Storytelling Stumbling Blocks: Why Saying Too Much Complicates the Persuasion Equation

In previous posts, I introduced what I like to call “situational persuasion success stories.” These are pre-created retellings of how you previously helped improve someone’s condition in given situations. This elevated skill set can yield tremendous results in your persuasion efforts.

Just as dynamic situational persuasion success stories require certain elements to work, they also need to steer away from these four stumbling blocks:

1. Too much attention to detail.

What’s wrong with this story intro?

“Wait until you hear what happened to one of my colleagues, Jason! It was last Thursday — er, no, Wednesday. No, OK, it was Thursday. He called me around 10:30 in the morning; no, it was really closer to 11, and … .”

You’ve lost your listener at “er.” It doesn’t matter what day of the week it was or what time of day. If it’s not absolutely crucial to the story, no one really cares. Make your point, and keep moving.

2. Too disjointed.

Try following this story:

“I had one client recently who wanted to go ahead with a particular project. Well, it was a problem at first, because he didn’t think his company could afford it. But now he’s glad he partnered with us for the project. See, the company was just a small start-up eight years ago, and then they ultimately went with our best offer … .”

If, in your situational persuasion success story, you flit from you convincing the client, to the client having a problem, to that company enjoying the results of your efforts, to how you helped solve the problem, your story won’t go anywhere. Consider first introducing the character (a client), then the dilemma, then how you helped solve that dilemma, and finally, how the client is now living happily ever after.

3. Too long.

If you’re talking for more than 15 or 20 seconds at one time, stop. It’s as simple as that. 

4. Lacks authenticity. 

Make sure your situational persuasion success story doesn’t appear corporately vetted or brand-controlled. Today’s consumers are very cognizant of ideas being packaged. If people hear nothing but about how great you are, they will lend less credence to that information — and to you.

How are your situational persuasion success stories evolving?


Storytelling 202: Five More Ways to Persuade (Part II)

Storytelling has long been a foundation of the art of persuasion. Why? Because it is one of the oldest, most effective forms of human communication.

In a previous post, I introduced the concept of “situational persuasion success stories” — prepared retellings of how you previously helped improve somebody’s condition in given situations. Click here for a primer on those kind of stories.

Now, I’m going to present five key elements — along with examples — of all effective situational persuasion success stories:

1. The story should have a point.

Whether it’s how a colleague overcame professional limitations and rose to the executive level or how a client decided to take a risk despite the economy’s ambiguities, you tell situational persuasion success stories to fit a particular set of circumstances. That’s the point, and your stories should have one, too.

Example: A former colleague used to ask so many questions that we jokingly referred to him as “the reporter.” He took all the answers he received from people — his cubicle neighbors, co-workers in other departments, his boss, the custodian — and came up with new and more effective ways to do things. His co-workers initially thought he was just a pest, but they soon came to rely on him as their go-to guy whenever they had a problem at the office. His credibility soared. The lesson I took away from that? Sometimes it pays to ask questions.

2. The story should contain telling, vivid details.

Describe the type and time of day, maybe the main character’s fashion sense and one flattering physical trait. Recount the way in which that person considered an idea, and then relate a contrasting detail or complicating factor.

Example: She was the quintessential corporate executive: well-dressed, articulate, comporting herself as if about to call to order a board of directors meeting. And she was eyeing up a radical custom-painted, candy-apple-red Harley-Davidson Super Glide with one of the most sinister skull paint jobs I’ve ever seen.”

3. Beginnings are crucial.

Don’t open your situational persuasion success story with a cliché. Instead, develop creative ways of getting started. If your prospective buyer says this: We just don’t know what’s going to happen with our industry and the economy, you might begin your situational persuasion success story like this: That’s exactly what Steve Buyer said, not more than two months ago.

Bingo! Your target is listening — because he wants to know who Steve Buyer is and how he managed to overcome a similar situation.

4. The story should use a repeatable phrase, for emphasis.

Phrases like “You can’t save your way to success,” “Lead, follow or get out of the way,” and “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you don’t move” all work. In your next persuasion conversation, try working in just one of these phrases at the end. Chances are, your target will repeat it.

