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.Focus on Issues Pertinent to Those You Want to Persuade
How will they benefit from your desired outcome? What issues could make it difficult for them to honor your request? What objections might they have and how can you counter these objections?

Consider, also, what these people emphasize when they seek to persuade. If, for example, they stress facts and figures, strive to do the same. If they focus on how people—or productivity, deadlines, etc.—will be affected, orient your key points accordingly. The more your own case meshes with what matters to these people, the better your chances of winning them over.

Persuade Professionally
Compelling though your case may be, sputtering and stammering will weaken its impact. Too many "ums" and "uhs" won't help either, nor will staring at the ceiling in hopes of sudden inspiration once you're on the spot. If you'll be making your case in spoken form, practice it as if you're giving a presentation—which you are (see my article, Strengthening Your Speaking Savvy). If it'll be in written form, make it articulate. A typo-laden email message may be fine for trivial communications, but if you want to be persuasive about important matters, a polished, professional-looking write-up will carry more weight.

Pay Attention to Timing
Teammates who slave over buggy code all weekend may be too bleary-eyed on Monday to care what you want. Your manager may not be sympathetic to your ideas after going a few rounds with a demanding, scope-expanding customer. Some people can't focus before their first (or fifth) cup of coffee. So don't just pop into the other party's office or cubicle when the mood strikes you and assume you'll get undivided (or even fractional) attention.

I recall a fellow named Hank who was so eager to present his Great Idea to his boss, Chuck, that he confronted Chuck at 8 a.m. on Chuck's first day back from vacation. Not only did Chuck have emails overflowing his inboxes, but his own manager had graciously welcomed him back with a crisis. Did Chuck pay attention to Hank's idea? Not a chance.

Don't Expect an Instantaneous Yes
It might not be a stretch to persuade a coworker to change today's lunch date to tomorrow. But making a pitch for something big, such as the adoption of agile methods, is unlikely to get an immediate "Sure, why not?" (Wouldn't that be wonderful?) Getting buy-in for something that entails a major change usually takes patience and quiet persistence. Let the idea seep in. Show how other organizations or teams have benefited. Find credible allies who can add clout to your case. Suggest ways to start small and with minimal risk. Give it time. Building your case slowly and steadily will improve your odds of success.

If the Answer Is No, Learn from the Rejection
If you get turned down, accept the decision gracefully. Arguing and "yes, but"—ing will simply peg you as a nuisance, making it even harder to succeed next time around. Instead, request an explanation and then do your own personal retrospective. Ask yourself: Do I still think my proposal was realistic and reasonable? Did I package my idea appropriately? What should I do differently next time around?

Savor the Unexpected "Go for It"
Back when I was an IT manager, there was some expensive hardware my staff and I yearned for that the director would need to fund. To get his go-ahead, we prepared a compellingly persuasive presentation and demo. At the appointed time, the director showed up, took one look at the product, and said, "Buy it!" We did. No complaints

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