Persuasion vs. Influence: What’s the Difference?

LinkedIn analyzed thousands of job postings and listed “persuasion” as one of the top five in-demand skills for 2019.

But to the uninitiated, that term “persuasion” has negative connotations.

After all, when someone says, “You’re not going to persuade me!” it’s usually spoken in defiance. Or a well-intentioned person might proclaim, “I would never try to persuade someone.”

But here’s the thing: Persuasion is not coercive, conniving or devious. Drop that inaccurate psychological baggage right now. No one can be persuaded to do something they don’t want to do. Somebody may have second thoughts or experience buyer’s remorse, but that’s another subject entirely.

As regular visitors to this website may recall, I define persuasion as ethically winning the heart and mind of your target.

• “Ethically” means simply doing something honestly and without trickery or deceit.

• “Winning” means gaining agreement with your suggestion, idea or position.

• “Heart” refers to gaining emotional buy-in.

• “Mind” refers to logical buy-in.

• “Target” represents the specific person you are attempting to persuade.

A term often used in conjunction with persuasion is “influence.” Influence is the capacity to become a compelling force that produces effects on the opinions, actions and behavior of others.

Occasionally, I use the term “influence” as an effect that “nudges” a target toward thinking positively about my request. But I’d like for you to primarily think of influence as your professional and personal credibility, your organizational and political capital, your corporate “sway.”

Remember: Persuasion is an action; influence is a state or condition. Use both wisely, and you’re bound to achieve new levels of success.

Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash.

Here Is the Best Conversation Starter on the Planet

Effective persuasion requires relationships. Successful relationships are built on conversations. So in order to be better at persuasion, you need to get great at speaking with others.

Here’s how:

Take a page from best-selling author Jim Collins and start with this question for someone you don’t know: “May I ask, where are you from?”

You’ll receive a host of varying responses, upon which you can build the rest of the conversation. Individuals may respond by mentioning a locale (“I’m from Pennsylvania.”), a company (“I work at Microsoft.”), an industry (“I work in the tech sector.”) or even a discipline (“I’m in finance.”).

Then ask an intriguing follow-up question:

• “How did someone from Pennsylvania end up all the way out here in California?”

• “What’s the best part of life at Microsoft?”

• “What’s the most common misperception about working in the finance world?”

You’ll more than likely receive an engaged response, which is fantastic. Because although you’re asking someone to talk about himself or herself, your line of questioning will make you seem more interesting, too.

Congratulations. You’ve taken one of the first — and most crucial steps — in persuasion success.

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Do You Wear a Halo or Horns?

What if the first impression you leave is far from angelic? If positivity is the halo effect, then the opposite impression must be the “horns effect.” Something about you is off-putting to someone else. And much like the halo effect, the horns effect can color your interactions with others.

Here is a quick way to overcome less-than-saintly impressions.

Be More like Ben Franklin

Known for many things, including astute observations of human behavior and practicing persuasion, Franklin in 1736 was chosen without opposition to be clerk of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. The next year, he again was chosen. But this time, a new Assembly member offered a long argument against Franklin and in support of another candidate. Franklin won out, but he found it disconcerting that the Assembly member — a person of influence — rallied so publicly against him. Franklin knew he needed to win him over but didn’t want to appear obsequious or servile in his approach.

So what did Ben do?

He eventually asked his adversary if he would be so kind as to lend him a rare book from his library. Franklin was renowned for his discerning taste in books, and his target proudly agreed to lend him the requested copy. Franklin showed his gratitude with a nice note later on, and the two men enjoyed a life-long positive relationship from that day on.

This episode is said to have inspired Franklin to coin this aphorism: “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged.”

Creating Your Halo

The clear takeaway here is to do everything you can to create a positive entry point with your persuasion target.

In the earliest stages of a professional relationship, you should dress well, behave in a friendly and approachable style, and be well-read, well-traveled and conversational. You must articulate your value and add important contributions to discussions. Make a favorable impression early, and you’ll dramatically improve the likelihood of hearing “yes” later.

What if you’re meeting for the first time an important target with whom you want to cultivate a positive and persuasive relationship? The savvy professional puts thought into not only how to make a positive impression, but also how to shape conversations. Consider the context of the meeting: Will it be a formalized business setting in a boardroom? Or will it be a more casual one-on-one exchange in an office? Conduct some research and explore similarities, interests and unusual aspects of the other person’s background. Be prepared to speak intelligently about the issue at hand, ask smart questions, and add a thought-provoking perspective. But don’t overdo it and feel the need to become an expert on every potential topic to be discussed.