Example: A buddy of mine didn’t know the first thing about how to do his job — he even told me he wasn’t sure why he was hired. But the guy paid constant attention, asked lots of questions and immersed himself in his job, deciding to learn five new things about his job every single day. Now he’s CEO. He had to start somewhere, didn’t he? And so do you. 

[Wait for the echo.]

So do I.

5. The story should contain at least one unexpected element.

People love to be surprised. Think about the plot turns in books, movies and even songs. If you know exactly how things are going to turn out, why stay tuned in?

Let’s pick up the Steve Buyer story: That’s exactly what Steve Buyer said, not more than two months ago. His company was struggling, its stock value had sunk, key managers ditched the organization, and all rational indicators told him not to make any big decisions. Then, his firm experienced a product recall. That’s when Steve and his colleagues decided to invest in their business, instead of cutting back. We put together a performance initiative designed to keep revenue flat but increase margins. Morale improved, the company attracted some talented new people, and now, although not completely back to business as usual, it’s well on its way — all because Steve and his team turned left when his competitors would have turned right.

Next time you find yourself in a tough persuasion situation, consider turning left instead of right and try out a situational persuasion success story. Develop ones that will involve client acquisition, engagement and recovery, and you’ll have a story for just about every persuasion situation. Then practice, practice, practice.

In my next post, I’ll cover storytelling stumbling blocks and how to avoid them.

Storytelling 101: Five Ways to Persuade (Part I)

Storytelling is one of the oldest, most effective forms of human communication. Long before Twitter, Facebook and even the printing press, humans informed and instructed others via stories for thousands of years.

Why has storytelling as a communication art form stood the test of time? Because it’s compelling. Just try listening to only half of Jim Croce’s “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” or Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle.” It’s almost impossible. Even if you’ve heard those songs before, you still want to know how the story ends.

Stories also can be instrumental in helping you convince others — a colleague, a potential customer, maybe even a complete stranger in an elevator. I call them “situational persuasion success stories.” These are pre-created retellings of how you previously helped improve someone’s condition in given situations. This elevated skill-set can yield tremendous results in your persuasion efforts and will accomplish five things. You will:

1. Create a nonthreatening way to share information.

In many persuasion situations, your target can be on hyper-alert, wanting to avoid feeling uninformed or ambushed. And if the conversation is focused on him or her, personal defenses are often heightened. But if you attempt to make your point with a story that does not involve the individual to whom you are speaking, it’s much easier for that person to relax and focus on the discussion.

2. Allow your targets to insert themselves into the role of your situational success story’s main character.

The best situational persuasion success stories are ones in which the main character is someone other than you or the other person. Inserting yourself into the lead role could send the wrong message — suggesting that you are self-centered and your story is contrived. So don’t be the hero in every story; make the main character someone else, such as a friend or colleague.

3. Make the discussion an effective one.

Everyone enjoys a good story now and then, and situational persuasion success stories contain three subtle yet distinct objectives: to inform, to educate and to persuade. When you inform someone, you make that person aware; when you educate, you bring about understanding; and when you persuade, you enable the other person to embrace a particular point of view. Yours.

4. Provide a “social proof” component.

As one of my professional heroes, Robert Cialdini, Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University, claims, “We follow the lead of similar others.” When we hear that “all the kids are doing it,” that has a profound impact on us. Using situational persuasion success stories leverages this idea of social proof, or informational social influence, and makes what you’re talking about even more convincing.

5. Break through the surrounding informational noise.

In his book, Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut, author David Shenk states that the average American in 1971 encountered 560 daily advertising messages. By 1997 (the year Data Smog was published), that number had swelled to more than 3,000 per day. And the Newspaper Association of America proclaims that now the average American is exposed to more than 3,000 advertising messages before breakfast. There’s a lot of noise out there; to cut through it and convince someone to listen to you, you must have a compelling story to tell.

Sharing stories is a critical component of the Persuasion Equation, which is why next time, I’ll share elements and examples of compelling situational persuasion success stories.

Do You Know the Difference Between ‘Persuasion’ vs. ‘Influence’?

Last year, I wrote a book about persuasion, in which I stressed that we all use principles of persuasion daily in our personal and professional lives. But what, exactly, does “persuasion” mean?

