Persuade Be Convincing
Link & Learn
- Persuade with Purpose
- Tailor Your Approach to Your Audience
- Choose a Strategy
- Deliver Bad News Well
- Inspire Others
Smartphones are everywhere. Sales of the devices topped 1.43 billion units in 2021, yielding $448 billion in revenues (Statista).
Most people credit visionary Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs with this world-changing invention. True, he was at the helm of Apple when the first iPhone launched in June 2007. What few people know is that he resisted the idea of iPhone for years and was never a fan of external, not-developed-by Apple apps, a market worth $85.1 billion in 2021.
Whom do we thank for the devices we all carry in our pockets? Thank Jobs’ senior executives and their persuasive skills. As Adam Grant writes in a 2021 Harvard Business Review article, “Almost every leader has studied the genius of Jobs, but surprisingly few have studied the genius of those who managed to influence him."
Persuasion is the art of convincing someone to see something as you do—in a way that makes them want to act.
In the professional world, persuasion is what advances ideas and gets work done. The notion that “great ideas sell themselves” is wishful thinking. Even iPhone-level ideas need persuasive expression.
As with any effective message, persuasive communication requires planning. Chapter 1 discussed the two fundamental components of a plan:
- Define your purpose: Is it to inform, recommend, persuade, deliver bad news, or build goodwill?
- Analyze your audience: What do you want them to know, feel, and do based on your message?
This chapter adds a step that’s especially relevant to persuasive messages:
- Craft your strategy: How will you influence your audience to act on your message?
You will learn strategies that persuade without manipulating or deceiving your audience. You'll also learn how to structure bad-news messages.
Section OnePersuade with Purpose
If the ultimate goal of persuasive communication is to motivate someone to act, use that ”call to action” (CTA) as your starting point.
Your CTA should make a direct request of your audience: “Click this link,” “Sign this petition,” “Call this number,” or even, “Respond to this email by Tuesday at 4:00 PM.” Keep your CTA clear and precise so your audience knows exactly how to fulfill the request.
Determining your CTA before you create your persuasive pitch is an example of beginning with the end in mind. First decide what your audience should know, feel, and do with the information you’re presenting and then build your message toward that end.
Try writing a simple, one-sentence CTA. The first two columns of Figure 8.1 provide examples of audiences and CTAs for common situations that require persuasion.
Complaining is not persuading.
If you have a complaint,
think of a specific
before you craft your pitch.
|Audience||What's The CTA? (Know, Feel, Do)||Problem to be Solved|
|Your manager||A 7.5% increase in base salary for Sarah, the top-performing member of your technical team, to put her at the median for programmers with her education and experience||Your manager needs effective and stable teams. If Sarah is not compensated fairly, the company may lose her and cripple the team during this high-visibility project.|
|A potential client||A contract to complete Phase 1 of your proposed social media analytics project at a cost of $88,000||The client needs to hire a respected analytics firm. She’d like to settle the contract quickly because she has got to solve a major supply chain issue.|
|A potential investor||$2 million in funding to create a fully functional prototype of your construction management software||The investor wants to increase his bottom line and be a good mentor. Last year, he backed a big project that failed because of poor market research. Now he needs an innovative product from a reliable team that knows their market very well.|
|Craig, an underperforming employee||Acceptance of termination of his employment with full understanding of the reasons and without any ill will, if possible||The employee is unhappy in his job, but he doesn’t want to lose it—or any self-respect. His colleagues are long-time friends, and his wife wants to move to Texas.|
Note how each of the CTA statements in Figure 8.1 is targeted to a specific audience—in fact, a specific person. The third column identifies a current problem for each audience. Knowing the context in which your audience is making decisions will help you craft appropriate solutions.
Presenting your idea as the solution to a problem can be highly effective. Solutions are much more persuasive than suggestions.
Of course, framing your CTA as a solution to your audience’s problem presupposes a clear and thorough understanding of your audience. We next examine how to tailor your persuasive strategy to your audience’s preferences.
Scale Your Request: Scaling down your CTA may make it more successful. If you try to sell your complete project at the outset, your audience is more likely to say no. Narrow your purpose to focus on the next immediate step.
Section TwoTailor Your Approach to Your Audience
More than 2,300 years ago, Greek philosopher Aristotle articulated three rhetorical strategies that remain useful for audience analysis. This section first provides a quick review of the three strategies; it then shows how to use them to customize your persuasive strategy to the needs of your audience.
To convince someone of something, Aristotle argued, you need to use a combination of three approaches: pathos, ethos, and logos.
