Be more persuasive

The art of convincing others that your point of view is the right one is a vital business skill, and one well worth cultivating for your career's sake, says Rebecca Hoar.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

When was the last time you got suckered into something you didn't want to do? Perhaps you ended up working late, again, or agreed to take on an assignment that you really didn't have time for. Or maybe you arrived at a work meeting with a firm idea of what you wanted, only to leave with a completely different point of view in mind. If this applies to you, the chances are you've been in the company of a master persuader. These are the people who are able to bend you to their will, often against your better judgment.

The gentle art of persuasion is often overlooked by business schools, management courses, and how-to books. But it's a vital skill: subtler than the art of negotiation, less detectable than delegation, and close to Machiavellian manipulation. It can be adapted to all situations, from persuading a key investor to buy into your idea to cajoling your kids into doing their homework.

If you ask the experts, some familiar names are listed as good persuaders.

Richard Branson and Anita Roddick get a frequent mention as entrepreneurs who persuaded others to back their business ideas. James Murdoch, son of Rupert, persuaded sceptical shareholders at BskyB that he was the best candidate to become their next CEO. And Bob Geldof persuaded people and pop stars to donate money and time to Live Aid, for the second time in 20 years. The first time round, of course, he used persuasion of a slightly stronger kind when he yelled at Live Aid viewers to 'Give us your f***king money!'.

But you don't have to be an outspoken leading public figure to be persuasive.

Unlike influence, persuasion doesn't depend on status or authority. Instead, it's about getting on with people and enabling them to see the benefits of what you're offering, without browbeating them into agreement.

There isn't just one foolproof method of persuasion; there are a number of tools. When and how you use them depends on the person and the situation.

Consultants at The Mind Gym, which runs mental workouts to help executives perform more effectively, list nine key persuasion techniques (see panel, p59). But before employing those tactics, it's important to know the basics.

Juliet Erickson, a communications specialist and author of The Art of Persuasion, mentions a few principles that always apply. First, you must be clear about your objective: what exactly do you want, and why? If you can't articulate this to yourself, you're unlikely to persuade anyone else.

According to Erickson, your key message should describe what you want, why you want it, evidence for why it's a good idea and how it's relevant to the other person. You should also have it ready for unexpected opportunities - that journey in the lift with your CEO, for example.

The precision of your message is also important. In a recent experiment, American students posed as beggars and asked passers-by for money. If they asked for an unspecified amount, they received money 44% of the time.

But if they asked for a precise sum - say, 25c - they got it 64% of the time. The more specific you can be, the better.

Once you've got the message straight, you need to summon up some conviction.

Says Karan Bilimoria, founder of Cobra Beer: 'When starting Cobra, I had to persuade people to do a lot of things. You need confidence, passion and faith. That gives people the confidence to trust you and work with you.'

Passion should be backed with evidence, or you'll appear at best naive and at worst irrational. The evidence will vary according to the situation, but consider financial proof, the actions of rival companies or individuals, and examples of where a similar idea has worked.

The next step is to work on building rap- port with your target. According to Erickson, 40% of a person's response to an idea is based on whether they feel a connection with whoever is putting forward the suggestion. 'You may have a great idea, but I've seen some of the best ideas end up in the rubbish bin. You need rapport to single yourself out.'

This doesn't have to mean being likeable. It's about forging a connection with the person you're talking to. If people think you're both like them and that you like them, they'll be more inclined to listen to you.

So, you've got the message, the conviction, the evidence and the relationship.

Now you can start work on being persuasive. The key, say experts, is to focus on the individual you are seeking to persuade. What do they want?

How will they benefit?

To know this, you must put yourself in the other person's shoes. According to Philippa Davies, psychologist and author of Eureka! Making Brilliant Ideas Happen, you need to be a good amateur psychologist. 'It's the extent to which you can inhabit the other person's world and see things from their perspective.'

Erickson emphasises the importance of tailoring the message to the audience. 'You've got to make the message relevant to the person you're talking to,' she says. 'You'd have a different message if you were talking to your HR manager than if you were trying to influence your finance director.' Think about who it is that you're dealing with, and where their interests are most likely to lie.

