Don’t Be a Fool When Seeking Persuasion Success

The best way to minimize the likelihood of taking a foolish persuasion risk is to ask questions first and seek agreement later.

Like this:

“What’s your view on the new ad campaign?”

“In your opinion, are new research protocols available that can accelerate the time to market?”

“What’s your take on my performance?”

“What’s your position on the new project?”

You’ll notice that these questions all share a common theme: They ask the target for their opinion, but they don’t ask for a commitment. Commitments are threatening; they require a line to be drawn and force a decision.

People are reluctant to make commitments quickly. On the other hand, opinions are easy to make and quickly shared. If you ask others for their opinions first, you will receive important clarifying information about your target’s thinking processes and be able to minimize the odds of hearing “no.”

Everybody has an opinion, and most people are willing to share them. If you ask me for my opinion, I can’t help but like you more. It’s as immutable as the law of gravity.

Why What You Do Can Be More Compelling Than What You Say

Here’s a true story about how and why people make the decisions they do:

Picking his way through the cramped ballroom, people-filled padded chairs all askew, there was no clear route. Obstacles, however, were not this man’s primary concern. On his face, you could see his mind racing — searching for what he would say once he was in front of the crowd. Few people like public speaking, but this seemed even more torturous than usual. He found his standing spot, turned and faced the crowd.

“I have traveled three hours round trip every day to attend this training. I’ve driven dangerous roads and in heavy traffic. You are a talented and knowledgeable group. I have learned from you, and you have learned from me. And I sure could use the money to help pay for gas. Please, please. Pick me!”

That scene played out in a Calgary persuasion workshop during which I asked three volunteers to vie for a single, crisp $100 bill by convincing the audience to individually award them the money. Whoever made the most compelling case, thus winning the affections of the crowd, walked away with the cash — and the bragging rights.

Participants were allowed to make their case in any way they deem appropriate, with one exception: They couldn’t share the money or materially benefit the crowd in any way (I’ll buy you all drinks!). Adding to the pressure, I gave them just four minutes to develop their case and only 25 seconds to present it.

What would you say if you were in this situation?

This activity mirrors business life today in many ways. You are often in competition with others for the account, the promotion, the project. You must think on your feet and be able to put together compelling arguments fast, and you might not have much time to state your case. Sometimes you need to do all this — especially in peer-to-peer persuasion situations — without offering some sort of material gain. Not an easy assignment, to be sure.

But the most interesting aspect of this workshop activity is not the people vying for the money; it’s the people deciding who will earn the money. You may think that people carefully analyze participants’ arguments, weighing the pros and the cons to rationally decide who gets their votes.

That’s not what’s happening, though. Far from it.

After the three contestants made their case for the $100 bill, I lined up the group for judging. Would the winner be the guy who claimed he risked his life to arrive at the workshop, but essentially just needed the money for gas? Would it be the generous man who stated he would donate the money to a charity? Or, finally, would it be the person who claimed his peers should pick him because he held his own with the group at happy hours?

To determine the victor, I used a timeless and scientific method: the applause-o-meter. When I asked for applause for the most persuasive presentation, the results were absolutely clear. The winner was our hero who needed gas money. He beamed as he received the crisp $100 bill, and the crowed gave him another thunderous round of applause.

During the luncheon that immediately followed the workshop, I did what I always do: I inquired with those at my table about the contest and what they found so compelling about the winner’s argument. As usual, the comments were enlightening:

“We voted for him because he’s been so helpful ever since the start of this workshop.”

“He’s always willing to run a sales simulation or brainstorm an idea, so I like him.”

“He’s so funny. He had me cracking up all morning.”

Our winner obviously created a halo effect with his peers during the workshop — doing everything he could to find a positive entry point with people who ultimately decided to award him with cold, hard cash.

If You Don’t Believe in Your Idea, Nobody Else Will

A biotech marketing director once asked me, “Mark, how do I get my team onboard with a program I don’t believe in?”

“You can’t,” I quickly replied.

Your external actions and internal thoughts must be aligned. I call this “congruency.”

Years ago, a Harley-Davidson dealer wanted my help increasing sales of new motorcycles at his store. So I did what consultants do: I evaluated the market, employee skills and dealership processes. Improvements could be made, but something else was wrong. When I casually asked the motorcycle sales manager what kind of motorcycle he rode, he replied, “Oh, I don’t ride motorcycles. They’re overpriced and dangerous.”

Mystery solved.

If that sales manager didn’t support what he was selling, how in the world could he convince his customers? If you are promoting a product, an idea or an initiative, you need to believe in it from an ethical standpoint. And even if we were to put the ethical issue aside for a moment, if you don’t believe in what you are talking about, your facial expressions and body language will give you away.

This is why I always say the most fundamental persuasion principle is congruency: If you want to be convincing, you have to be convinced.

Influencing Groups: Why You Don’t Need 100% Agreement

When persuading groups, you don’t need unanimity or an overwhelming mandate to generate agreement; you need critical mass.

Consensus is something everyone can live with, not something everyone would die for. With that in mind, focus on the pragmatism of the numbers. That means that “being right” in your own mind isn’t sufficient. You may have all the facts and all the right conclusions, but that still doesn’t mean your idea will become reality in a group setting.

You must be cajoling and politically savvy. “Work” the system, just as you would “work” a room when you’re networking. You don’t want to meet everyone, just the people who can help you the most. (A politician wants to convince every voter to vote for him or her but is most interested in those voters who can deliver — through their own influence — thousands of additional votes. Hence, a union officer is more attractive to a politician than a union member.)

Groups are not sentient creatures as an entity, but they contain sentient creatures. The legal and marketing departments will have different views on your pitch than, say, the R&D and finance departments.

In other words, where others stand on an issue depends on the professional background they bring to the discussion and the impact a “yes” will have on their job, rank or career.

One of the weaknesses of group influence is that the task takes much longer because of such dynamics. You have to stay the course and, in some cases, outlast opponents who will eventually be transferred, promoted, retired, terminated, or otherwise obscured or overruled. Sometimes, no other way exists, so be prepared for a long-term persuasion arrangement in which you might need to create allies who recognize how they can prosper from your ideas.