The Purpose of All Communication is to Change Behavior

By | 2011/10/11

One of the quickest ways I have found to help someone who is struggling to formulate a message is to remind them that the purpose of all communication is to change behavior. If you put the message out into the world, and no one’s behavior changes as a result, then your message has clearly failed. Thinking about your message as a means of changing someone’s behavior does wonders to clarify the task. You really only need to answer three questions:

  • Whose behavior am I trying to change?
  • How do I want them to behave?
  • What can I say to them that will motivate them to behave this way?

If you can’t answer the first two questions, you are not ready to begin. If you can answer the third, you know exactly what you have to do to succeed. I have found this simple mantra to be a very powerful tool for focusing people on how to create a successful message.

The funny thing is, I get a lot of push back from writers on this.

This saying of mine, that the purpose of all communication is to change behavior, was brought to my mind most recently by Tom Johnson’s blog post Why Rubrics Fail as a Means of Measuring Documentation Quality. I commented that my personal rubric is that the purpose of all communication is to change behavior and that the success of a communication can be judged by the behavioral change it produces.  Tom replied saying:

Can you expand on what you mean by “behavior”? For example, did reading my post change your behavior in any way? Are there any situations where writing is not intended to change behavior? For example, does reading fiction change behavior? If someone is constantly reading, is that person’s behavior constantly changing? Is this too reductive?

This post is largely to answer that question.

What do I mean by behavior? I mean it in a pretty broad sense. Just about every type of voluntary human behavior is affected by the messages we send each other. Marketing communication is intended to change buying behavior. Political communication is intended to change voting behavior. Technical communication is intended to change use behavior when using a product. The professional discourse of a professional community is meant to change how members of the profession do their work. Educational communication aims to change how young people live in society and make their living.

Did reading Tom’s post change my behavior in any way? Certainly. It caused me to reply to the post initially, and then to write this blog post as a follow up. Was that the intention of Tom’s initial post? I think so. Not in the specifics of course. But I take it that Tom’s purpose is to encourage discussion of the craft of technical communication, with the larger purpose of improving how technical communication is done. That’s the behavior Tom is trying to generate with his posts, and he is very successful at it. The number of my posts that are responses to, or are otherwise inspired by, Tom’s posts shows that reading Tom’s blog makes a significant change in my behavior.

Are there situations in which writing is not intended to change behavior? I can’t think of any. What would be the point of writing something that you did not expect would change anyone’s behavior? If you had any aim other than changing behavior, how would you know that you had achieved it? How would you feel if someone approached you and said, “I read your piece and it did not change my life in any way”?

Consider usability testing, or any other kind of metrics gathering activity that you may use to figure out if your writing is successful. What are you measuring? The only thing you can measure is a change in behavior. If there is no behavior change, there is nothing to measure. (You might try sentiment analysis, but that is only a proxy variable for behavior change. What would be the point of making people feel differently if they did not act differently as a consequence.)

Does reading fiction change behavior? Certainly. Dicken’s entire opus was aimed at creating social and political change by exposing the absurdities and injustices of the courts, schools, prisons, and workhouses of his day. Steinbeck’s work was deeply political in its intent. Modern television drama is very much shaped by a social and political agenda: the desire to normalize certain kinds of human behavior (and incidentally to demonize others). Fiction always wants to change us, if only by getting us to see the world in new ways. But if we see the world in new ways, will we not surely act in new ways as a consequence.

Is it too reductive to ask whether if we are constantly reading, our behavior is constantly changing? Not at all. Our behavior is constantly changing. We make hundreds of decisions every day and people are constantly attempting to change the decisions we make, as we are constantly attempting to change the decisions they make.

I suppose some of the resistance to the suggestion that the purpose of all communication is to change behavior is that it makes it sound like we are manipulating people against their will. We would prefer to see ourselves as truth-tellers rather than propagandists. But truth-telling is intended to change behavior just as much as lying is. What point would there be in contradicting a lie, if people’s behavior was not being changed by the lie? But if a lie changes behavior, than telling the truth must also change behavior, by undoing the change caused by the lie.

The biggest resistance may come from the idea that people don’t want to have their behavior changed. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, people are actively seeking to change their behavior all the time. No one buys a diet book because they don’t want to stop overeating. No one buys an investing book because they don’t want to make better financial decisions. People don’t read books and blogs on technical communication because they don’t want to improve how they create technical documentation.