Sir Bill Morris, who as head of the giant TGWU, has experience of converting others to his point of view, agrees. 'People will be motivated if you appeal to their self-interest,' he says. 'You have to analyse the weakness of the person you are trying to persuade. If you are able to ask someone to follow you because it will be beneficial to them, that helps. I see this in all situations. Even when I'm trying to persuade my granddaughter to go to bed early, I may have to promise that I will come up and read her another story.'

Dr Robert Cialdini, an expert on persuasion based at Arizona State University, agrees that describing the benefits of what you're suggesting is a powerful motivator. But even more powerful, he says, is the concept of what benefits the other person stands to lose if they don't agree with your plan. Various experiments have demonstrated that losing something you already possess - whether it's time, money, the competitive advantage, your reputation - is more likely to motivate people to act than the idea of gaining that very same thing. So when you're putting together your case, think about what the other person might be losing if they don't agree to your plan.

With all of the above in mind, what is the context of your situation?

Persuading your boss to let you take a six-month sabbatical is different from convincing the board of directors to back your new project. What tactics should you use in each?

If you're asking your boss for something that they may be reluctant to give you - a pay rise or extra time off, for example - you need to have some reasons on hand for why you should be granted those things. Try approaching it from your boss's viewpoint. How does your boss benefit if he or she grants your request? What would they lose by saying no?

Erickson suggests posing the request as a question. 'The hypothetical question is an interesting way to approach the issue of a pay rise,' she says. 'Their answer will give you a clue about what you need to do in order to get one.'

It's also vital to find out as much as you can about your manager. Says Erickson: 'Have they given pay rises before? If you're asking for a sabbatical, find out if they have friends or family who work flexitime.'

Davies suggests a similar tactic. 'You have to be a bit sneaky and think about making the boss look good,' she says. 'Is there good publicity for the boss to be got out of it? Is there a way this will reach the company's higher echelons?'

The tactics are similar if you're trying to persuade someone to invest in your idea or give you their support for a risky project. Work out the benefits or losses to that person of agreeing or disagreeing with your idea.

You may also want to offer what Cialdini calls 'social proof', or evidence that others like your listener have already taken a similar path or backed an equivalent idea. Well-researched knowledge on the subject in question will help.

Suppose you're trying to win round a larger audience - perhaps a boardroom of directors. Says Erickson: 'If four or five people are sitting in a room, don't just use one method of persuasion. Do your homework before you get there and find out what those people need from you in order for them to make their decisions. You have to appeal to each of them individually.'

If you can't get information in advance, ask a lot of questions in the meeting to find out where people's interests lie, she suggests.

What if you're communicating downwards rather than upwards? Perhaps you need to persuade your employees to work late for a few weeks, or to delay taking a holiday until a project is finished.

Rupert Howell, UK and Ireland chairman of global advertising agency McCann Erickson, has a considerate way of approaching this.

According to him, 'persuading colleagues to follow your lead involves only asking them to do something they know you would do or have done in the past. And ask nicely!'

Most agree that the command-and-control approach must be avoided. Says Carolyn McCall, CEO of Guardian Newspapers: 'You can't just tell people to do things for you. In the long term, people get really disenfranchised. If we ever ask people to go beyond the call of duty, we'll speak to them face-to-face and explain the context of why we're doing this and why we want them to be involved.'

Advises Erickson: 'Instead of asking people to stay late, ask them how they would feel about it. They may then come up with their own suggestions, such as coming in to work early. If you ask: "How can we solve this together?", then you've led them up the runway to finding a solution.'

Another trick is to suggest trying something out for a trial period, with the opportunity for employees to give feedback at the end. Says Davies: 'People love to think of themselves as researchers or detectives or scientists. If you ask them to try something out and then give their feedback, it's a very grown-up way of dealing with people.'

There will be times when no matter how persuasive you think you're being, you can't seem to get your message across. In these situations, says Davies, 'the best tactic is to be open and honest by saying "I'm not convincing you". Then you can ask: "What would I need to say to convince you?". If you think this sounds weak, don't worry. People won't think you're a pushover. It's disarming, and you're more likely to influence people that way.'

Erickson suggests that if you feel you're losing your audience, try another tactic. 'Sometimes you do run into dealbreaker situations. But don't stop until you're really sure.'

