As an executive I am constantly in front of clients, customers, partners and investors. At every step of the way I have had to learn to persuade each of them to get them closer to how I saw things, so that in the end we were both better aligned in thought. With time, study, experience and practice, I have gathered a few tips on the art and science of persuasion that I’d like to share.
Persuasion is a dirty word to some. It connotes coercion, manipulation, and nefarious quick wit. If we take a moment to piece apart the definition of “persuade” offered by Merriam Webster, we’ll see that persuasion isn’t quite as seedy as some people may assume.
To “persuade” is to cause (someone) to do something through reasoning or argument. This suggests that there are different ways of persuading someone since reasoning and argument can take many forms. Some arguments appeal directly to the mind while others appeal to the heart, and yet others appeal to both. Surely there are unethical ways to influence mind and heart, but that is up to the persuader. In either case, persuasion is aimed at the same thing: to change someone’s perception or course of action toward something.
In that end-oriented sense, persuasion seeks to accomplish one of two things with respect to action. A persuader either wants to get someone to do or not to do. In some contexts an intuitive and sophisticated understanding of persuasion is essential. It can be eat or be eaten. In the contemporary work environment, with so much competition, this skill-set is integral.
Moreover, it is vital because of its deep tie to a basic social impulse. That is, the impulse to have things happens how we want them to. I’m sure that you’ve experience this impulse in your professional life, in your family life, and in your friendships. You decide that a course of action is correct so you set out to convince others, and when they do not agree, you become indignant, aggravated.
Given that persuasion is an inherent part of our relationships, we might as well glean how, precisely, to do it best.
How to Identify a Persuasion Priority
The object of your persuasion is a “persuasion priority.” The launching pad should always be: “Who is the person you want to say yes, and to what?” Whoever the person is, your persuasion priority must be evaluated against four criteria.
1. What would the impact of attaining that goal be to you or your organization?
1. Is it large enough to make a perceptible difference to your life or the lives of others?
1. Is it so large a request that it is unattainable?
2. How likely is it that more people other than me will benefit from the outcome?
In a professional environment, you may encounter people who exude confidence and charisma. In my experience, the most persuasive people tend to possess certain attributes, such as assertiveness, empathy, communicativeness, tenacity, and resilience. These people already know about priority points, although the may not consciously recognize them. The criteria above span the gamut of impacts, affective drives, social values, and perception. These are chief features to developing a persuasive line of reasoning and argumentation.
Persuasion is Social at Heart
At heart, persuasion is a social act. The very act of trying to convince someone must finely balance psychological and sociological norms, assumptions, and expectations, in addition to compelling reasoning. There are two linchpins of persuasion that easily subsume the individual and group aspects of persuasion. They are reciprocity and congruency.
Reciprocity is about benefit, balance, and survival. When it comes to persuasion that pays deference to reciprocity we must adopt a give-and-take mindset. This consists of your willingness to proactively pursue the self-interest of another person and your willingness to accept help from others. Not only must you give in equal measure, you must also take in equal measure.
Congruency is about unity. To effectively persuade someone your actions must reflect your thoughts. You must believe in whatever you are advancing; otherwise, your words and your actions will fall flat. You must convince yourself before you can convince others.
A few brilliant people have spent a lot of time thinking about the features of persuasion: reciprocity, congruency, impact, significance, and practicality. Several theories of persuasion have sprung from their considerations, but there is one in particular that has stood out to me.
Unified Field Theory of Persuasion, or Something Like It
Robert Cialdini is a professor emeritus of Arizona State University, and he created something quite like the seminal Unified Field Theory of Persuasion, but with a few twists.
He was inspired by Herbet A. Simon’s approach to decision-making that emphasizes the influence of heuristics and biases. Biases, much like optical illusions, can sometimes confound us. Life with its unpredictability can also confound us. That is why we have evolved heuristics, which are mental shortcuts that allow us to make quick decisions accurately.