The halo effect invokes the image of concentric circles on a body of water. As long as you can make one favorable impression with someone early on, you’ll build positivity in other areas of your business relationship.

How the ‘Halo Effect’ Impacts the Way We See Others

The “halo effect” — or, as it’s scientifically known, “exaggerated emotional coherence” — doesn’t receive the attention it should. The halo effect occurs when we judge others positively in one aspect of their lives (appearance, wit, charm, industriousness) and then apply positive feelings to them for other, often unrelated areas (problem-solving, leadership, sales prowess).

Edward Thorndike first observed the halo effect in 1920, when he analyzed military officer rankings of subordinates. If a soldier boasted a strong physical appearance, he also typically was considered to have impressive leadership abilities. If he were loyal, he also was rated as highly intelligent. The correlations proved way too consistent for Thorndike, who determined that officers’ impressions in one area of a soldier’s experience too often colored their impressions in another.

That practice holds true today. If someone is attractive, he also usually is considered smart. If a person appears enthusiastic, she often also is perceived as hard working. Friendly? Must be a good leader, too.

Priming the Halo Pump

When it comes to evaluating people, first is always foremost. People remember the first piece of data they receive about a person, and their subsequent impressions are shaped by that data.

One of the earliest and most enduring studies of first impressions and the halo effect was completed by Solomon Asch, who asked people to evaluate the personalities of two individuals named Alan and Ben.

Alan was: intelligent – industrious – impulsive – critical – stubborn – envious

Ben was: envious – stubborn – critical – impulsive – industrious – intelligent

Obviously, the series of adjectives used to describe Alan is simply reversed for Ben. Here’s the catch: Although the same words appeared in a different sequence, test subjects always viewed Alan significantly more favorably than Ben. Even Alan’s negative characteristics were seen more positively, because of the positivity applied to the initial descriptors.

If someone you view positively possesses a stubbornness streak, you consider him a person who takes a principled stand. On the other hand, if you already have a negative impression of that person, the stubbornness can be seen as a sign of inflexibility and unwillingness to consider new ideas.

Next time, I’ll explain how you can leverage your own “halo” and what to do when you’re not exactly an angel!

How Resilient Are You?

What’s the single most important skill that a sales professional — and, really, all professionals — can have?

This is a question I often ask workshop participants. And I often receive the usual responses: Product knowledge! Adaptation! Listening!

When that happens, I nod as I move the conversation from person to person. When I finish, I pause a beat and say, “It’s none of those.”

The single most important skill that a sales professional can possess is resilience: The ability to recover from failure. And I don’t mean bounce back; I mean bounce forward.

University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman, who is director of the Positive Psychology Center and former president of the American Psychological Association, has done groundbreaking research in this area.

One of his studies was done with the financial services giant Northwestern Mutual Life. When asked to review a survey given to prospective new NML salespeople, Dr. Seligman noted that they weren’t testing for resiliency. They added “resilience” to their hiring instrument and — voila!— the resilient salespeople who were hired wound up outselling everyone else.

How do you become more resilient?

The first thing you must do is be aware of what’s going on in your head, often referred to as your mental dialogue. Your self-talk impacts thoughts, emotions, actions, careers and, ultimately, the rest of your life.

The following quote, attributed to everyone from Mahatma Gandhi and Ralph Waldo Emerson to the president of a leading supermarket chain, illustrates this cause and effect:

Watch your thoughts, they become words;

Watch your words, they become actions;

Watch your actions, they become habits;

Watch your habits, they become your character;

Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

The point is made even more elegantly in one of my favorite books of all time, As a Man Thinketh, by philosopher James Allen and originally published in 1902. (It may very well have been the first “self-help” book.)

“Man is made or unmade by himself; in the armory of thought he forges the weapons by which he destroys himself,” Allen wrote. “He also fashions the tools with which he builds for himself heavenly mansions of joy and strength and peace.”

What are you building?

If you want to become more resilient, it starts by dealing with your thoughts and whether or not they are aligned with reality.

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Why You Should Be the Last Person to Whisper in Somebody’s Ear

We all have tendencies of thought, patterns that influence our thinking.

These are often referred to as cognitive illusions or biases. But perhaps the root of all biases is availability bias — meaning we give the most credence to what we can most easily recall. If we remember an occurrence quickly without much effort, we find it perfectly suited for whatever the question is before us. For perfect examples of this, look no further than your relationship with your spouse or significant other.

People in relationships often share the burden of household responsibilities. One of the main areas of contention between couples is “fair share” — as in, “Is the other person doing his or her fair share of the chores around here?”