It’s a question I bet most of you haven’t spent a lot of time asking yourselves. “Persuasion” is ethically winning the heart and mind of your target. Whether you want someone to buy your product, agree to your new idea or take you up on your offer — if you are seeking a “yes,” you are engaged in persuasion.

“Influence,” on the other hand, can be defined as the capacity to become a compelling force that produces effects on the opinions, actions and behavior of others. Think of influence as your professional and personal credibility, your organizational political capital, your corporate “sway.” If persuasion is an action, influence is a state or condition.

Persuasion is not psychological manipulation, nor does it involve using bribes or trickery to get what you want. You should always be operating with the best interests of your target in mind.

Could you use persuasive tactics in a manipulative and self-serving manner? Sure. Will you reach agreement? Absolutely.

But only once.

After that, your persuasive powers are dead. Manipulation does not help build long and lucrative careers.

(Photo by Gratisography)

What Are You Drinking? How Senses Affect Persuasion


Did you know that the type of beverage you drink, the surface of the chair on which you sit and the color of your clothing all play a role in getting to “yes” (or “no”) faster?

Thalma Lobel, a Ph.D. and director of the child development center at Tel Aviv University, claims that decisions, judgments and values are derived as much from outside factors as they are from our brains.

In her 2014 book, Sensation: The New Science of Physical Intelligence, Lobel provides scientific evidence of how targets respond to common situations that, on the surface, appear insignificant. Here are some of her key observations:

  • People drinking warm beverages such as coffee or tea are judged by their targets to be more generous, caring and good-natured than those enjoying cold beverages such as soda or iced coffee. The concept of “warm” and “cold” extends beyond the drink and transfers to the individual drinking it. While what you say is important, so is what you drink.
  • That “warm/cold” mentality is at play in other facets of our lives, too. Take the chair you opt to sit in while making your pitch. Studies suggest harder chairs make people tougher negotiators, while softer chairs reduce their aggressiveness. Hmmm. Maybe you should add a soft and comfy chair to your office for guests…
  • Researchers found that men consider women who wear a red blouse (opposed to a blue, green or gray blouse) consistently sexier and more attractive. That kind of social proof can easily transfer to persuasion situations. Red represents strength, power and energy, regardless of gender. Wear it when you need to hear “yes.”


Building Epic Credibility: Be as Honest as Abe and as Brilliant as Einstein

Why is credibility so important in today’s workplace? Well, consider what having credibility enables you to do:

  • Persuade people more easily
  • Influence more people
  • Reduce conflict
  • Complete projects successfully
  • Improve your team’s reputation

Easy to lose and tough to build, credibility ranks as one of the primary characteristics of a successful project manager and leader. A basic determination of credibility can be found in the way you honestly answer this question:

Do people believe what you say?

Here is a systematic approach to determining your own professional credibility:

1. If you and your abilities are unknown, and you therefore have low credibility, spend time building relationships.

That’s what nearly every startup company has done. Find a niche and develop a smart customer base. New employees in new industries must do the same thing. Discover what customers value, their personality traits and how they process information. Cater your strategies, conversations and behavior to them, and back up your insights and recommendations with third-party data such as articles, books and outside experts.

2. Despite being well known among your customers, perhaps a recent incident has resulted in your low credibility.

Rebuild the relationship. Start small and make that phone call. Demonstrate your abilities, keep your promises and communicate. Communication is at the core of leadership credibility. One of the highest-profile examples of this happened five years ago, when the on-demand streaming and DVD-by-mail service Netflix relaunched the DVD side of the business as Qwikster. This news came after customers overwhelmingly criticized a recent price increase. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings took to Netflix’s blog. “I messed up,” he wrote. “I owe everyone an explanation.” Less than a month later, he blogged again, announcing the quick end of Qwikster. Today, Netflix has more than 81 million members in over 190 countries enjoying 125 million hours of TV shows and movies every day.

3. You and your abilities might be unknown, but you still pack high credibility — either because of significant word of mouth or your connection to a popular brand.