Armed with these concepts, Cialdini parsed out persuasion into six distinct categories. They are reciprocity, scarcity, consistency, liking, authority, and social proof. Think of them as “persuasion by way of…”
Reciprocity involves give and take. It involves mutual or collective interest.
Scarcity involves finitude. It entails leveraging the reality of limited resources, including time.
Consistency involves trust. People prefer predictability and people who do what they say they will.
Authority involves power. When you have expertise or insider knowledge, you are in a power position.
Social proof involves anecdotal information. Social proof comes in various forms. Whatever form it comes in, the core will be testimonial.
Liking involves likability. Simply put, when someone likes another person, they are far easier to persuade. Reflective glory, influencer marketing and endorsement all thrive on this concept.
Positives as well as negatives can aid your persuasiveness. We must recognize the laudable features of decision-making, and so too must we recognize the failings. In this case, biases.
Availability Bias. We tend to place greater confidence on the information that we recall more easily. When you keep key information fresh in someone’s mind, they are more likely to trust it.
Halo Effect. When we identify someone as having one positive attribute, we tend to apply that positivity unilaterally to other aspects of their lives.
Confirmation Bias. When we hold a belief or conclusion to be true we tend to seek out confirmation, despite evidence to the contrary.
How Individual Factors Come Into Play
Although the strategies, approaches, and categorizations above apply broadly to most human interactions, there are a number of individual factors that we must keep in mind also. This advice is akin to the adage “Know your audience.”
The same kind of information or presentation will not have equal affective and persuasive force on every person. In the book Personal Styles and Effective Performance, David Merrill and Roger Reid identified four personalities based on the axes of assertiveness and responsiveness.
Driving. This personality type is characterized by power and autonomy seeking through facts and concrete information.
Expressive. This personality type is characterized as communicative and competitive.
Amiable. This personality type is characterized as relationship-oriented and cooperative.
Analytical. This personality type is technical and logistical. They want to know how, why, and who says. They are risk-averse.
The advantage of identifying these personality types is that they can help us learn how to treat people they way they want to be treated.
For example, a Driver does not enjoy small talk. They prefer facts not feelings, and they appreciate concision. An Expressive enjoys high energy and fun. They allow for digression and story sharing. An Amiable prefers to get personal, fast. Form a bond as quickly as you can. For an Analytical, leave no question unanswered and make sure you cite your sources.
Are You of the Digital Persuasion?
Technology plays a crucial role in just about every layer of human activity nowadays. Persuasion is not exempt. Take as an example Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC).
We use text messaging, emails, video conferencing, and phone calls to communicate on a near daily basis. Don’t let these interfaces undercut your persuasive ability. Learn to adapt to the mode of communication by wielding emoticons, being concise, funny, and grabbing hold of your reader’s attention.
Persuasion as a Lost Art
Persuasion is also known as rhetoric. For some, rhetoric is an even dirtier word than persuasion. In truth, that depends on the perspective of the persuader. Persuasion isn’t necessarily unethical nor must it be. If your end is ethical and your means are ethical, then you should be in the clear. However, if you end is ethical but your means are reprehensible, then you are making a mistake. There is a rule of thumb (a heuristic) that Daniel Pink offers for operating ethically. “Treat everyone as you would your grandmother.” It’s fine advice.
With that clearly established, we can move on to a more formulaic conversation on persuasion without running the risk of sounding hawkish.
The Persuasion Equation
If you were to ask people what they think the secret to persuasion is you’d have many different yet overlapping responses. What most people do not have is an equation. Your persuasion equation can be a guiding star.
This is a time-tested and evidence-based persuasion equation: A Great Business Case + Your Outstanding Credibility + Compelling Language. Let’s break it down a bit.
The Persuasion Equation: A Great Business Case
A Great Business Case refers to logic and emotion. If you want to appeal to logic, do so in quantitative terms. If you want to appeal to emotion, then do so in qualitative terms.
The former is much more difficult than the later. When you feel overwhelmed by numbers, figures, and stats remember that you’ll never attain your maximum persuasiveness being afraid of your calculator.