Pathos influences through sentiment and emotion. Research in behavioral economics shows that although we all think we make rational decisions, we often use instinct and emotion instead of data when evaluating alternatives. Look for ways to make your audience feel something about even the most data-intensive proposal—perhaps by making them feel good about being data-driven!
As Aristotle defined it, pathos is sentiment of any sort, although feelings that produce sympathetic emotional reactions are most useful. Children International, a prominent charity, uses the tagline, “For the cost of one cup of coffee per day.” This is classic pathos: the emotion being triggered is guilt. The tagline invites us to give up a small personal indulgence in order to make the world a better place.
Pathos can also invoke future happiness. Medical practices often rely on pathos because health issues can be scary. For example, hospital ads that show contented parents staring lovingly at their new baby are using pathos; the hospital is trying to persuade parents that they’ll feel that same happiness if they use the hospital’s maternity services.
A word of caution: Persuasion is not the same as emotional manipulation. Persuasion brings positive outcomes for the audience. In contrast, manipulation uses emotion to control or take advantage of the audience. If the CTA will benefit your audience, you are on the ethical side of persuasion. If you are deceiving the audience and there’s really no benefit to them, you are on the unethical side.
Let’s return to Figure 8.1 and our example of seeking a raise for top-performing Sarah:
“Sarah is the kind of employee who goes the extra mile but never seeks the spotlight. A salary increase would be perfect for her: measurable, yet private.” (Emotions invoked: admiration and empathy)
“Losing Sarah would jeopardize our ability to meet our deadline—and this is a high-visibility project.” (Emotion invoked: fear)
Look for ways to make your audience
about your proposal
Ethos persuades with trustworthy information. Using (and citing) credible sources strengthens both the message and your credibility as a messenger. To establish ethos, state your own or cite others’ credentials, like this: “Research by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and the Gallup organization has shown that salary is a significant factor in employees’ decisions to quit.”
If you gather data from solid sources, your audience will more likely trust your conclusions. A little bit of research goes a long way toward establishing your ethos. And again, your intent as a communicator is important. When you try to deceive or manipulate, you run the risk of undermining your own ethos. Being a trustworthy person matters more than citing trusted experts.
Logos influences through logic, reasoning, and evidence. The first step to applying logos is to avoid misapplying it. Read carefully this list of common logical fallacies: Information is Beautiful | Rhetological Fallacies. Ask yourself, “Which ones am I guilty of using?”
These fallacies appear everywhere: in the business press, in the speeches of world leaders, in conversations in the lunchroom. Unless you inoculate your own messages from such faulty thinking, you risk losing credibility with well-educated audiences.
Choose at least three fallacies from the Rhetological Fallacies infographic and illustrate them with examples you’ve seen in public media.
The sequence of your argument is an important aspect of logos. This is called internal logic. Are you able to skillfully compose a series of causes and effects, antecedents and consequences, or pieces of accumulating evidence to build to your conclusion? Or do your arguments zig and zag randomly through a jumble of ideas?
Put the following ideas in a sequence that creates a well-constructed argument:
- Sarah has consistently outperformed others on the team.
- We need to offer Sarah a salary increase to bring her salary up to the median market rate.
- I can’t risk losing a key member of my team at this stage of the project.
- Sarah never asks for special recognition or attention.
- Salaries for programmers in our area have increased 9.7% in the past year.
- Sarah’s best friend just took a job with Qualcomm (our biggest competitor).
- Sarah brings to the team a depth of technical knowledge that no one else offers.
Almost every logical argument relies on facts and figures for support. Research and documentation bolster your credibility and make you more persuasive. Support your proposals with facts, statistics, and data. Never assume, guess, or invoke anonymous authority. Prove.
Still confused about the differences between logos, ethos and pathos? Check out this video for another explanation.
Aristotle Meets Audience Analysis
Now apply pathos, ethos, and logos to the task of analyzing your audience. The overarching question is, “What type of approach will best reach my audience?”
Is your boss most likely to . . .
Defer to the opinions of experts and trusted figures? If so, invoke an authority (ethos):
“Our CEO has said that paying salaries at or above market averages enhances our brand as an employer of choice.”
Know and quote a lot of facts and statistics? Emphasize data and logical reasoning (logos):
“Recent surveys show that employees whose salaries are below the market average are 10 times more likely to quit.”
Take action when experiencing emotions such as affection, loyalty, or guilt? Make sure to include an emotional appeal (pathos):
“Everyone likes to feel appreciated. It’s one of the top motivators. I know Sarah has been feeling underappreciated lately.”
