Shrinking The Gap: How To Persuade A Skeptical Audience

On a summer morning many years ago, I entered a high-tech Virginia auditorium to watch a prominent Washington thinker lead a nationally televised conversation about healthcare.

His view was that healthcare shouldn’t be provided by the government—and that by slashing burdensome regulations, the cost of healthcare would drop and become more affordable. Those who still couldn’t pay for their own care, he argued, should be aided not by government, but by nonprofit groups, religious organizations, and fellow community members.

The audience was comprised primarily of high school students who fervently disagreed with his view.

Within moments of beginning his talk, it became evident that he hadn’t analyzed his audience in advance. One could observe, in real time, audience members shifting in their seats, uncomfortable with his argument at first, and then angered by it.

When he opened the floor to questions, the students let him have it. His demeanor made clear that he knew he had lost the audience—but he still had to trudge through another half hour of verbal punches from angry teens.


A psychological term called confirmation bias helps explain what went wrong. Shahram Heshmat, Ph.D., an associate professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Springfield, writes, “Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it.

Confirmation bias suggests that we don’t perceive circumstances objectively. We pick out those bits of data that make us feel good because they confirm our prejudices.”

The students had come in with a preconceived notion that the government should provide healthcare to its citizens. Not only did the speaker make no attempt to honor their beliefs, but he contradicted them from his opening words. The students responded in turn by rejecting him right back.

When a wide chasm divides you and your audience, you must shrink the gap that exists between you. The wider the gap, the sooner you should seek to close it. Imagine a rocky stream, with you on one side and the audience on the other. Begin your talk by walking toward their side, taking their hands, and leading them slowly to yours.

Before you can convince, you have to connect.


Answering a key question could have helped him shrink the gap.

Which shared values bind us together?

Begin by focusing on areas of shared agreement. Imagine how differently things would have gone for that Washington thinker if he had started his talk by affirming his belief that everyone should have their health needs cared for, regardless of income. The audience would have agreed with his premise and taken a voluntary step toward his side of the stream.

As he continued in that manner—carefully building a step-by-step case with small bonds of agreement along the way—the audience would begin to think, “Our values have already aligned a few times; perhaps I should listen to what he has to say next.” When he finally reached his conclusion that communities, not government, should be the answer, the audience would be more likely to at least consider his viewpoint instead of dismissing it outright.