Critically Analyzing Knowledge: Case of Monroe’s Motivated Sequence

Before I started my upper level undergraduate courses and graduate courses, I never really considered how people knew what they knew. My undergraduate entry level classes rarely emphasized the philosophy and origins of knowledge itself, because the primary job of the professors at that point was to teach us the basic foundational information. I know this now because I teach introductory level courses.  Once I was lucky enough to attend the more advanced classes, however, my world was rocked because I was taught to question everything. 

I realized that all knowledge is made up by human beings, and that as a result all knowledge should always be questioned, because humans are not perfect and we always make mistakes. Although much of what we learn about (planet earth, for example) was there way before us, we are the one’s who named it, who invented numbers to measure it, who invented words to describe things in it, and who made guesses about how it was created. We did not find encyclopedias in the ground to tell us everything, we wrote them. Thus, they are biased and forever imperfect in their interpretations.

Even something that might seem extremely accurate and objective, like the scientific method, is not. The scientific method was created by imperfect human beings, and thus is not the only way to learn about the world or to do experiments, it’s just a widely accepted way in the current age. Even mathematics was invented by humans. Yes, there were things before, but we are the ones who decided to count them and who decided that if there is one thing, and then another thing, them together would equal two things.

Thus, 1+1 = 2 is a human invention! Most living beings on this earth would not recognize those symbols as representing quantity, but we do because we invented them. Knowledge changes as we learn new things, and the more we learn, the more we figure out just how much we didn’t know before.

The point of the discussion above is not to make you throw out everything you know and believe in, it’s to help you realize that everything you know, everything you believe, comes from somewhere, from someone. The knowledge you claim today was not always there, people at some point said things were a certain way, a bunch of people agreed, the information has been shared from generation to generation via word of mouth and written text, and thus today we might see these things as “fact”. What separates “bad” knowledge from “good” knowledge is testing. If something has been tested over and over, and it seems to always provide the same results, then people call it a “theory”, and if the tests continue to be consistent, then we call it a “law” (theory of relativity, law of gravity, 1 + 1 = 2, etc.).  This is why research is so highly valued in our culture today (think research one universities, high paying market research jobs, etc.); it is through research that we separate not-so-good knowledge from better knowledge.

The students in my 11AM class are starting their persuasive speeches tomorrow and they are required to use good old Monroe’s Motivated Sequence as their organizational and persuasive method. As I was getting ready to leave the house this morning and thinking about my blog topic, I remembered this and decided to research the inventor of the sequence and to share some information about him, because I cannot expect my students to use this sequence without looking at the man who invented it, to make sure that the knowledge which came from him is “good” knowledge. We should always question the credibility of those who are assumed to be “intellectuals”; we should only believe their theories if we see them as credible. Thus, I must look at who Monroe was, before telling my students to use his techniques. I must test his credibility, to test the authenticity of the knowledge he shared with us.

Monroe’s Motivated Sequence

The sequence has five basic steps that, if followed in order and done well, are supposed to be a foolproof technique to motivate an audience into buying something, voting for something, changing their opinions on something, or being persuaded into another type of action. The steps are (in this order) to gain audience attention, establish need, provide satisfaction, show a visualization of that satisfaction, and finally, to provide a call to action. If you are seeking a lesson on this technique, check out Krista Price’s excellent YouTube lesson. Below I briefly describe the man who invented the sequence, in an attempt to see if we can trust his version of this knowledge.

Dr. Monroe

According to a 1975 obituary in Spectra magazine, Alan Monroe was born in the hilly northern Indian city of Mussoorie to missionary parents, and moved to North America when he was around six years old.

Mussoorie, India (from Wikipedia)

Monroe went on to earn all three of his academic degrees (B.S., M.A., and PhD) at Northwestern University and joined the faculty at Purdue University  in 1924. He taught at Purdue until 1966 and is well respected today because of his accomplishments while there. He founded the Department of Speech (today the widely respected and distinguished School of Communication) at Purdue and was instrumental in establishing an introductory speech course as a university-wide requirement. Looking through this document on the history of communication at Purdue, one can find Monroe’s name all over it.  The below is a screenshot from the aforementioned obituary (citation on References page), and it describes his significant influence at Purdue.

The above obituary goes on to describe how well respected Monroe was by his peers as a leader. Monroe was the president of the Speech Communication Association, which is the National Communication Association today and serves as the biggest organizational body of the academic communication discipline in the world.  I found a transcript of Monroe’s Presidential address to the Speech Association, delivered in Washington D.C. in December, 1940; the middle of WWII.  He addresses the “military emergency” and goes on to talk about the importance of freedom of speech during times of war, and points out that even people in Germany are speaking out against Hitler. He goes on to make a bold prediction, and his optimism here is amazing considering that they were in the middle of the war.

And what of speech tomorrow? If the black days become blacker, and speech throughout the world is fettered as it is in so much of Europe by public chains, we shall be sad, but we shall not be dismayed, — for speech always has broken and always will break through these chains to speak the challenge of men’s souls. And when, once more, peace and freedom come again, then honest speech will speak still louder in justice’s name–for we shall have seen again what happens when men’s tongues are tied and only power is left to rule (Monroe, 1941).

It’s funny how history repeats itself. If I would not have included that date above, one could easily believe that the quote was referring to all of the Middle Eastern dictators that are in power today who are “tying people’s tongues” by prohibiting freedom of speech. Reading the above, I feel somewhat comfortable in knowing, for example, that Syria’s Assad will eventually lose power and the people will be able to “speak louder in justice’s name” and start to form a more equal society.

But back to Dr. Monroe; based on my limited research above I believe it is safe to assume that he is a credible source when it comes to speech communication and that we can definitely trust his persuasive sequence to be a legitimate tool. It is obvious that he was instrumental in developing speech communication courses, and that he was well respected in the discipline. In fact, if you watch any infomercial today or any good political speech, you will see that they are most likely incorporating the five steps of Monroe’s Motivated Sequence in their attempt to persuade you.

Being aware of this sequence will allow you to effectively persuade others and to resist other people’s attempts to negatively persuade you.  Furthermore and perhaps more importantly, being aware of the roots of this knowledge, of the history of Dr. Monroe, will allow you to understand the sequence on a much greater level.

I hope this small example serves to encourage you to question all knowledge and to critically analyze all the things you learn. Ask questions about the credibility of the people who came up with the knowledge, about the potential biases of the knowledge, about the methods used to acquire the knowledge, and about the sources used to back that knowledge up. In this example I only looked at the credibility of Monroe, so there is much left to be examined even here. If you go back and actually read Monroe’s original works (something I did not do today), you would have even more useful information.

Getting into the habit of critically analyzing the information that is presented to you as knowledge will help you understand the world on a much deeper level.

How do you know what you know?