Mastering the Art of Persuasion

  People arrive at their beliefs through attraction

When we're passionate about a topic we tend to talk about it at every opportunity. Whether it's a new idea we're trying out, a special project or venture we're starting, our focus is completely absorbed into thinking about it. We approach conversations as opportunities to think out loud.

    At first, we don't see it as trying to convince anyone, while that's exactly what it sounds like. Trying to arouse the passion of listeners to bend their ear to our cause is what Aristotle called Pathos — one of the three pillars of persuasive speech.

    Persuasion is the art of getting others to see things the way we do. It's an art entrepreneurs need in spades to recruit collaborators, customers, capital, and communities. We're all entrepreneurs to a certain extent, because we're all called to make the case for resources, funds, the time of peers and customers.

A brief history of persuasion

   The use of persuasion in the modern world dates back to Aristotle who lived between 384 BC-322 BC when he wrote about the art in Rhetoric. His thinking about the roles of ethos, pathos, and logos in speech influenced the development of rhetorical theory.

    All Greek trials were held in front of the Assembly, and both the prosecution and the defense rested on the persuasiveness of the speaker, as they often do today. In this context, persuasion is an attempt to influence a person's beliefs, attitudes, intentions, motivations, or behaviors.

    In 1984, psychologist Robert Cialdini documented six principles of ethical persuasion — social proof, authority, scarcity, affinity, commitment/consistency, and reciprocity. The book sold more than three million copies and was translated into 30 languages.

    While it was Cialdini who put influence” on the map, the use of the term escalated and spread with the increased adoption of social media by brands and organizations. It's being used to assist in getting the word out on products and services with the help of celebrities and people who have generally amassed large audiences online.

Principles of persuasion

    The most influential political, social, business, and religious leaders use the art of persuasion to get things done. They do it not by manipulating people, but by getting them to see that certain things are in their own best interest while they also benefit them.

    To use the principle of social proof effectively, master persuaders identify those who are most receptive to their message and ideas and focus their energy and attention on them first. That first group of converts can help create the momentum for others to see and then consider an idea.

    One element that is often forgotten from the Greeks was kairos or the sense of time and place. Context is an important building block of persuasion as it creates a relative standard of what's acceptable. Hence why as customers we often satisfice, especially for smaller investments.

    We also live fast and slow — that is we have horizons, and timing plays a role in our decisions. What we want changes with time.

    If you remember just one principle, follow the idea that before we can persuade, there needs to be at least some interest. Since we're all hyper focused on the self, appealing to self interest creates the conditions for getting attention — make it about them.

Techniques that work

    Reciprocity is a powerful motivator — we generally feel the need to return a favor. It keeps social balance. People who help others, even in small ways, and do it consistently, gain credits in the reciprocation bank. In addition to consistency, persistence with a message pays off long term.

    Another rule to keep in mind is to set expectations and over-deliver on them. Also it's not a good idea to assume others know what we know and have to offer — people know best what they need, they may value what we have.

    Almost everything has value on a relative scale, which is where scarcity comes in as a tool to persuade people. Add a sense of urgency, and we may be able to move someone to action in the moment. As we tell our story, it's useful to paint an image as vividly as possible. Images are memorable.

     It's counter intuitive, but telling a true story, helping someone understand something they did not know or see about themselves or their business, even something unpleasant, can be a door opener. Or we could choose to compliment them, especially if our words are sincere.

    Finally, we should remember to watch our non verbals and the message they're sending. Mirroring and matching the behaviors of others are useful techniques.

Things to remember

    Persuasive people are flexible and draw from a broad repertoire of behaviors. They also know how to energize others, making them feel powerful and ready to go. Making eye or physical contact and active listening are good ways to motivate others. Laughter is infectious.

    Good communication skills help — simplifying to a core idea and transmitting to others what they care about is an art. Preparation is key. It creates advantage in business development and partnerships as it does in our careers.

    The person with the highest leverage is the individual who stays calm and doesn't let a conflict situation ruffle them. In fact, we associate competence and authority with people who operate effectively without emotion in a crisis.

    Sometimes creating conflict builds advantage. Anger, when used sparingly, sends a strong message. Certainty wins us over as well.  When someone is sure of the value they provide and believes in what they do, they're very persuasive.