If Best Buy were to name a new CEO, for example, that individual might (or might not) have name recognition, but he or she would still need prove himself or herself in the new position — despite being affiliated with one of the highest-profile retailers in the country. In your case, you may have built a reputation of being knowledgeable and dependable even by customers who don’t know you! While this is unquestionably a desirable situation, don’t consider it a free pass to great customer relationships.

4. If customers know you and your abilities, and you therefore have high credibility, congratulations.

This is what everyone should strive to attain, because it means that a customer or coworker has dealt with you before and realized positive results. It means that people trust your input and your performance so much that they ask for and heed your advice wholeheartedly. Steve Jobs had that kind of pull. He created a demographic of computer consumers that wait in line for an entire day to purchase a product they have never touched or even seen up close, simply because it has the Apple logo on it. But beware: Customer and colleague relationships are precious and should never be taken advantage of by abusing credibility to sell unnecessary, unwanted or low-quality items. Remember Apple’s short-lived MobileMe subscription service? That was a disaster, and Jobs had the credibility behind him to admit it.

Why Expertise and Credibility Go Together Like Chocolate and Peanut Butter

Let’s hear it for — the only online dictionary to define “expertise” the same way I do. The site states that the term describes the “basis of credibility of a person who is perceived to be knowledgeable in an area or topic due to his or her study, training or experience in the subject matter.”

The emphasis on “credibility” is mine. Why? Because credibility equates to expertise almost every time.

Consider that having credibility enables you to do each of the following:

Persuade people more easily, showing them new ways of thinking and allowing your expertise to help buyers make up their minds between buying now and waiting until next year.

Influence more people both directly and indirectly, generating a naturally positive effect and demonstrating your expertise when you’re, say, explaining key details to first-time buyers.

Reduce conflict, allowing your track record to speak for itself and proving you’re a top-notch professional. Which means that when it comes to waxing wise (and perhaps even philosophical) about hot industry issues, your expertise allows your voice to inform, educate and prevail.

Expertise levels in any business — including yours — can fall into multiple categories, leaving room for certain employees to step up and fill observed voids.

One of those employees should be you.

(Photo by DodgertonSkillhause)

Bad Language: How to Diminish Your Persuasive Powers

Some language and phrases used in today’s persuasion conversations should be abolished, no matter what.

Here are three examples:

  1. “At the end of the day … ”

    At the end of the day … what? You come home from work, you do stuff and you eventually go to bed. This phrase makes no sense and serves no purpose in your persuasion arsenal. Avoid. Always.

  2. “I’m just sayin’… ”

    I’m unclear as to when or where this phrase came into vogue, but its usage seems to have increased in recent years — usually as the universal get-out-of-bad-behavior line. People think they can make rude or inappropriate comments as long as they preface or conclude them with, “I’m just sayin’… .” Here’s what not to say in persuasion situations: “I’m just sayin’ that your idea doesn’t exactly solve the problem.” Or this: “Your team is incompetent and plain wrong; I’m just sayin’.”

  3. “LOL,” “JK,” “IMHO,” “LMAO,” “TTFN” and “TTYS”

    Others might not appreciate or even understand such abbreviated phrases. (I had to Google “TTYS,” which means “talk to you soon”). Text-speak is unprofessional and should not be used in written business correspondence, let alone in face-to-face interactions. I read about a mother who was texting her teenage daughter’s friend, whose own mother had recently passed away. In an attempt to comfort her, she signed off on one message with “LOL,” thinking it meant “lots of love.” She was horrified when she found out it actually means “laughing out loud”! Along similar lines, I once found myself explaining “LMAO” to my mother.

If you find yourself employing any of the above, make a mental note and find different ways to express yourself.

Language is like anything else: It requires practice. I try to verbally convey my point on three different levels. One uses simple language (“happy”), another involves slightly more elaborate language (“elated”), and the third encourages the use of multiple syllables and/or the creative side of my brain (“exuberant”). Or how about “help,” “comfort,” and “assuage.”

Work on establishing these three levels of language based on what is appropriate for a particular target. It’s fun, isn’t it? Or amusing. Or even enthralling.

How Telling Stories Can Help Convince Customers

I love to tell stories. Why? Because stories are the key to persuading others.