The conflict occurs when one person believes he is doing more than the other. What might really be happening, though, is that both individuals are falling prey to the bias of availability. What you remember, and therefore exaggerate, is the last time you did the dishes, or you took out the trash, or you made the bed. In your mind, you think you always do something, and the other person never does it. See any potential problems?

Availability Bias at Work

Availability bias also can cause problems at the office, as your brain substitutes one question for another. Let’s say your vice president of engineering asks you to recommend the best-qualified supplier to provide exhaust systems for your company’s new engine. And in the instant of the conversation you say, “Well, we should go with Wilson’s Exhausts.”

What may have taken place in your mind is not a careful analysis based on price, reliability, quality and suitability for this particular engine. Rather, you might just have recommended any exhaust system provider you can remember. Your brain may have substituted the question, “Who’s the best?” with “Who can you name?”

Availability also most impacts us when we are trying to gauge the relative size of a category or the frequency of an occurrence. How large is the market for red laser wall levels? (Huge! I used one this weekend!) How often are Wall Street traders arrested for illegal activity? (All the time, I read an article about another one yesterday.)

The insufficiency of the reasoning in these examples is obvious, but it is the rare individual who will submit to the more difficult task of finding out the actual statistics that would answer either of the above questions. Many people simply don’t want to work that hard. We take the path of least intellectual effort. We’re human.

Positively Leveraging Availability

How can you leverage this concept of availability bias to ethically win the heart and mind of your target? It’s imperative to keep the value of your “ask” in front of your target. Time dims people’s positive memories, so you must find ways to maintain your expertise, your value and your shared experiences.

A reminder email, revisiting a key point casually through conversation, or a communiqué augmenting or amplifying your position with a new piece of information all work beautifully.

Remember that there is a balance between keeping your contributions top of mind and … well, stalking. Persuasive professionals know the difference and rarely cross the line.

Frequency certainly impacts one’s ability for recall, but other factors leading to availability bias include dramatic events (winning an important award or surviving a tragedy), intense personal experiences (receiving accolades or suffering public embarrassment), vivid descriptions (created by using language or graphics) and a related notion called the “recency effect” (in which people remember the last thing they heard on a topic).

When you can summon dramatic public events, do so. If your company is generating positive press regarding a purchase or other strategic move, that is the time to reach out to new prospects. If someone undergoes an intense and negative experience related to your “ask” (“The trade show was terrible! I had to set up the booth until midnight and then I had to work the show for nine hours the next day! I was exhausted when speaking with prospects.”), that is the time to push for agreement on your objective (“See? This is exactly why I’m recommending we ask the board for budget dollars for either more staff on site or expanded outsourcing!”)

Use vivid descriptions instead of just numbers: “The new retail space we’re recommending could house AT&T Stadium,” instead of “The space we’re recommending is one million square feet.”

And, of course, before someone makes a key decision, keep the recency effect in mind. Literally, the last thing you want the decision-maker to hear is your input. People remember — and give added weight — to the final comment they’ve heard on the topic. You want to be the last person whispering in their ear.

How to Battle Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is always at work inside our brains. Why? Because it’s human nature to seek out facts, statistics and opinions that we think prove our existing beliefs — even if those beliefs are incorrect! 

In other words, we see things not always as they actually are, but as we want to see them.

Here are three examples that convey the aggressive power of confirmation bias in our professional lives: 

  • Your boss thinks his latest idea will give your company a competitive edge, so you and your team automatically skew market research and competitive analyses from the biased perspective of wanting to please your boss. 
  • During a series of interviews for a new sales manager, you become fixated on one or two factors (Big Ten university programs produce the best candidates, for example, or the chosen applicant must have previously overseen a million-dollar account) — leading you to potentially overlook other, better-qualified candidates. 
  • Initial sales of a recently launched product surpass expectations, prompting you to increase production without considering that customer interest might quickly diminish after the excitement of something new wears off — potentially leaving you with excess inventory. 

Confirmation bias works actively in our personal lives, too. Consider these two examples:

  • You’re thinking about purchasing a Tesla and now notice more Teslas sharing the road with you, which reinforces your belief that a Tesla is better than — and will make you happier than — a Lexus or a BMW.  
  • You’re worried your son might be experimenting with opioids but before you can have a conversation with him about it, you find a wad of cash in his jacket pocket and conclude that it’s drug money. 

In short, confirmation bias can dramatically — and often falsely — influence everything from how you manage your department to how you interact with family members. And in every case, it removes the element of objectivity from the equation. 

Research Proves Confirmation Bias Runs Rampant

But don’t just take my word for it. A study published in the September 2018 issue of Current Biology suggests that confirmation bias applies not only to abstract or high-level thinking but also to low-level decision-making.