The latter is predominantly emotional. Qualitative reasoning can be used to accomplish at least six emotion-driven objectives.
Provoke. To cause a reaction, particularly anger.
Invoke. To give people positive expectation and a fulfilling reason for agreement.
Awaken. To cause someone to experience a novel emotion or realization.
Arouse. To get someone motivated about new ideas and possibilities.
Touch. To evoke sympathy or empathy.
Ignite. To spur people into action with a sense of achievement.
The goal is to incorporate at least one of these emotional strategies into your business case. This will help you connect with your audience on a deeper, more intuitive level.
A business case bolstered by an emotional strategy can amount to nothing, however, if the speaker does not win the trust of his audience.
The Persuasion Equation: Your Credibility
Credibility and trust building are elemental to effective persuasion. If you do not possess expertise, a solid track record, or the respect of your audience, your attempts to convince someone to do things your way won’t accomplish the intended effect. The good thing is that gaining credibility is much simpler than you might assume.
Social proof, as I mentioned above, is a potent conduit to credibility. When others believe in you it is far more likely that strangers will too. Think about the success of reviews on platforms such as Yelp. Some businesses have staked their claim to fame on those reviews. Individual people are no different.
Another way to establish your credibility is by publicizing your success. This doesn’t mean you should go on an ego trip, but be proud of your successes. Recounting your progress with humility can help increase credibility and self-satisfaction.
Accountability. I cannot overstate the importance of accountability. People must believe that you are genuinely devoted to your causes. It is easy enough to take credit when things go well. We should be equally as eager to accept responsibility when things do not. This is a power mechanism for credibility, trust, and reliability.
The Persuasion Equation: Language and Body
In a rudimentary sense persuasion is about language. Learning to determine what words to use and when is a skill. It takes time to develop. Without it, however, your persuasive ability may suffer tremendously.
One directive to bear in mind is that people are more inclined to believe what they can picture. Using adjectives and descriptive language can often help you bridge the gap between possibility and plausibility. Be careful not to wax rhapsodic, or you’ll sound like your full of fluff.
Another directive is to connect your language to your audience. If you have an opportunity to ask questions, discern what your words mean to your listener. Often we assume persuasion is mostly about quick wit and fast-talking. The dialectical approach to persuasion relies of question and answer. It shows you are open and listening. That can help establish credibility too.
The final directive is that language is communication, and communication is myriad. Sometimes a gesture, a look, or no body movement at all can communicate volumes. The power of nonverbal communication is astounding.
When it comes to persuasion, writers on the subject talk about bodily communication as poker players would. They talk about tells. Here are a few commons tells and recommended responses.
Steady Eye Contact. The person is attending to your words. Don’t miss the opportunity to engage by speaking directly and holding eye contact.
Wandering Eyes. The person is distracted or shy. Don’t make any sudden movement; don’t speak loudly. A swift smile and cordiality will do just fine. Make the process painless.
Attentive Smile. When someone smiles at you, you smile back. Don’t spend too much time looking at the person. Try to make the encounter amiable and casual. A smile usually means good will.
Disbelieving Squint. Your target is on the move. They are skeptical, uncertain, or unconvinced. You’ll want to deploy some emotional strategies and engage the heart.
Standoffish. When some keeps their distance from you it means they are not receptive. Don’t take it personally. That will shut you down. Take the signal to mean get in and get out quickly. Say your piece and move on. The heart is blocked.
That’s the Persuasion Equation in a nutshell. It has worked wonders for me. Granted it is not easy to keep in mind all at once, but with practice and mindfulness you can plan out each facet efficiently.
Some Polish on the Equation
The Persuasion Equation is formulaic, which can be off-putting to some. Persuasion is not mathematical; it is human interaction, social. If it is easier for you to think about persuasion in less formulaic terms, then this next advice might make more sense to you.
Engage. Explore. Reframe. Finalize
It’s a simple and clear-cut way to approach connecting with you audience and getting them to see through your eyes.
