The Art of Persuasion: Follow This System to Learn the Skills You Need to Persuade Effectively

Persuasion is more than just having the right answers - it’s about establishing your credibility as well as knowing and connecting with your audience. | Image Attrib.: Flickr user reihayashi

Persuasion is more than just having the right answers – it’s about establishing your credibility as well as knowing and connecting with your audience. | Image Attrib.: Flickr user reihayashi

You’ve got your PowerPoint slides cued up, your suit and tie on, and your team’s rapt attention — you’re about to embark on the herculean task of persuading your colleagues to invest a large amount of time, money, and effort in tackling what you think is a huge opportunity for company growth. You’re feeling confident; after weeks of research, you’re certain that your proposal will lead to a big win for the company. But after you’ve explained your way through your last slide and answered a spat of questions, it’s clear that your team is nowhere close to being convinced that your plan is the correct course of action. What went wrong?

A crucial part of being an effective leader is the ability to persuade your team to take certain actions or accept executive decisions, even if they’re controversial. And as more and more millennials join the workforce [link to previous millennial blog post here], mastering the art of persuasion will become even more indispensible. This younger generation has been brought up to question everything — even (and perhaps especially) authority figures. In the workplace, millennials will give respect to authority figures, but only if they feel like they deserve it, not because of a perceived higher rank.[1. “The Beat (Up) Generation,” https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201402/the-beat-generation] In short, you’ll have to persuade your millennial employees, especially, to support new initiatives.

Many leaders, however, regard the “art of persuasion” as a difficult skill set to master — but it doesn’t have to be. In his seminal work on the art of persuasion for business leaders, research scientist Dr. Jay A. Conger boiled down the persuasion game to four simple steps: Credibility, Common Ground, Evidence, and Emotional Connection.[2. “The Necessary Art of Persuasion,” https://hbr.org/1998/05/the-necessary-art-of-persuasion] Master these four steps to persuade your team effectively!

Step One: Establish Your Credibility

Why is establishing credibility important to the art of persuasion? Simply put, people are more likely to be persuaded by someone they trust. Credibility is made up of two factors: your level of expertise and your relationships. If you think you lack expertise around the issue you’re trying to persuade your team on, consider bolstering your knowledge of the subject or product through classes, courses, or work experience or by bringing in an outside knowledge source to back up your claims (like a consultant or professor).

A former colleague once needed to persuade the leadership team to revamp the company’s employee assessment procedure. Before his meeting with leadership, this colleague instigated a couple of pilot projects within a few of the company’s departments with his suggested employee assessment system. Taking the time to implement pilot projects gave my colleague more experience in the realm of employee assessment, which translated to more expertise; during the meeting, the leadership team was much more receptive to his ideas because he took the time to establish his expertise.

If you need help on the relationship side, consider involving people who already have strong relationships with the folks you’re trying to persuade, or meeting one-on-one with key stakeholders to establish relationships prior to trying to persuade the entire team. If team members see that you have a good relationship with people that they already respect, they’re more likely to respect you, too — and find you credible.

Step Two: Find Common Ground

Too often, business leaders approach persuasion myopically — that is, they try to persuade an audience that an idea or solution is good for its own sake, not the audience’s. A key to effective persuasion, then, is to highlight the advantages that the people you are trying to persuade would experience. In order to do that, you must thoroughly understand the challenges that your audience faces, and what they most care about.

Take, for example, this case study from Dr. Conger’s research about a manager who streamlined the process of engineering for a jet line manufacturer. In his presentation, the manager was going to highlight the new efficiencies that the improved engineering would bring about. But after speaking with one of the leaders of the company informally, he realized that the higher ups weren’t focused on efficiency — they mostly cared about profitability. So, the manager reworked his presentation to focus on how his design would increase profits, and subsequently got approval for the design from the company’s president. By talking with someone close to the team, the manager was able to get the “inside scoop” on the outcomes the team cared most about, and tailor his persuasive message accordingly.

Step Three: Provide Evidence

This may seem like a no brainer; people are more likely to be persuaded when you give them evidence that the idea you’re trying to convince them to support actually works. What’s surprising, though, is the kind of evidence that people respond to most. When it comes to persuasion, it’s best to combine hard evidence (like numbers and statistics) with more emotionally resonant language that uses examples and anecdotes.

Why focus on “emotional” evidence? Because research shows that decision-making is an emotional process. In fact, studies of the brain reveal that when the part of the brain that “regulates” emotions is injured through some sort of trauma, people can’t make decisions.[3. “Leadership Is All About Emotional Persuasion,” http://www.forbes.com/2010/02/02/communication-emotional-persuasion-leadership-managing-speaking.html] To appeal to emotions, cite your evidence by using evocative, illustrative language, and channel your inner Hemingway to tell a story. In a Harvard Business Review piece, famed screenwriter Robert McKee says that the best CEOs and business leaders know how to tell a good story. Storytelling, says McKee, makes your evidence more memorable — and it’s hard to win over people when they can’t even remember your key points. If you’re in a storytelling slump, try drawing from your own personal anecdotes or—even more resonate—use examples that involve the people you’re trying to persuade.

Step Four: Connect Emotionally

The final step in the art of persuasion? Connecting on an emotional level with your audience. Note, though, that this step is different from the “emotional evidence” used in step three. In this case, you need to show your audience that you’re emotionally committed to your ideas. Can your audience tell that you’re passionate about persuading them? If they can, it’s a good sign. But beware, you don’t want to go off the emotional deep end — being overly emotional could be read as being weak or imbalanced.

To strike the right emotional tone, persuaders need to “read the room” to understand what kind of emotional argument to make. Will your audience respond best to scare tactics or a more uplifting message? To figure this out, business leaders should talk with a few key members of the team to get an “emotional read” on the group, and then use that feedback to inform their persuasion techniques.

For example, if the group you’re trying to persuade just received praise for meeting some tough sales goals, a “scare tactic” message about how the company could crash and burn if it doesn’t adopt your ideas would read as completely deflating and off-putting. Framing your ideas instead as techniques to help support their recent success would be better received. Talking with someone “on the inside” will help you tailor your message emotionally to the audience.

Mastering the art of persuasion is just one skill that must be in an effective leader’s toolbox — but it’s a crucial one. Being a leader involves coming up with ideas to move the company forward. But if you can’t convince your peers and employees that your ideas have merit, then your company runs the risk of stagnating. Need some help in crafting an argument your audience will truly respond to? Contact us to receive a complimentary copy of our “Audience Experience” worksheet on how to systematically address a particular group. And if you’re interested in learning how you can use persuasion in conjunction with other critical skills so that you can be the most effective leader possible, get in touch to learn more about our leader development services.

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