How low? Consider this: A team of researchers from Germany and Israel asked study participants to watch white dots on a computer screen and determine whether they were moving in a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction. Next, participants observed a second set of animated dots and were asked to determine the direction in which those dots were moving. 

Now, this wasn’t as easy as it sounds, considering the dots in question were surrounded by other randomly moving dots. But still…

Researchers found the participants who indicated the first batch of dots moved in a clockwise direction did the same with the second batch — even if the dots were moving counter-clockwise! — and vice versa. 

“This is kind of scary,” Jaime de la Rocha, a neuroscientist at the Sunyer Biomedical Research Institute in Spain (who wasn’t involved in the study), told “When people are evaluating evidence, they are using a filter created by previous decisions.”

Scary, indeed. 

Sometimes, falling prey to confirmation bias won’t make much difference in the final outcome, such as determining the direction in which animated dots are moving on a screen. But in other cases — making decisions about an important business deal, launching a new program or hiring for a critical position — confirmation bias can lead to debilitating results.

Why? Because it provides people with all the reasons they deem necessary to support their own claims and aims, with nothing to refute.

So how do you overcome confirmation bias? In persuasion situations in which you are attempting to ethically win the heart and mind of someone else, make time for due diligence. Look at all relevant data sets to make sure that what you’re proposing is the right thing to do. Also consider seeking input from people who hold opposing viewpoints — or who at least aren’t as close to a specific project or circumstance as you. 

Once you’re convinced that your actions will be best for you, for others and for the specific situation at hand, acknowledge any confirmation bias that might be in play, and then don’t hesitate to go against the grain. 

After all, you want to get to “yes” the right way — and for all the right reasons.

Photo by Henry Hustava on Unsplash

For the Win (Mark’s Persuasion Priority Action Plan: The Conclusion)

We’re now ready for the final step in my seven-step persuasion priority action plan. I wrote about the previous six steps here and here.

At this point, you have thoroughly evaluated your risk and reward, as well as determined whether you’d like to move forward with you persuasion priority. Remember, your persuasion priority is this: Who is the one person you want to say yes to what?

You’ve also articulated your request, and identified not only your self-interest but the enlightened self-interest of others.

 You’ve crafted your case, crunched the numbers, created compelling language, crafted superb stories, and anticipated resistance and your response to that resistance.

You’ve identified key players in your request, considered their personalities and preferences, and mapped your persuasion terrain.

Now, you’re ready to launch a plan that will take you to your objective. At a high level, your action plan may look like this:

  1. Meet with financial analyst to see if numbers make sense. 
  2. Engage your target on the topic; ask for input.
  3. Brainstorm options with him and others. 
  4. Run the numbers and various scenarios. 
  5. Form and frame options to get result.
  6. Acknowledge potential challenges and ask for your target’s opinion.
  7. Formalize the decision and create perpetual yes.  

Create as many action steps as necessary, but don’t make things overly complicated. You probably don’t need 27 action steps, but two might be too few. You can then adjust accordingly as your persuasion campaign develops. 

You my consider giving the what, when, why and how approach a shot — just to ensure you think through your action steps accordingly. 

Your Course of Action

What: Approach financial analyst Corey Williamson and ask for ROI estimate input.

When: COB next Friday.

Why: We have a great relationship, so he’ll be honest with me when evaluating pros and cons. Presenting a solid financial case will show I’m serious. Plus, if this idea won’t provide great ROI for the company, I shouldn’t move forward. 

How: I know Corey is at his best in the morning. He’s also a text message guy who hates surprises and loves details. I’ll send a text, set up a morning meeting and bring him all the details for his perusal. 

Try scripting out your first five action steps in this format and see what develops. 

Can’t I Just Pitch It?

When I present the art of persuasion this manner, some people ask me, “Do I really need to do all this? Can’t I just go in pitch it?”

 Sure, you can. It all depends on how big your “ask” is and how important the result is to you and your organization. You certainly wouldn’t unleash this sort of horsepower when trying to persuade someone to go to a seafood restaurant for lunch. But if you’re vying for that coveted assignment, looking to add significant numbers to your staff or pitching your board of directors on a new strategic initiative, you better bring it.

The rule of thumb is that planning pays off in a 5:1 ratio: Every hour you spend planning pays off by saving you roughly five hours of misdirected effort.

What are you willing to do to hear yes?

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A Blueprint for ‘Yes’ (Mark’s Persuasion Priority Action Plan: Part 2)

In order to succeed in your persuasion efforts, you need a persuasion priority action plan. The one I like to use involves seven steps, and I covered three of them in a previous post.