In a selling environment, I call them “situational sales success stories.” Or S3 stories, for short. These are pre-created retellings of how you helped buyers or colleagues improve their condition in given situations. Here’s an example:

“What you’re saying is exactly what Steve Buyer said, not more than two months ago.
[Grab your listener right away with a relatable opener.]

“His company was struggling, its stock value had sunk, key managers ditched the organization, and all rational indicators told him not to make any big decisions. Then, his firm experienced a product recall. That’s when Steve and his colleagues decided to invest in their business, instead of cutting back.
[Include at least one element of surprise.]

“We put together a performance initiative designed to keep revenue flat but increase margins. Morale improved, the company attracted some talented new people, and now, although not completely back to business as usual, it’s well on its way — all because Steve and his team turned left when his competitors would have turned right.”
[Use a repeatable phrase for emphasis.]

The following are five must-have situational sales success stories to keep in your arsenal at all times, regardless of what you sell or who you’re trying to persuade. I’ll provide the bones; you flesh them out:

  1. A buyer who never used your company’s products or services is now one of your biggest fans.
  2. A client who faithfully used the “other brand” until you showed him the light.
  3. A customer who was loyal to only one method until you showed him another option.
  4. A buyer who couldn’t afford your best offer, but you helped his company figure out a way both of you could still do business together.
  5. A customer who initially wanted to delay purchasing until you proved why buying now was a wiser decision.

Now that you have some ideas for situational sales success stories, consider ways to refine them and make them more exciting. Take the above example and create one powerful, truth-based story for each of the five situations, and then write them down. Make them all capable of being told in less than 25 seconds. Require every salesperson on staff to learn the five stories and be able to recite them. Test employees and help them internalize high-quality S3 stories.

Remember, you can share these stories face-to-face in one-on-one situations, in larger group settings such as a business meeting, as videos, via e-mail, blogs and text messages, on social media (Twitter should challenge even the strongest tellers of S3 stories) and by using that old-fashioned device everybody once called a telephone.

Why You Must Improve Your Persuasion Skills Every Day

While persuasion is crucial to people’s success for many reasons, they actually spend very little time and effort improving their persuasion skills.

If you’re going to thrive in the eat-or-be-eaten contemporary workplace, you must be able to effectively persuade others. This will provide you with a competitive advantage, because your competitors are more than likely not focusing on their own persuasion skills.


I call it the “Persuasion Paradox.

The Persuasion Paradox can be summarized like this: At best, many professionals take a mindless approach to persuasion. At worst, they abhor the practice of persuasion, striving to avoid it.

The mindless ones, either consciously or subconsciously, assume that just because they’ve heard people say “yes” to them — and they’ve given the same response to others — they understand the complexities of attaining agreement. This supposition couldn’t be further from the truth. The act of persuasion remains a significant obstacle for many professionals, and they might not even be aware of it. However, like failing to check your blind spot before darting out into the oncoming lane on a narrow highway to pass a slow-moving truck, ignoring this obstacle can lead to disastrous results.

The ones who abhor persuasion want nothing to do with it. They think it smacks of the dreaded word “sales” and conjures images of white shoes, plaid jackets, and glad-handing used-car salesmen. But successful people — who are neither mindless nor abhorrent, incidentally — don’t see persuasion that way. Professionals at the top of their game understand that not only is it is okay for them to promote their ideas and issues; but that it is incumbent on them to do so.

Having someone say “yes” to your ideas, offers and suggestions ranks among the greatest achievements in the business world. It represents validation, respect and acceptance among your peers and others. In author Daniel Pink’s survey of American workers, “What Do You Do at Work?” for his book, To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth about Moving Others, he discovered full-time, non-sales workers spent 24 out of every 60 minutes involved in persuasion efforts. To say effective persuasion is merely important is to make an extreme understatement.

Persuasion requires intellectual heavy lifting. Understanding your target, knowing how to increase the value of your offering (or, conversely, decrease the resistance of your target), choosing the right words, and determining the timing of your persuasive efforts all are prerequisites of effective persuasion.

So to stay ahead of your competition and succeed among your peers, work on your persuasion skills on a daily basis. Here are some terrific places to start.