Persuasion in Business Communication: Priming

At the Management Communication Center, we teach more than just speaking or writing in business. Our courses also use psycholinguistics, psychology, and neuroscience to identify effects that fly under most readers' conscious radar but strongly bias their recall of content. One such effect: priming. Priming involves a first exposure to a target, which can be an image, a sentence, a statistic, even the rhythm of sentences or speech. That first exposure, which can seem unremarkable, nevertheless exerts remarkably strong effects on memory and even responses to anything that follows the primed content.

In studies of conversational partners, the way one partner phrased a question caused the second partner to phrase content with a similar sentence structure—even when the response was not a question. Moreover, some studies document priming effects that withstand as many as twelve confounding trials or exposure to lists, sentences, conversations, or images that should eradicate our memory of the primed content. Instead, the primed content stays stubbornly strong in our memories.

So the first time you introduce a statistic in a proposal, make it your strongest version of that statistic, not a hedged, conservative version of it. And begin proposals, procedures, papers, and presentations with your strongest data and argument at the beginning. Your readers or audience are likely to see the rest of the material as consistent with the prime, even when the primed data deviates from your other statistics.

Priming seems to be a form of implicit learning, one researchers still struggle to understand fully. However, a phenomenon can be powerful and gain you significant results, even if researchers fail to fully explain precisely how it works.


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Warrington College of Business
BRY 100
PO Box 117150
Gainesville, FL 32611-7150
Phone: 352.392.2397
Fax: 352.392.2086

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