Sunday, July 14, 2013

Instruments of change

Something that happens more in fiction than in reality is the hero delivering a noble speech that makes everyone else see how wrong they've been. Whether the hero is marshaling facts, charisma, or both, this eye-opening oration turns the tide.

When I studied communication in grad school, one of the more fascinating issues we discussed was the question of whether persuasive texts ever change readers' minds. According to the research at the time, people's pre-existing opinions actually tended to be reinforced after reading something, whether the text's author was arguing for or against that opinion. (If the text was in opposition to their beliefs, they would strengthen their own opinions by searching for loopholes and counter-arguments as they read.)

There only seemed to be a short window during which people had opinions that could be swayed in one direction or the other. After that, attitudes, once formed, tended to harden.

Of course this is a simplification with variations and exceptions. But it mirrors what I've seen out in the world. And it makes sense--if we could just tell people to change, then changing the world would be a lot simpler!

This can be a challenge for fiction writers because story is all about change. But it suggests that perhaps our characters' changes need to come about through outward experiences or inner insights rather than persuasive words by others. Pondering ...


  1. Hmm. Being a theatre person, I immediately thought of the scene from 'Julius Caesar' by Shakespeare. Brutus comes out before the crowds after the murder and gives a reasoned explanation for the plot. Then, because he is the Ned Stark of Shakespeare (too honorable for his own good), he leaves and lets Caesar's best friend Mark Antony speak. Antony uses an appeal to emotion and plays on the crowd's uncertainty. That results in the riot that drives the traitors out of Rome. Both speeches are really cool to examine rhetorically. And the scene is still very relevant to how politicians work today. Yes I am a huge nerd.

    1. Good point ... I haven't read JC in a while but seem to recall oratorical manipulation.
      Nowadays I think crowds are galvanized by talking points, but mostly the ones they already agree with. I suppose that feeling threatened (health, job, personal safety, individual rights) is one circumstance where people shift political views. But even then, to some extent, what one values determines what one is willing to risk.

    2. I think there's also a big difference between how people react to the written word vs. how they react to a speech. A speech is a social interaction; reading is solitary. You can't go back to the last paragraph of a speech and check facts. Also, someone's charisma and personality can make it a lot harder to remain uninfluenced or unaffected, even if they are feeding you an obviously biased line. People will scream "bias!!" for a written article or essay, because the author has limited control over how that material is presented to them. In a speech, the author/performer has complete control over the presentation.