Here they are:

Step 1: Clearly state who is the one person you want to do what.

Step 2: Determine why this is important for you, your target and your organization.

Step 3: Build your quantitative and qualitative case

Step 4: Plan your language (adjectives, metaphors, examples, stories and humor).

Step 5: Assess your primary target and other key influencers. 

Step 6: Map the persuasion territory.

Step 7: Create your step-by-step actions: When do you do what with whom, and why? 

In this post, I will cover the next three steps, saving the final one for next time.

Plan your language (adjectives, metaphors, examples, stories and humor).

What savvy phrases can you use to describe your request or facets of your request?

• A compelling argument

• A sensitive situation

• A crucial decision

Questions work, too.

• Do we want to surrender to the competition?

Similarly, what figures of speech (metaphor, simile, analogy) can you create to describe your request or subsequent risks or rewards?

• “This guy is the Payton Manning of sales directors.”

• “That part of the country is a marketing black hole.”

• “The likelihood of the board approving that approach is less than that of Kim Kardashian wearing a turtleneck tomorrow.” 

Using storytelling best practices, what brief and relatable story you can develop to justify your request, address potential challenges or describe imminent rewards. Be sure to have a point, include a captivating open, establish a plot, insert an unexpected element and conclude with a learning point. 

Anticipate resistance and objection. How will you respond when someone says, “It costs too much”? Or, “We don’t need it”? Or “Now is not the right time”?

Step 5: Assess your primary target and other key players. 

You certainly don’t need to list every person who might be involved in your request, but it’s critical to include your primary target and key players. Write down their names and titles, your impression of their personalities, and your perception of their preferences for communication and information.   

For example:

• Steve Miller, VP Field Operations; expressive; text messages; just the facts 

• Jerry Matherstone, General Counsel, reserved; face-to-face; all the details

Using a table like the one below can help you sort through these details.

Jerry MatherstoneGeneral CounselReserved; little sense of humor Face to face (no email) Wants all the details
Steve MillerVP Field OperationsExpressive; likes to joke Text messagesJust the facts

Step 6: Map the persuasion territory.

If your persuasion priority involves more than a few people, represents significant dollars and is likely to take some time, you should map the persuasion territory. Here’s what I mean: When strategizing your persuasion approach answer the following five questions:

  1. Who are the key players?
  2. On a scale of -10 to 10 (10 being highest), what is each player’s influence in the organization?
  3. On a scale of -10 to 10  (10 being completely in support of your idea), to what extent is each player applying that influence? 
  4. How easily do you think each person might change his or her position (low, medium, high)?
  5. What significant relationships exist among key players?

Again, use a table like the one below to help you sort through the responses to these questions:

NameOrg. InfluenceFor or AgainstChangeableRelationships
Jerry Matherstone+8+7Medium+ Steve Miller
Steve Miller+5
-4High– Sally Mack

Use this information to map your persuasion territory.

Next time, I’ll focus on the final step of my persuasion priority action plan.

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Are You Ready for Action? (Mark’s Persuasion Priority Action Plan: Part 1)

I write lot about persuasion; you know that already. So over the next few posts, I am going to share my seven-step persuasion priority action plan:

Step 1: Clearly state who is the one person you want to do what.

Step 2: Determine why this is important for you, your target and your organization.

Step 3: Build your quantitative and qualitative case

Step 4: Plan your language (adjectives, metaphors, examples, stories and humor).

Step5: Assess your primary target and other key influencers. 

Step 6: Map the persuasion territory.

Step 7: Create your step-by-step actions: When do you do what with whom, and why? 

Here we go:

Step 1: Clearly state who is the one person you want to do what?

Keep in mind the four persuasion priority criteria (meaningful, significant, realistic and others oriented), and be specific. 

Don’t say: “I want my senior vice president to add some people to my staff sometime.” 

Say this: “I would like my senior vice president to approve five key new hires for my department by the start of next quarter.” 

Who do you want to do what?

Step 2: Why is this important to you, your target and your organization? 

Strive to identify at least three reasons for each (you, your target and your organization).

These can include financial gain, skills acquired, networks built, market share increased, reputation improved and others.

Step 3: Build your quantitative and qualitative case. 


What might be the return on investment (expressed in dollars or a ratio)?

If we’re talking about a larger and longer term project, what might be the net present value and internal rate of return?

What other benefits of achieving this priority can be readily quantified?          


Will your initiative result in sustained high morale, and how might you know?

Will the initiative lead to more effective teamwork? What might be the evidence?

What other qualitative reasons and subsequent evidence can you add?

Next time I’ll focus on more steps in creating your persuasion priority action plan.

(Photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash)