How to Persuade Someone to Become an Organ Donor

A short video more than quintupled signups for one organization.
July 18, 2017, 4:09pm
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How do you talk someone into allowing strangers to cut open her still-warm body and dig around for her still-working organs? Like her heart? Her liver? Her (yikes) eyeballs?

For one thing, you don't frame it that way. So let's talk framing: Basically, it means defining an issue in a way that benefits your side of the argument. When you reframe an issue, you're saying, "This isn't about (a). It's about (b)."

Framing is the persuasion strategy that lies behind every political campaign and almost every marketing effort. It turned inheritance taxes (rich kids giving society a bit of what they didn't earn themselves) into "death taxes" (government theft from hard-working citizens trying to provide for their families after they're gone). It turned pro-abortion into pro-choice. It sells horrible drinks as social occasions (Jägermeister, wine coolers) and stupidly expensive watches (Rolex) as personal validation.

Full disclaimer: I make most of my income helping clients using such beautifully manipulative strategies—all for good causes, mind you. Still, framing has been very, very good to me. And it can be good for you.

So framing can change laws and waste billions. But can it actually help you get someone to agree to painlessly save someone's life? Why, yes it can. In fact, it has. If you haven't seen the hilarious public service video for the advocacy group Donate Life, stop right now and watch it.

Funny as the video is, it offers a powerful reframing lesson. Becoming an organ donor isn't about some bureaucratic form or macabre human-parts harvesting; it's a chance for redemption. And it worked. Donate Life says daily sign-ups have increased 586) percent since the video launched, according to

So your first step may be just to send your reluctant friend the link to the video. And if that doesn't work? Listen to her rejection. Try to parse the reasons for her reluctance. Persuasion is all about appealing to the beliefs, fears, desires, values, expectations, and identities of your audience. Let's list some reasons for denial and consider the reframe for each.

They're Afraid of Dying
A common reason people die "intestate" (lawyerspeak for not leaving a will), according to lawyers, is fear of dealing with their own inevitable death. Becoming an organ donor is a will of sorts, and it obviously has to do with anticipating your future dearly departed self.

The reframe: Take the "after you're dead" frame away and replace it with a form." Just sign the form. It shows on your driver's license that you're an official good person." Don't even mention saving someone's life. It's just an official Good Person Card.

They're Medically Squeamish
As the beginning of this piece undoubtedly reveals, I'm more than a little squeamish myself about anything have to do with squishy innards; especially my own. I'm not afraid to think of my death. I signed a will. But, though my driver's license proudly bears the Organ Donor monicker, I would rather not think of its physical implications.

The reframe: Talk about a loved one or friend who was saved. I'm not a coward for fainting at the very thought of blood. I'm a hero for being willing to save someone.

They're a Selfish Bastard
We're not talking about the asshole in the Asshole Video. (Seriously, if you haven't watched it, I won't mind if you do right now.) The bastard I'm talking about may obey the law and treat people politely. But he simply thinks no stranger deserves his organs. I mean, what did they do to earn it? Our bastard doesn't smoke. He eats pretty well, drinks only when he's alone. What if his precious liver goes to some drunk? Or his heart to a Democrat?

The reframe: His family might end up with an organ of his. It's not about undeserving strangers. It's about family. His family.

They're a Conspiracy Theorist
This person has read something online: a "report" claiming that organ donors are being harvested for sale by greedy doctors while the patients are still alive. Or that surgeons are less likely to save your life if they know you're a donor. These stories are so absurd that Donald Trump will tweet them someday.

The reframe: Becoming an organ donor actually protects you against pre-death harvesting. This isn't true (actual law does this), but it just might work. Okay, it probably won't. But what are you doing hanging around people like that, anyway?

Jay Heinrichs is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion_._

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