Section ThreeChoose a Strategy
Current Persuasion Research
The ancient Greeks do not have the last word on persuasion. Social psychology research reveals a variety of techniques specific to our culture and time. Robert Cialdini, Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University, is famous for his work on persuasion and influence. He posits that people are persuaded when messages connect with their motivations and when they do not feel manipulated.
Supported by decades of careful psychological experiments, Cialdini’s conclusions are summarized in these seven keys to persuasion.
People will be more inclined to do something if they pre-commit to do it. In a 1987 experiment by social scientist Anthony Greenwald, potential voters were contacted and pre-committed to vote the following day at the election. Of that pool, 86.7% did vote, whereas only 61.5% of the general population (not contacted or pre-committed) turned out. Something as simple as getting your audience to commit to attending a meeting can predispose your audience to accept your call to action.
“I’m glad you see the need to do something for Sarah. Are you okay if we schedule a time to meet with the compensation team this Friday?”
Any powerful tool can have a downside, however. In your own decision making, guard against what’s called “escalation of commitment” or commitment bias. This fallacy is manifested by continued investment of time, energy, and money in failing projects (i.e., throwing good money after bad).
Think of this as quid pro quo: you give something to get something. Seasoned consultant Ernie Nielson calls this “the favor bank.” Human beings tend to keep a mental ledger of who owes them what. If you deposit favors into the bank, you’re more likely to be able to withdraw the cooperation you need.
“Our team has never turned down additional projects. We do whatever it takes to get the last-minute work done—and Sarah has been our most dependable programmer when we’re facing an all-nighter.”
The potential downside here is obligatory reciprocity: the attempt to make someone feel guilty if they don’t reciprocate. Remember, what distinguishes persuasion from manipulation is that the audience benefits from the call to action.
- Social Proof
Everyone wants to fit in. As a consequence, people will generally do what they perceive their peers to be doing. In a famous experiment, Cialdini and his research team tried different techniques to convince hotel guests to reuse their towels. Of all the strategies, telling a hotel guest that most guests in the same hotel reuse their towels was the most successful. Give people social proof of your suggestion.
“I hear from a lot of my friends at other companies that they are locking in their top performers with special compensation and benefits packages.”
Caveat: Beware the lemming effect (i.e., following the crowd just to follow the crowd). Social proof, when not harnessed to an audience-enhancing end, is mere peer pressure.
This is closely aligned with Aristotle’s ethos concept. A person whose authority your audience trusts becomes the most persuasive advocate for a course of action. Celebrity, medical, and academic endorsements use this technique.
“HR guru Laszlo Bock is a huge proponent of rewarding top talent”
On the flipside, avoid appeals to anonymous authority: “Experts say” or “research proves” are fake attempts to sound authoritative.
Similar to social proof and authority, liking relies on the relationship between the audience and the influencer. Some charities leverage this tactic at a neighborhood level: They find a sympathetic donor, then ask that person to send personalized donation requests to her closest friends and neighbors. The result? A 56% response rate, compared to about 30% from impersonal requests.
Note: The liking strategy does not lend itself to quick, in-the-moment application in the case of securing a raise for Sarah. The principle would be to build a relationship with your boss: go to lunch together, offer sincere compliments regularly, and get to know him or her. Then when you ask for the raise, your boss will be influenced by the positive feelings he or she has toward you.
The caution with this strategy is that we are wired to like people who are like us. This tendency, which social scientists call “homophily,” can easily (even unintentionally) turn into discrimination or xenophobia.
When Liking Becomes Mirroring
Did you know that we subtly alter our communication style to match the style of the person we’re communicating with? Researchers label this “communication accommodation theory.” We change our rate of speech, adjust our eye contact, and gesture differently based on our partner’s verbal and non-verbal behaviors.
The most common accommodation is to “converge.” For example, if your manager uses formal terminology and avoids slang, you’ll start to do the same thing when speaking to her. Convergent communication reduces the social distance between people and thus facilitates liking.
On the other hand, we sometimes deliberately avoid matching the other person’s communication style. Suppose a teammate is using an impatient or irritated tone, facial expressions, and gestures to describe a frustrating problem. You might choose an exaggeratedly calm, reasonable communication style in hopes of defusing the situation. Your strategy might work, but it probably won’t endear you to your teammate.
To skillfully accommodate others’ communication styles requires paying close attention to their verbal and non-verbal cues. Effective communicators purposefully use convergent or divergent communication styles with co-workers, depending on the demands of the situation.
