actions and the consequences.  And I hear it over and over again. (Of course, I never have any attitudes like these. ; )

After identifying and understanding their existing attitudes, I presented other more appropriate images that addressed building even better skills, and included a responsible life style that would serve them much better. The biggest challenge was in finding the right images that they really would relate to and would prefer to their more amorphous image that probably included every experience, exhibition, and every character in every story that involved wild driving and fun.

There is a bit more going on in these articles than I have stated here. For example, it also depended somewhat on my raport with those fifteen people, and how authoritatively I was perceived by them.