Saturday, December 20, 2008

Tools of Persuasion

A telephone call is not e-mail, and e-mail is not a telephone call.

That seems obvious, but the profound difference was brought home to me this week when I used both modes of communication to try to lobby my neighbors on a modest proposal involving a small grant request.

A group of us wants a $2,000 city grant to experiment with renting space to create a community action office. The rental would last four months.

No big deal, but I came up against some resistance from one doubter. “Too much of a commitment,” he said.

E-mail is enticing as a persuasive tool because you can send your argument to any number of folks with the tap of a key.

Vvvvoooommm. The message goes out to an entire list. No dialing numbers. (Long gone are the days of licking stamps. Yuck.)

But do the recipients read your compelling message or does your appeal languish in “in” boxes for days, for months, forever?

Face it, we all get way too much e-mail. We are “over communicated with.” I know I let some messages go. I red flag them, I put them on my to-do list, but they still disappear from my consciousness — buried by an avalanche of new e-mails, all with their own desperate demands for action.

Another problem I had with my e-mail lobbying this week was that I had to send my appeal out through the one person who opposed the proposal. His introductory message said, in effect, “I oppose the proposal below and here is why. If after you have scrolled through my incisive criticism and are still interested, go ahead and read it and let me know what you think.”

In sum, the controller of the e-mail list controls the message.

And so I turned to the telephone. I needed six or seven votes for the organization’s endorsement of the grant application.

That meant six or seven or more phone calls.

Strange how we don’t keep phone numbers in this internet age, but I tracked down my quarry. At times, I actually used the bulky Portland phone book.

“Hi, I’m calling about that e-mail you got ….” I began.

Oh yes, they had been meaning to write. Or, they had written the controller of the list hastily agreeing with his criticism. (In three cases, they hadn’t copied their response to me.)

I listened and then answered the criticism. No, the proposal didn’t involve a commitment…. We are talking four months only.

Now they understood.

“Any other questions?” I asked.

When they had none, I asked them if I could count on their support.


I asked them to write the controller with their decisions. In a three cases, folks changed their positions.


Beyond the e-mail and the phone call is face-to-face conversation, an almost quaint form of persuasive communication. For most of us, conversation (over lunch? dinner? golf?) seems an impossible luxury in this age of rapid response and urgent decision-making. Those who can still afford it (and I do mean “afford” — as in time and money) are the most persuasive of all. We call them “lobbyists.”

But that’s a topic for another day.

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