Marketers use this one all the time: Last chance! Only two seats left! Click now to receive your order by tomorrow! In fact, scarcity is one of the most heavily researched and best documented persuasive tactics in applied psychology. If a genuine element of scarcity is part of your pitch, pointing it out to your audience will bolster your call to action.
“I’ve hired a lot of programmers over the years. I know what a gem Sarah is. Talent like hers comes along once in every 50 hires or so. We definitely want to keep her happy.”
Be careful, however. If the scarcity is exaggerated or contrived, the audience will react with derision and you’ll lose their trust.
The psychology of scarcity is closely related to FOMO (fear of missing out). This anxiety is (usually) an irrational fear that convinces our subconscious that we don’t have enough or that we aren’t enough. Persuasive pitches based on FOMO are destructive. Avoid them.
Unity is about making salient an identity that you share with your audience. The more you can create the feeling that you’re family—or at least, that you’re “all in this together”—the more traction you’ll get with your call to action.
Dr. Cialdini describes the unity principle in his 2016 book, Pre-suasion. To make unifying connections with your audience, you may need to “prime” them to think of themselves and you in common terms.
A war story illustrates the power of priming. During World War II, a group of Asian Jews sought refuge in territory controlled by the Japanese. Japan at the time was allied with Nazi Germany, whose leaders demanded that these Jewish refugees be exterminated. When asked by the Japanese leader, “Why do the Nazis hate you?” their rabbi replied, “Because we are Asian, just like you.” The rabbi’s response saved his people’s lives by establishing common ground with their captors.
“Sarah has a master’s degree in computer science, just like you. Her approach to solving problems reminds me of yours. And like you, she’s probably not being adequately rewarded for the contributions she’s making to the company.”
Dr. Cialdini’s seven influence tactics are proven winners when used ethically. Use them wisely in your persuasive communication. You’ll dramatically increase your odds of success. Knowing them also makes you a better-informed consumer of the sophisticated attempts at persuasion that constantly bombard you.
Section FourDeliver Bad News Well
Conveying bad news is a delicate persuasive task. The trick is to deliver the news clearly and honestly while maintaining your audience’s good will. A skilled communicator gives bad news in a way that persuades the audience to accept it without becoming overly defensive—not an easy feat.
MISTAKES VS. DECISIONS
Some bad news results from an organization’s mistake: an oil spill, flight cancellations, a product recall, and so on. These bad-news announcements usually require an apology and plans for restitution. Even when the event is beyond the organization’s control, the organization still may feel responsible to make amends.
Other bad news results from decisions that are for the long-term good of the organization but negatively affect some stakeholders: a plant is being closed, a product discontinued, or a group of employees laid off. Even when the business logic is sound, such bad-news decisions that create "winners and losers" trigger strong emotional reactions.
In such cases, leaders shouldn’t apologize for the bad news, but they still must communicate empathy for those affected. Passive voice is sometimes appropriate: “the decision was made,” “the plant will be closed,” etc.
In either scenario, the worst communication is no communication. As Harvard professor Amy Edmondson writes in a March 2020 article, "Speaking up early and truthfully is a vital strategy in a fast-moving crisis. . . . Taking the reputational hit today from the release of bad news is likely to earn — for leaders, organizations, and nations alike — dividends in the form of future reputational gain."
While delivering bad news is never pleasant, doing so is an essential professional skill. You must be able to say no, cut budgets, fire people, and deny requests. But you can learn to do these things calmly, with integrity and compassion. By using both head and heart approaches to support your message, you can dampen its negative impact.
Bond, Bridge, Bad News, Build
When planning a bad news delivery—and you must plan it, not just wing it— try using 4B’s as your basic structure: Bond, Bridge, Bad News, Build.
Thank you for asking me to write your letter of recommendation. I’m flattered that you value my opinion. (Bond) Because you and I have worked together for a long time, you deserve an explanation for my decision. (Bridge)
You’re a great colleague and a good friend. When we both worked in OEM, you were the most ambitious member of the team. In the last couple of years, however, you stopped volunteering for projects and started arriving late most days. In fact, I’m guessing you need this letter of recommendation because you’re searching for other jobs, which shows how much your dedication has lagged. I don’t feel good about writing you a letter of recommendation right now. (Bad News)
If your energy and engagement with the team increase for a few months, I’d be happy to write the letter you need. At your best, you’re an asset to any company! Let’s set up a time to chat in person. You can share the full story of how you’re feeling about your job and the company. I promise to help in any way that I can. (Build)
All the best,
Notice that the second paragraph in the letter is indirect—it begins with the reasons and then states the conclusion. This approach is opposite of most professional writing, where directness is prized. The choice of an indirect sequence is a judgment call. If you think your audience is predisposed to reject your message, you might try an indirect approach, stating your reasons before you state your conclusion.
