The Art of Persuasion

Most of the work I do with executive leaders and teams could be summed up in a single word: communication. How to get it right, and what to do when things occasionally go wrong. Whether you are selling a product, pitching an investor or negotiating a peace agreement in the Middle East – the goal is always the same: how to clearly and effectively communicate your message to achieve a desired outcome.

People with good communication skills usually enjoy better interpersonal relationships, as well as working relationships. Good communication skills make you more visible, more valuable, more “promotable.” Every time you speak, it’s an opportunity to inform, influence, and who knows – maybe even inspire others. Here are some things to keep in mind before you open your mouth.

1. The onus is always on you
Remember when presenting ideas that the onus is on you to sell, not on them to buy. It is not the responsibility of the customer (or upper management, or your boss) to buy into anything you might have to say. You have to clearly demonstrate how they would benefit from your proposal or solution. In other words: what’s in it for them?

2. Know your audience, know your message
By understanding what is most important to your audience, you will know how best to present your idea to them. If you don’t know what that important thing is, there is no way you can realistically hope to connect with them. Remember, persuasion is NOT about manipulating people. It’s about creating an environment where two or more people can find common ground, and a way to enhance each other’s reputation.

unnamed3. Lead with logic, hook with emotion
Facts and figures can certainly help to establish your expertise and credibility, but you need more than that. Because human beings are not purely logical, we are also highly emotional creatures. We all want to believe we are being totally logical, but the critical issues are often decided by our emotional intellect. Good leaders and effective communicators understand that to win an audience, they must win hearts and minds.

4. Tell me a story
“I was an executive recruiter in the ’90s who used to place people in tech jobs, until one day, I discovered that the work I really enjoyed was coaching people in the midst of career transition.” That is my story (or one of them anyway). It’s how people relate to me, and it gives context to everything I do and say. Narrative is how we understand the world, and storytelling is one of the ways by which we do it. What is your story? And are you effectively telling it?

5. Keep it short
When starting this newsletter some years ago, I set myself a word limit of 900 words. I decided that it should take someone no more than five minutes to read, because that’s about all the time that any of us has. If you’re giving a speech, presentation or sales pitch, try to present no more than a few key ideas at a time. You’ll be lucky if people remember even one. This is especially true of email. Keep it short; 3 paragraphs or less. Only one topic per email.

6. Go to the barbeque
Years ago when I worked at Andersen Consulting, I remember complaining to my older brother about having to go to a company barbeque in the summertime. Why did I need to mingle with my co-workers on the weekend, when I saw them all week long in the office? “Trust me,” he said. “You need to go to the barbeque.” And he was right, of course. We need to let people in, give a little bit of ourselves. It’s what makes us likable. And people are much more apt to listen to people they like.

7. Avoid negative tone and comments
You want to avoid negative tone in anything you do or say publicly, particularly now in the digital age where nothing is ever deleted. Here’s what good leaders don’t do: they don’t blame others and they don’t complain. Ever. There is no experience so awful that you cannot glean at least one positive from it. The classy thing to do is to accentuate the positive, and quickly move on. If you cannot find anything positive to say about (person or place), then say nothing at all.

8. Learn to listen
Good communication is as much about listening as it is about talking. In order to know what the other person cares most about, you must learn to listen very carefully (back to point 1). By showing patience – and above all empathy – for what someone has to say, you greatly increase the odds of a good connection happening. People who can put themselves in the place of other another, will always have an advantage when it comes to effective communication.

9. Smile and say thank you
Even if you don’t get the result you want from any encounter, it is vitally important to act as if you did. You still need to smile and say thank you. Remember, nobody owes you anything. Our deepest desire is to feel appreciated, not taken for granted. So make sure that people take this from every encounter they have with you.

Your success in life, and in business, is closely tied to your ability to effectively present your point of view. Remember, great communicators are not born, they are just practiced and well prepared. You can be too.

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