Pragmatic applications

    We tend to think of persuasion or motivation as something that one person does to another. What social sciences tell us very clearly is that it is something people do for themselves. For example, in an article on how Tim Cook persuaded Angela Ahrendts to join Apple#, she says:

“The first time I sat down with him, I walked away thinking wow, that’s a man of peace. I just absolutely loved his integrity, his values. Nothing anybody can write, say, or do is going to take him off of always doing the right thing. Not just for Apple, but for Apple’s people, for communities, for countries. The world needs more leaders like Tim.”

    Ahrendts' initial meetings with Cook focused on establishing whether she was a good cultural fit for Apple, rather than diving into her previous experience. When people have their own reasons for doing something, not yours, they believe those reasons more deeply and adhere to their behaviors more strongly.

    Our job as motivator and persuader is to reset the context and surface people's own reasons for doing something. Here are some useful practical tactics:

* Repeat the message — several times and in different ways. We're all busy and overwhelmed by information. A good messaging framework creates consistency and alignment. Repetition builds familiarity and focuses attention.

* Make the value relevantkairos lays the groundwork here, there's a time and place for anything and creating the right context pays off. The more specific, the better. What's going on that matters to timing? Is now appropriate, or is it better to prepare the groundwork for the future?

* Tell the story — even better when you can show it by comparing and contrasting, like before and after, or the old ways and the new ways. What's the product efficacy? How would life be simpler with this solution vs. another?

* Speak in the language of the receiver — what matters to them, and also what kind of person are they? Are you talking to someone proactive who uses short sentences and acts as if they're in command of the world? Direct works here, go for it. Is the person using passive verbs and talking about thinking, analyzing, and understanding? Give them time to think, suggest things they might consider. Of course, most people are in the middle and sway based on circumstances and the type of decision.

* Go through connections — borrowing awareness from existing relationships.

* Build a prototype of the idea — even a drawing, a flowchart, or a decision tree go a long way to help visualize a concept.

* Get others to say it — testimonials are ideal, but also social proof like how many people sign up to get updates, go a long way.

     The best form of persuasion is adoption and traction for an idea, product, or service. In this sense, a transaction is the highest form of preference.

    The persuasive power of a message is a crucial ingredient in any ad. Marco Guerini at the Italian research organization Trento-Rise and a couple of buddies say they've found an interesting way round this — test messages on Google's AdWords service. They tried it in 2012#.

    While Guerini and co's evolutionary algorithm built on top of AdWords experiments are interesting pilots they are not extensive enough to provide insight into the nature of persuasive messages. That will need testing on a much larger scale. 

Influencer marketing

    Marketers are putting a lot of effort into influencer outreach, a form of word-of-mouth on steroids. When it's sincere because there's alignment between a person's passions and/or expertise in a field, it works.

    A brand borrows visibility from an individual with a certain community or about a certain topic, which creates authority by association. An individual also builds more credibility by associating with a brand. So it goes both ways. Here are some considerations for building relationships with influencers.

    Context also matters. Different approaches to a message appeal to us at different times — when we're just browsing, it's important to cultivate a positive association. This means meaningful, unexpected, and customized, highlighting commonalities and expressing our liking is a good fit here.

    Then our nature takes over. Our loss aversion gets into high gear when we're considering options. At this stage, social proof and authority help the most. We want to hear from someone who is credible. Business execution and traction are golden here. People want to know we're for real.

    Motivating action comes next. When our friend reminds us of what we said, we are more likely to follow through because we want to be consistent. Plus what we would miss if we didn't, we have again some pathos or emotion in the picture.

    Cialdini added unity as a seventh principle in his more recent book, Pre-Suasion, where he shines a light on how effective persuasion can happen moments before. When we're together or act together in particular ways, we feel a sense of unity. Unity, like family, leads to an increased willingness to sacrifice one's own interests for the welfare of the group.

    As for the power of language, culture matters. The use of highly emotional words has a different meaning in different regions of the world. For instance, Americans use an extreme vocabulary. Ask someone how they are, and you could get anywhere from “amazingly wonderful” to  “complete disaster.”

    Canadians' range is narrower, from “pretty good” to “pretty bad.” British people have an even narrower range of emotions, one that the French and the Italians seem to emulate “not bad,” on the positive end of the spectrum, and “not good,” on the negative side. Manage your enthusiasm accordingly.