The Psychology of Messaging

How We Can Use the Study of Attitudes and Behaviors in Our Proposal Process

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Psychology is used in many ways all around us, from the advertisements and media we encounter daily to the design of certain environments we’re in, such as a casino or an amusement park. Having a general understanding of psychology concepts, specifically how we process information and make decisions, can come in handy, too, when working through the business development lifecycle, as Taemi Tran, CP APMP, and Katherine Becchina, CF APMP, of Burns & McDonnell, explained in their APMP Digital Marketing Conference session earlier this summer.

Tran discussed two definitions of psychology:

  • The scientific study of the human mind and its functions, especially those affecting behavior in a given context
  • The mental characteristics or attitude of a person or group

So, why should bid and proposal professionals care about psychology? As Tran explained, “When you can understand your clients’ attitudes and behaviors, as well as the motivations behind why they make certain decisions, you’ll be able to develop better materials and more persuasive arguments in your proposals, and marketing and social media campaigns.”

To get started, it’s important to understand how we process information. While there are many concepts, models and theories about this, Tran discussed the elaboration likelihood model, which is comprised of two cognitive paths: central route processing and peripheral route processing.

Central route processing is more systematic, assumes that your client is both motivated and able, and that they rely on argument quality and source credibility. Peripheral route processing relies on other factors such as argument quantity (the more arguments there are, the better the chance to be swayed) and shortcuts aka peripheral cues (including celebrity, attractiveness, etc.).

“In general, I tend to associate proposals with central route processing and anything on social media or online with peripheral route processing, but it really doesn’t have to be this way,” Tran said. “[They] can be merged together.”

When it comes to making decisions, Tran explained that she thinks of each route as a cat and a dog — the dog representing the peripheral route and the ability to be more easily swayed, while the cat represents the central, more unwavering route. “You really want your client to be here,” Tran said. “You want them to be unwavering. You want [their decision] to be unchanging and more resistant to counter-persuasive tactics.”

However, as she explained, you can’t expect your clients to always process information through the central route, so it’s helpful to give them a nudge through the shortcuts that the peripheral route presents. These shortcuts include:

  1. Source attractiveness, which is the extent to which a persuasive message is seen as physically attractive, as defined by the American Psychological Association. While this method is mostly used in the beauty and fashion industry, Tran said that proposal professionals can use this shortcut in their social media and marketing campaigns or in their proposal in moderation.
  2. Source expertise, which shows a source’s knowledge of a topic within a persuasive message. “This is where the proposal really comes in,” Tran said. “You put forth your best project managers and your best key staff.”
  3. Emotions, which can help influence decision-making on a more personal level. “People want to feel good about their decisions and they want to feel like they made the right decision,” Tran said. Being intentional in color use is also a way to tap into the client’s emotions. For instance, the color red denotes passion, excitement and confidence, while blue signifies trust, order and loyalty.

Becchina added that when developing materials for a client or to engage a potential client, it’s important to include elements from both central and peripheral route processing and to focus on the reader experience. “The key thing [is to invite] readers in,” she said. “You want to attract them — you don’t want to make it hard for them.”

Both Tran and Becchina stressed the importance of understanding your client and making sure you’re using the appropriate concepts in your materials, in addition to appealing to how they digest information. “Always be clear and intentional,” Becchina said. “The last thing you want to do is confuse your audience. Really understand what the goal is, what your message is to meet that goal and be very clear.”


Frances Moffett is the managing editor at APMP.

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