How to Be Persuasive


Successfully persuading others to adopt your point of view is a matter of neither magic nor luck. It's a skill and like any skill, improvement takes know—how, opportunity, and practice. In this column, Naomi Karten offers pointers to help you strengthen your persuasion skills.

When I ask audience members who of them would like to be more persuasive, hands shoot up. Yet, many people approach persuasion in a way that undermines their chance of success; in the process, they succeed only at being unpersuasive.

I recall, for example, the project manager whose hotheadedness led customers to discount even her most astute ideas. And the developer who pooh-poohed everyone else's needs, yet wanted them to rally around his own. And the IT director who was such a relentless talkaholic that people took circuitous routes around the floor to avoid him.

Make no mistake: The starting point in being persuasive is to build trust and credibility so that when you seek to persuade, people will give you a fair hearing. You can then draw from the following suggestions to successfully prepare and present your case.

Choose Your Cases Wisely
If you repeatedly try to gain buy-in for things that are exceedingly unlikely, blatantly unrealistic, or technically impossible, you risk creating a cry-wolf reaction in those you're trying to persuade. Once that happens, they won't take you seriously when you have a legitimate matter to put forward.

Still, sometimes it's worth a shot. One project manager, Cliff, summoned the courage to ask his boss for a three-month leave to pursue some personal goals. Cliff was so sure the answer would be "Are you out of your mind?" that he almost didn't hear his boss say, "OK, let's find a way to make this happen."

Be Specific about Your Desired Outcome
If, for example, you'd like more (of whatever), be precise. Two additional testers or twelve? Five new laptops or fifteen? An extra week or two months? And explain why. Most people want to know the "why" behind the "what."

To support your proposal, gather as much relevant data as you can. This will show you've given the matter serious thought and are not just acting on a whim. The fact that you've done your homework gives you a distinct advantage over those who demand, plead, or whine in hopes of being persuasive.

Do for Others before Asking Them to Do for You
According to the reciprocity principle, people feel obligated to give back when a favor—even an unrequested favor—has been done for them. In my favorite book on persuasion, Influence, author Robert Cialdini points out that even people we don't like have an improved chance of getting us to do what they want merely by doing us a small favor beforehand. According to Cialdini, the result is often a positive response to a request "that, except for an existing feeling of indebtedness, would have surely been refused."

This principle has chilling implications when applied for nefarious purposes. But what could be better than providing genuine value to others as a consistent practice? Then, when you seek their support for something that's important to you, they may be more inclined to give it.

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