We persuade people every day, whether it’s getting our children to clean their rooms, asking a colleague to help with a project, or convincing our supervisors to give our team more resources.
In some cases, such as in the military, your title or position is all the persuasion you need. But in most others, a little bit of effective persuasion can get the commitment you need far quicker than barking out orders.
The main tool we use in just about every kind of persuasion is communication. Without a proper communications strategy—one that addresses the other person’s concerns, offers solutions, and does both of those things clearly and concisely—it is almost impossible to win over anyone to your way of thinking.
Whether you’re communicating orally or in writing, you need:
1. An easily defined request: Whether you’re looking to sell a product, get a job offer, win over an investor, or a policy change, make sure that you know exactly what you’re asking for and state that clearly up-front. If you’re several minutes (or paragraphs) into your presentation and your audience still doesn’t know why they’re there, their minds will start to wander and you’ve lost them.
2. 1-3 “Talking Points”: Why is it in the other person’s best interest to do what you’re asking them to do (how the product will solve their problem, why you’re the best person for the job, etc.)? Whittle these down to the most compelling, and pull out your biggest guns first.
3. A deal-closer: A final request for action of some kind. Your audience may not be ready to commit, but make sure they know exactly what you’re asking them to do. Find out what the next step is and how/when you’ll be following up. If you’re leaving “the ball in their court,” put a follow-up date on your calendar and follow up with them.
In order to get past your audience’s possible objections, it helps to do your homework.
• What is important to this person and/or his company? If you’re applying for a job in a professional services firm, you’ll want to emphasize your interpersonal skills and commitment to client service. If you’re approaching a supervisor about a policy change, know ahead of time that person’s likes/dislikes and chief motivators. If it’s important for her to look good to management, work that into your presentation.
• What is going on in the person’s world that makes her job more difficult? In a tough economy, such as the one we have now, emphasizing the cost savings benefit you offer (even if there’s an up-front investment required). Alternatively, if your product or service can be an income generator, highlight that.
• What are the most persuasive arguments against your proposition? In politics, this is known as opposition research, but it’s critical in any area. Don’t assume you know what the other side is saying. If you’re competing against another product or service, get your hands on their literature. Know what their selling points are and be ready to combat them.
The more you know about your audience, the better prepared you will be to answer their questions and overcome any objections they have to your proposal.
Using the Laws of Persuasion
Your goal is to remove the barriers to “yes.” Some of Psychologist Robert Cialdini’s Laws of Persuasion can help. Obviously, not all of these will work in every situation, but you can use some of these to your advantage when looking to persuade.
Law of Reciprocity: If you give away something “for free,” people are inclined to reciprocate. The most obvious example of this is the address labels many charities send out unsolicited to previous or potential donors in hopes that it will prompt a generous donation (which it often does). In communications, the corollary is best summarized by Stephen Covey’s maxim: you have to first seek to understand before being understood. If you make an honest attempt to understand your audience and their needs, they will be more inclined to respond in kind.
Law of Commitment and Consistency: Get your audience to say “yes” in little ways before asking them for the big “yes.” Ask questions that lead your audience to generally support your proposal, such as “Are you looking to save money?” “Are you looking for a quality product?” “If I could offer you something that would do both, would you be interested?” Getting people to agree, if only in principle, to your premise makes them more likely to say “yes” when it counts, if only to maintain internal consistency.
Law of Liking: When was the last time you bought something from somebody you didn’t like? Now, if you’re out of gas and the only person with gas to sell is a jerk, you’re probably going to buy it from him. But when, as is usually the case, it’s something you can live without and there are plenty of places to get what you want, you’re probably going to go with the person who, all things being equal, you like.
When you’re trying to persuade someone, find areas of commonality. It could be the Yankees, you go to the same church, you’re both Brown alums, or whatever. Establishing rapport can help close any deal. If you don’t know what you have in common, asking questions and being genuinely interested in the other person can not only get you the information you need, but it can also earn you points for being a good listener.
Other obvious ways to be likeable: Smile, be enthusiastic, be confident, be prompt, be respectful, and never, ever argue.
Law of Authority: Is the policy change you’re after endorsed by the AMA, the American Bar Association, or some other organization with respectable credentials for your industry? Having a weighty institution in support of your premise can win over a skeptical audience.
Law of Social Proof: This is the “everybody else is doing it” argument. Of course, if you’re the parent of a teenager, you will want to preach against this law whenever possible, but the truth is that many of us are persuaded by this law on an almost daily basis. If all your friends have an iPhone, chances are you want one too. If your biggest competitors have started using a particular software, then you may be strongly considering using it too. “Everybody else is doing it” may not be a good idea if, as your mother said, “everybody else is jumping off a bridge.” But when it comes to other, less deadly, proposals, it’s a powerful motivator.
Effective communications are a critical part of any attempt to persuade others, regardless of what you’re asking them to do.
Get Anyone to do Anything
By David J. Lieberman, Ph.D.
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000
Harvard Business Review on Motivating People
Harvard Business School Press, 2003
Power & Influence: Beyond Formal Authority
By John P. Kotter
Free Press, 1985
How to Win Friends and Influence People
By Dale Carnegie
Pocket Books, 1936
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion
By Robert Cialdini
William Morrow, 1993.