People want to have their behavior changed. People spend a great deal of time and money on changing their behavior. Oprah is rich because people pay money to have their behavior changed. People who read technical documentation want to have their behavior changed to using a product or accomplishing a task more efficiently. Most of what we do in technical communication is to help people change their behavior so that they better reach their goals.

Of course, technical communication is also a commercial activity, and some of the behavioural change that we are seeking to create is also self-serving. We would prefer that the reader reached their goals using our products rather than the competition’s products. We are seeking our own goals, after all, and as long as we do so honestly, they is nothing wrong with that. And our readers will keep us honest. They read us because they are seeking their own goals, and if we betray them, they will simply stop reading.

Over the long term, successful commercial communication shapes the reader’s behavior in a way that is compatible both with their own goals and the goals of the company that supplies them. By helping them reach their behavioral goals, we win their consent to behave in ways that favor us too.

So, there is nothing dishonorable about recognizing and admitting that the purpose of all communication is to change behavior. There is nothing inherently dishonest about it, and recognizing the fact that your communication is intended to change the reader’s behavior will usually enable you to create a more effective communication which will serve your reader’s ends as much as it serves your own.

If you can’t answer the three questions I mentioned at the beginning,

  • Whose behavior am I trying to change?
  • How do I want them to behave?
  • What can I say to them that will motivate them to behave this way?

then is it very unlikely that your message will be successful.

11 thoughts on “The Purpose of All Communication is to Change Behavior

  1. Ryan Pollack

    Even if a work of fiction is not aimed at curing Dickensian social ills (think: romance novels, etc) the author is still trying to change your behavior. Perhaps it is the behavior of being bored, or not knowing their name, or not being entertained, that is being targeted.

    And at the bottom of it all, the author (perhaps more accurately, the publishing company) is trying to change your behavior of not-paying-them-money 🙂

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Hi Ryan,

      Thanks for the comment. Indeed, the behavior that much communication seeks to produce is along the lines of love me, notice me, send me money. Certainly blogging falls at least partially into that category. 🙂

  2. Ellen Pabst von Ohain

    I’m an International Communications Coach/Trainer here in Munich. I wholeheartedly agree with your point regarding focussed writing targeting the modification of reader’s behavior. I have a bit more trouble with your perceived definition of communication, however.

    The purpose of all human communication is first and foremost, to connect to other humans. That some messages influence, sell, inform, convince, educate, disgust, amuse, inspire or change us in some way is clear. Niklas Luhmann said this decades ago when he put forth his thesis of “Systems”. Marshall McLuhan, on another tact, referred to the influence the medium has on the message and how the message changes us and the receiver in relation to the chosen medium. And yes, we do spend alot of energy and money trying to change behavior.

    As human animals however, we forget we are nonetheless herd animals with the need for order and connection within our individual universe. That is the basic premise of Facebook and other social networks. The tweeter who texts that he just got onto the Q21 bus which is travelling east on Woodside Blvd is more interested in changing his own behavior than his cyberbuddies. He is reaching out so he feels less alone. The poet who likens his newborn baby’s skin to what flawless silk feels like is trying to put his emotional joy into the written word, a difficult and challenging jump from a physical, emotional medium to a 2-dimensional visual medium. But he hasn’t asked us to do anything other than understand him. Again, so that he feels less alone.

    In conclusion, yes, there are situations in which writing is not intended to change behavior.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Hi Ellen,

      Thanks for the carefully thought-out reply. I certainly agree that much of human communication is about winning acceptance from the group. But isn’t that about behavior? If I appeal to my fellow humans, through tweets or poetry, to accept and value me, is that not an attempt to change their behavior from excluding me to including me?

      My point here is not to diminish the richness or the subtlety of human purpose in communications, but rather to help people to communicate better by thinking about whether the thing they are communicating is actually likely to produce the behavior they want in others. Thus to the lonely tweeter on the bus, I would say, is this tweet you are composing actually going to make people like and accept you, or is it going to turn them off and make them shun you.

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  4. Nuera

    Hi Mark,

    I am reading your posts. The more I read, the more I think, and the more I try to change. Your posts are excellent, and explains any subject in a very smooth and effective way. I must say ” The Purpose of All Communication is to Change Behavior” is exactly what your post does.