Occasionally, persuasion may veer into manipulation or coercion. Before you persist in your persuasive techniques, stop to consider whether you are simply imposing your own interests on to someone else, possibly to their detriment. If this is the case, you have stopped persuading and started manipulating.

There's a popular image of the ultimate persuader as someone born to persuade - a natural charmer who can convince anyone that what they're suggesting was their idea anyway. It's time to dismiss such myths, says Erickson. 'Some people don't like feeling that everything has been their own idea, so that's not always a winning technique,' she says. 'And I'm reluctant to say that some people are naturally more able to persuade than others. It's so contextual. Even the most gorgeous, charming, well-spoken people can mess up.'

Ultimately, it comes down to knowing what you want, understanding what works for the other person and getting the message across clearly without steamrollering the listener. If that hasn't persuaded you, nothing will.


There's one for every occasion, but choose your weapon wisely

Apply logic

The use of facts, logic and argument to make a case.

Effect on the other person

They see that a proposal is likely to achieve their objectives.

How to use

- State all the facts.

- Outline the pros and cons.

- Ask for the other person's viewpoint.

- Explain how their concerns can be met.

- Outline how your solution achieves the objectives.


Don't present 'facts' without supporting evidence.

Inspire them

Appeal to emotions rather than focusing on factual arguments.

Effect on the other person

They are enthused by appeals to their values, ideals and aspirations.

Confidence is boosted and they feel able to do the task.

How to use

- Describe the end result and how the new situation will be better than

the current one.

- Express empathy.

- Be enthusiastic.


You must be convinced of the argument yourself, or you won't be


Include them

This technique uses questions to encourage the other person to make

their own way to your conclusion.

Effect on the other person

They are reassured that you are willing to adapt your views to take

account of their views and suggestions. They gain a sense of ownership.

How to use

- Outline the current situation.

- Don't provide solutions.

- Ask how the individual would solve the problem.


The other person may not respond in the way you want them to.

Make them feel good

If someone feels positively towards you, they are more likely to agree

with you. And they are more likely to feel positively towards you if you

make them feel good.

Effect on the other person

Because they think favourably about you, they are more likely to be open

to persuasion.

How to use

- Put them in a good mood.

- Describe what they did in a given situation.

- Describe the positive impact they made.

- Present your requirements positively.


Can look like brown-nosing if you're dealing with someone more senior

than yourself.

Offer a deal

By offering to reciprocate in some way, you increase your chances of

being persuasive.

Effect on the other person

They feel the request is fair, as you are willing to reciprocate at a

later time. They feel indebted to you and so respond.

How to use

- Do them a favour.

- Outline the task that needs attention.

- Describe the benefits to the individual.

- Confirm that an exchange will take place.


Beware those who say yes to your offer without any intention of


Ask a favour

A straightforward request to ask someone to do something as a favour to


Effect on the other person

They feel duty-bound to complete the task.

How to use

- Explain the situation.

- Explain the personal negative impact of the task not being completed.

- Explain the personal positive impact of the other individual

completing the task.


The other person may feel you owe them one. Make sure you pay them back.


The trick here is to show the person you're trying to persuade that

others agree with your view or proposal.

Effect on the other person

They are more likely to think or do something because other people have.

How to use

- Describe the situation.

- Demonstrate that other people, particularly people who are like the

person you're persuading, have also behaved in a specific way.


Some people like to be unconventional and will want to go against the

accepted view.

Pull rank

Use either your seniority or a rule or principle to influence your


Effect on the other person

It is difficult for them to refuse when you claim the authority to make

the request, often by referring to rules or traditions.

How to use

- Explain the situation and why you have the right or the knowledge to

make the request.


More likely to lead to compliance rather than full buy-in from the other


Use force

The only tool that requires assertive behaviour such as threats or


Effect on the other person

Burden and fear results in their doing what you want them to do.

How to use

- Explain the situation.

- Explain the negative consequences of not taking action.

- Remind the individual of the consequences.


This may work in the short term, but in the long term it can damage

relationships irreparably. Use only as a last resort.

Adapted from The Mind Gym's latest book, Wake Your Mind Up

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