Delivering bad news is not easy for anybody involved, but doing so honestly, kindly, and clearly will make the task less onerous.
Rewrite the sample email above using a direct sequence. Then put yourself in Casey’s shoes. Which email would you prefer to receive?
Section FiveInspire Others
The ability to persuade is closely linked to a crucial leadership skill: the ability to motivate and inspire. Yet motivational communication is a topic that makes many people cringe. They picture the slick motivational speaker, oozing with counterfeit charisma, or a televangelist, manipulating emotions for self-gain. (See Michael Scott from The Office attempting to inspire college students with a misguided object lesson.)
Research by leadership experts Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman shows that inspiring and motivating others requires powerful communication. Zenger and Folkman’s book, The Inspiring Leader, suggests the following six best practices.
How Inspiring Leaders Communicate
|Communicate Often||Inspiring leaders are prolific communicators. They are in touch with their people, listening to them, sharing ideas, providing encouragement, and reminding them of the bigger picture.|
|Be Positive||Pessimists and critics are rarely inspiring. Research by University of Michigan professor Kim Cameron on leadership teams (Positive Leadership) finds that in the highest-performing teams, the ratio of positive to negative comments is 5:1. In medium-performing teams, the ratio is 2:1. And in low-performing teams, the ratio is 1:3 in favor of the negative. Follow the 5:1 rule and keep it positive.|
|Ask Questions||Stereotypes suggest that inspiring leaders give lofty speeches and articulate grand visions. Turns out they actually ask a lot of questions, which inspire because they indicate openness and encourage a two-way dialogue. Social scientists Marcial Losada and Emily Heaphy find that in high-performing organizations, leaders ask a question for each instruction they give; in low-performing organizations, the ratio is closer to 20 instructions for each question.|
|Celebrate!||Shine the spotlight on others rather than on yourself. Being generous with praise and giving credit to often-anonymous co-workers are powerful ways to inspire and motivate others.|
|Tell Stories||Inspiring leaders tell stories that draw the audience in. Because stories are concrete and real, they are more memorable than lists of facts or well-honed logical arguments. Stories often evoke emotions; they’re funny, sad, embarrassing, shocking, admirable, etc. Stories provide a sense of completion because they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. To be more inspiring, keep a fresh stock of anecdotes that you can deploy in your formal and informal communications.|
|Show Passion||To inspire means “to exert an animating, enlivening, or exalting influence on” (merriam-webster.com). Your passion as a communicator has a direct effect on how animated and enlivened your audience feels. Remember that communicating with passion doesn’t require high-energy histrionics. Quiet authenticity and consistent commitment are proven ways to convey personal conviction for what you’re communicating.|
Persuasion is not manipulation—the dark art of carefully choosing which facts to show and hide to mislead your audience. You don’t want to fool or force people into doing something that they wouldn’t choose if they knew more facts.
Persuasion is showing all the facts, but in a way that helps people see things as you do . . . and say yes to your proposal.
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Bold citations are referenced in the chapter text.
Edmondson, Amy C. "Don’t Hide Bad News in Times of Crisis." Harvard Business Review, March 6, 2020. March 6, 2020. Accessed August 2022.
Grant, Adam. “Persuading the Unpersuadable.” Harvard Business Review, March-April 2021. Accessed July 2022.
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Cameron, Kim. Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance. 2nd Edition (2012). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.
Cialdini, Robert. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Revised edition. New York, NY: Harper Business, 2006.
Cialdini, Robert B. Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade. Simon and Schuster, 2016.
Edmondson, Amy C. The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley, 2018.
Giles, H. Communication accommodation theory: Negotiating personal and social identities across contexts. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
Zenger, John, Joseph Folkman, and Scott Edinger. The Inspiring Leader: Unlocking the Secrets of How Extraordinary Leaders Motivate. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009.
McCandless, David. “Rhetological Fallacies: Errors and Manipulation of Rhetoric and Logical Thinking.” Information is Beautiful. Accessed February 2017.
Kristina Ulmer, “The Three Persuasive Appeals: Logos, Ethos, and Pathos.” Youtube, published October 20, 2016. Accessed April 2020.
Scott Fain, “Bullet to Head - Moneyball.” Youtube, published September 14, 2012. Accessed October 2017.