    Keep writing. It’s an inspiration for me.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Hi Nuera,

      Thanks so much for your comment. It is good to know that the blog makes a difference for people.

  5. Bob Chippens

    Thanks for the post.

    To start, I’m not sure that the resistance to your theory is as you’ve stated. My guess is that the resistance that professional communicators would have to your theory is that it makes tenuous leaps from being applicable to X & Y, therefore it must be equally and as strongly applicable to A-Z.

    As a method of approaching business/commercial communication, it’s an interesting frame of mind in approaching the design and measure of the success of your message. Certainly useful when what you are actually trying to do is change folks behaviour.

    Beyond that, you’re wielding ‘behaviour’ very broadly in an attempt to shoehorn in all communication to fit the theory. ‘Elicit a reaction’ seems more like what you’re getting at than ‘changing behavior’, and the two are quite different. The purpose of my tweet or Facebook post is rarely to change behaviour, it’s usually to elicit a laugh, or to share a snapshot (photo or otherwise) of my life. I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything. Similar to Ellen’s post above, when I write a poem about the beautiful girl I saw in the cafe, I’m not trying to change any behaviour. When I ask my sister to pass me the salt, I’m not trying to change her behaviour. When I wear my team’s football scarf, I’m not trying to change behavior by communicating my sporting allegiance. In none of these small handful of examples am I trying to change behaviour, but in some I am trying to elicit a reaction.

    Anyway, thanks for your contribution throughout the tech communication blogsphere!

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment Bob. You say that I am using the term “behavior” very broadly and that “eliciting a reaction” rather than “changing behavior” is the point of much communication. You say these are different things, but you don’t say how. Since a reaction is clearly a behavior, it would seem that you are using “behavior” in some specialized sense that you don’t state. There may be some worthwhile distinction between your specialized meaning of “behavior” and “response”, but I would be grateful if you could spell it out.

      Certainly, the boy writing a poem about the beautiful girl in the cafe is trying to change her behavior (though whether he has the courage to give her the poem is quite another matter), and I can’t see any useful sense in which passing you the salt is not behavior.

      Maybe the distinction you are after is between eliciting a one time behavior and eliciting a permanent change in a pattern of behavior. If so, that is a useful distinction in many ways, but it does not change the fact that the the purpose of the communication in each case is to change behavior. It does perhaps add a dimension to it, in the sense that the techniques you use to elicit a permanent change in behavior patterns may be different from those you use to elicit a one time behavior. That’s a useful thing for the writer to think about, because there is a big difference between the communication it takes to persuade someone to put out one cigarette and the communication it take to persuade them to stop smoking.

      Nonetheless, both putting out a cigarette and stopping smoking are behaviors, and the objective of the communication in each case is to change behavior.

  6. Michael Vermeersch

    Mark, your reception to queries or commentary that are negative and the manner in which they are vetted is what sets you apart from all but a few, in this endeavour. Moreover, it speaks to character and your tendency to never unintentionally proceed from a bias. The request I have is also associated with bias and its presence and use in any communication.

    The intention whether ideated or not of any communication is, as you say, to change a behaviour (behaviour modification). Bias whether consciously or unconsciously present in any communication and its ability to to influence the disposition of the outcome, that is to say, whether the BMOD was successful, unsuccessful etc. If you please, share your knowledge of this and examples or data attached to findings.

    1. Mark Baker

      Thanks for the comment, Michael.

      Yes, any form of communication may be affected by bias. But we should distinguish motive from bias. All forms of communication are shaped by the motives of the speaker or writer, and such motives may or may not be declared. It is primarily their motives that we should attempt to assess before we allow ourselves to be swayed by their communication.

      Talk of bias, though, is fundamentally an ad hominem argument. Yes, who we are affects how we think and what we believe. That is a universal. But insofar as bias affects communication it operates to make the communication less effective, not more. In the end, it does not matter why someone makes an argument. It only matters if the argument is sound. If the argument is not sound, we don’t need to cry bias to discredit it, we only need to attack its illogic or false premises. If bias leads you to make a flawed argument, that only weakens your case. It is the speaker who should be worried about bias, not the listener. The listener should concern themselves with the logic and evidence for the argument.

      Those who cry bias at an argument that they don’t agree with lack either the logic or the evidence to refute it on its merits.


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