Engage. Timing is everything. Find a time to discuss the topic at hand when your interlocutor is most approachable and receptive. In addition to when is how.
How you approach your interlocutor is very important. A face-to-face encounter is always preferable. Although it’s a necessary evil, discard email, phone, and text conversations whenever possible.
Explore. Once you’ve engage, explore the topic at hand. You may not know your interlocutor well or at all. If you jump into the water too soon, you may find yourself in a turbulent tide with no escape route. This is how you take the temperature. You can gauge emotional response, degree of knowledge, level of significance and relevance, and, if applicable, financial situation.
This phase creates a solid rapport based on balance. Remember ask, speak, ask. Don’t underestimate the power of good questions.
Reframe. This part of the process speaks to propositions. When you are presenting a proposal or some other proposition, make sure to give at least three options. Discuss the benefits and disbenefits objectively. Furthermore, since you’ve gone through the exploration phase, you may already have a sense of your interlocutor’s priorities. Be sure to address those too.
Finalize. Do not fear objection or rejection. Objection especially is a sign of interest. The deadliest response is apathy. That means you didn’t succeed at engaging your interlocutor either at the beginning or all the way through to the very end. If that happens, do not fret. Ask your interlocutor’s opinion. Give them an opportunity to voice their concerns and the reasons for their dissent or disinterest. Then, take it from there.
United We Stand, Divided We Decide
Seldom do groups decide together. They may discuss, debate, and argue together but generally, the best way to ensure group satisfaction when it comes to decision-making is to have each person deliberate and decide independently. Often in groups some people will feel drowned out or influenced by others, which can breed resentment after the fact.
The best advice I can offer when it comes to group persuasion is that what you need is a consensus, not unanimity. To do this you need to balance pragmatism, charisma, leadership and credibility. These are the things that groups tend to demand from their speakers.
As for the specific strategy, the Persuasion Equation still applies.
The Dos and Don’ts of Persuasion Success
We have spent all this time exploring how to persuade, what persuasion is, and what it is not. There is one more topic of importance that I like to refer to as the post-mortem.
Imagine that you’ve put together a tight pitch, crunched all your numbers, spoken measuredly and evocatively, and calculated all of your nonverbal communication. And then, your interlocutors agree. They are buying what you’re selling. At this point, you can’t afford to screw things up by making an amateur mistake.
There are five don’ts that I recommend.
1. Don’t reply with incredulity.
2. Don’t keep selling your case.
3. Don’t review concerns.
4. Don’t be unprepared.
5. Don’t bask in the limelight.
And, naturally, there are the four dos of success.
1. Offer encouragement and satisfaction.
2. Provide next steps.
3. Get your client to follow through with an action.
4. Publicity means accountability.
Persuasion Starts with You
The final part of this article is where you should start the entire process: you.
If you step into a situation or preempt it with negative self-talk, you are undermining yourself from the gate. Remember, you must believe in yourself and believe in what you are pitching. That candor and excitement will spill onto your audience.
Sometimes our internal dialogue is injuriously negative. Be cognizant of your internal dialogue and reframe negative thoughts.
Don’t reprimand yourself though. Keep an optimistic outlook and be pragmatic. This involves an honest self-review. Listing your strengths and weaknesses and adding experiential evidence to each assessment can help keep you realistic and grounded.
Grounding yourself is easier when you have a clear sense of what success means to you. Make sure to set-up small goals that aggregate to big wins. That covers much of the cognitive side of success.
We shouldn’t neglect out bodies. Proper rest, high dopamine levels from reduced stress, good food, and physical activity all enhance our persuasive abilities by maintain a healthy brain and heart.
Persuasion is social, but it starts with you. You must convince yourself of your value and of your ability. The first person who you need to sell on your pitch is you.
I would like to thank G. Richard Shell and Mario Moussa (The Art of Woo), Bill McGowan and Alisa Bowman (Pitch Perfect), and, Harrison Monarth (360 Degrees of Influence). I have drawn much inspiration from their insights and professional experience.