Powers of Persuasion

Understanding the Dos and Don’ts of Persuading

Powers of Persuasion - Understanding the Dos and Don'ts of Persuading

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Persuasion works best with shared understanding and agreement.

How do you persuade someone to do something? Do you rely on your authority over them? Do you "sell, sell, sell," with benefits statements and other Marketing 101 techniques? Do you cater to logic and set up rock solid arguments? Or do you show unwavering persistence in your position and stick with it until others agree that you are right?

All of these approaches can be tempting, but they're not always the most effective means of persuasion. In a defining 1998 article in the Harvard Business Review titled "The Necessary Art of Persuasion," Jay Conger, an Organizational Behavior professor, presented a very different view of persuasion. He said that to be persuasive you must provide four critical elements:

  • Credibility.
  • Common Ground.
  • Vivid Evidence.
  • Emotional Connection.

We'll talk about these elements in detail, but first let's look at why it's important to know how to be persuasive. Persuasion isn't all about selling. Nor is it trying to convince someone to agree with you. It's about getting to shared understanding and agreement. From there you work together to reach a mutually beneficial outcome.

Managers need to be good persuaders. They need to accomplish objectives through people. They could choose to bully, dictate, or coerce people to get the work done, but how successful would that be in the long run? If they use persuasion effectively, they will lead employees to want to reach a shared solution.

Likewise, in any situation where you need to persuade someone to work with you or you want to promote your idea, if you badger them and sell excessively, you'll only create resentment. Establishing mutual understanding is what leads to an agreement; one that is negotiated not forced.

Persuasion Dos and Don'ts

"It's important for people to understand persuasion for what it is – not convincing and selling but learning and negotiating."– Jay Conger

To develop effective powers of persuasion there are essentially four things you must do, and four things you must not do.

Do... Establish Credibility

Not everyone can be persuasive in all contexts. A professor at a high-profile medical school has the potential to persuade people to participate in a clinical study, for example. That same professor will be much less persuasive when talking about bridge design, for example. This type of credibility is based on expertise. When you are perceived as knowledgeable in, and experienced with, a particular subject, you are more persuasive.

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The other basis for building credibility is through relationships. When you have built a reputation for taking a genuine interest in the well-being of your team and peers, your proposals and ideas are infused with that trust as well.

Do... Find Common Ground

The next necessary element is making sure your position appeals to the audience. Even the most charismatic doctor will find it hard to recruit participants for a study testing the effects of long-term radiation.

Establishing common ground is the closest you will get to "selling" your idea. There has to be an upside to your position so you need to determine what the benefits are. One of the most effective ways to do this is to analyze what has appealed to your audience in the past.

  • Figure out what your audience is interested in.
  • Meet with them and open up a dialogue about the issue at hand.
  • Listen to their ideas and concerns.
  • Run your ideas past people you trust first.

If you can't offer a clear benefit then you need to modify your position or proposal so that there is one. By talking with your audience first you can set up your position correctly from the start. This saves time, and it saves you from the potential embarrassment of presenting a poorly matched pitch.

Do... Produce Vivid Evidence

By now you are probably wondering where the proof part of the equation is. Of course, you have to back up your position with evidence that what you are saying makes sense. A well-qualified physicist who wants to build a suit that will make people weightless has credentials, and an appealing proposition, but if his prototype is built on the premise that he can reverse gravity, he's going to struggle to find any takers.

Having evidence to support your position is critical. However, factual data and reams of spreadsheets and charts are not highly persuasive. What people respond to is "vivid" evidence that brings your concept or argument to life. For example:

  • Use metaphors to relate the concept to a shared reality.
  • Supplement data with examples and direct experiences.
  • Think of analogies to make your ideas tangible.

This type of experiential proof is what causes shifts in people's perspectives and allows them to "see" the situation through the eyes of others who support what you are doing.

Do... Create an Emotional Connection

Finally, no persuasive argument is complete unless you appeal to your audience's emotions. Some people think an emotional pitch has little credibility. When done correctly, however, it clearly establishes that you are plugged into your audience's needs and desires. So how do you appeal to emotions?

  • Use your own emotions – this may mean showing emotions (enthusiasm and passion) or it may mean suppressing them (anger and frustration).
  • Sense the emotions of the audience – adjust your tone and intensity to fit your audience.

Emotions are primary factors in motivation and decision-making. As much as we'd like to be totally objective, it just doesn't happen. Appealing to emotions is not manipulative at all. It is a basic premise of persuasive communication and it helps facilitate a shared understanding of the issue and what is at stake.

With the four Dos in hand, you must also be aware of the four classic Don'ts. Each is a common misconception about how to persuade, so it's important you are able to avoid them and recognize them when they are being used on you.

Don't... Rely Only on a Great Argument

An argument is one component of persuasion. One or two strong arguments can be used as evidence that your idea is good, but you need to connect those arguments to emotion, and make them real by creating powerful images of what things would be like if people adopted your viewpoint.

  • A strong argument example: polls show that 82 percent of our hair salon demographic also purchases therapeutic massage treatments on a regular basis. If we were to offer in-house massages as an up-sell to our hair styling services, we would tap into this business stream and create a niche market all at once. I believe this is an idea that deserves financial and strategic analysis.
  • A vivid and emotional argument example: our customers love to be pampered and they tell us this everyday. I was talking to Shirley Jones, who's one of our biggest fans, just yesterday about how good the scalp massages are. She says they are heavenly and figures Barbara should be a masseuse. I got to thinking about this connection and realized that our customers treat their hair appointments as an indulgent, luxurious experience. Why not offer them more indulgence? So I did some research and analysis and found out that 82 percent of people who match our demographic profile also purchase massages on a regular basis. Can't you just see our customers being treated to a massage before their appointment? Usually, when you leave a massage you look like a bedraggled mess. Here they come in, get pampered and leave looking more fabulous than they have in weeks.

Do you see the difference in the impact? The argument is based on the same data but the presentation is what makes the persuasion factor.

Don't... Make a Hard Sales Pitch

Everyone knows the hard-sell game. We are faced with it every time we go to make a major purchase like a car or home furnishings. What's the first thing you do in those situations? You get your back up and you resist, argue, or discount everything the salesperson says. You become opponents even before you know what you are fighting about.

Turn the situation around and make your presentation appealing by finding out what your audience thinks, values, and needs. Then compose a position that isn't a target for attack, but one that has real merit and substance.

Don't... Take an "All or Nothing" Stance

Persuasion isn't about forcing someone to surrender to your will. There are many points of compromise and collaboration between your position and a shared agreement. If you are inflexible, how do you expect to build trust? If you're not prepared to compromise, the other person has no reason to believe you have their interests in mind and no reason to be convinced.

Don't... Believe You Have Only One Chance

Persuasion can take time to build. Many times you will not win people over with your first attempt. People need time to process and assimilate what you are saying with their current perspectives, beliefs, and circumstances. A good persuader uses that to his or her advantage and layers his presentation using more and more of the "Do" elements each time.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review. From "The Necessary Art of Persuasion" by Jay A. Conger, May-June 1998. Copyright © 1998 by the Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation; all rights reserved.

Key Points

Persuasion is an art form. To be good at it takes a great deal of understanding and practice. At its core is the ability to relate to people and adopt their point of view.

When you commit to listening to people, create propositions that have value and appeal, and remain flexible throughout the process. Then you'll be in a great position to use your powers of persuasion.

Remember, being persuasive means motivating people to do something you want them to do, which in the end, they want to do too. Show them what's in it for them, and do it in a way that is genuine and effective.


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