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.

Are You Ethical in Your Persuasion Situations?

If the means are ethical and the ends are ethical, then you’re obviously operating in an ethical manner when it comes to your persuasion attempts. In other words, if — by pursuing your persuasion priority — good things will happen for your target, your company and you, why not?

If your means are unethical and your ends are unethical — perhaps you fabricated vendor research to steer your company to an unqualified supplier because said supplier gave you Super Bowl tickets — then you’ve transformed into a slimy character worthy of The Wolf of Wall Street status.

The dilemma occurs when the ends are ethical, but the means are not.

Consider stealth marketing. For a well-publicized covert marketing campaign initiated by a leading telecommunications company several years ago promoting its new camera phone, the company hired 60 actors to pose as travelers in 10 different cities and asked passersby to take their picture. Upon handing a chosen individual the new phone, the actors then casually pointed out how to use the phone and subtly mentioned some of its most impressive features, effectively giving a soft sales pitch. Marketers stressed that they wanted the exchange to feel natural.

Is this an example of an ethical means to an ethical end?

Ethical Guidelines

To paraphrase the late corporate performance expert Joel DeLuca, “If they knew what you were trying to do, would they let you?” The “they” in the above example is the targeted buyer (not the company’s competitors). So if your target knew you were trying to get the best reaction possible to your product, and that meant engaging in a so-called “natural” exchange on the street, would your target still play along? Yes, probably.

But if you need to think about it twice, run the scenario through your head again.

In his book, To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, Daniel Pink offers a powerful rule of thumb for always operating ethically: Treat everyone as you would your grandmother.

Persuasion Success: Finish Strong

In previous posts, I revealed the formula for persuasion success, suggested ways in which to engage your persuasion target, offered ideas about how to explore the persuasion situation and then frame the options for best persuasion results.

As a reminder, here is the formula: Yes = E2F3.

1. Engage your target.
2. Explore the situation.
3. Frame the options.
4. Finesse the rough spots.
5. Finalize the decision.

Now, we’ll explore the last of the three “F” components, and the final step in the persuasion equation: Finalize the decision.

Ask For Your Target’s Opinion

Do not ask for a commitment. Opinions are nonthreatening: Everyone has them, and most people want to share them.

Simply say, “What do you think?

When You Hear Yes

If you receive a positive response (“I really like the ‘Best’ option you’ve created”), move boldly forward. Finalize and formalize the decision: “Perfect! I’ll have the purchase order on your desk by the end of the day.”

Then consider yours a persuasion success story.

If You Receive a Neutral Response

When your target says, “I’m still not sure,” don’t try right away to secure your “yes.” You have more work to do. Instead, say something along the lines of: “I understand completely. Here’s what I’m going to recommend. Don’t say yes. Don’t say no. Let’s just make sure we’re clear about what we’re talking about and willing to consider it further. Fair enough?”

What reasonable person wouldn’t say “yes” to that? Most will. And guess what? That’s called a nudge.

Ask your target why he or she isn’t sure and what would lead to greater confidence. Is information missing? Would your target like to see additional people backing your persuasion position? Does a formal plan need to be presented?

When You Hear a Flat-Out No

Employ your options: “Okay, if you don’t want to go with the training program for the entire North American distribution channel, perhaps we should just focus on retailers and the field sales force. Or, if you prefer, only the field sales force. Which of those options would you suggest?”

Employ the persuasion equation the next time you need buy-in on a major decision. When formed, framed and finessed, I like your chances of hearing “yes.”

Frame the Options for Best Persuasion Results

In previous posts, I revealed the formula for persuasion success, suggested ways in which to engage your persuasion target and offered ideas about how to explore the persuasion situation.

As a reminder, here is the formula: Yes = E2F3.

1. Engage your target.
2. Explore the situation.
3. Frame the options.
4. Finesse the rough spots.
5. Finalize the decision.

In this post, I’ll discuss the first of the three “F” components: How to frame the options.

Instead of providing a binary choice for your target — a take-it-or-leave-it option, which is a 50/50 proposition at face value — offering three options raises your chances of acceptance to about 75 percent. In other words, you now have three shots at hearing “yes.”

The Power of Three 

Create varied options from your own exploration information, but also from the responses your target provides during that process. Including some of his comments and observations will substantially increase your odds of success. Try something like this:

“Not only should we look for an affiliation in Italy to launch this program, but your idea of sending our own managers over for six-month assignments is a perfect way to develop them and ensure a first-hand view by our own people.”

Additionally, most psychologists agree — and my own sales experience concurs — that “three” is the proper number of options. People tend to think in threes, or “triads,” because they are easier to process. (In scientific experiments, participants found positive impressions peaked at three, and skepticism increased when more points were suggested.)

There’s a reason retailers created the “good, better, best” concept decades ago. In fact, you can use that approach to help you form your options.

Frame the Options

When you present the options you’ve developed to your target, you are framing them. Much like certain frames enhance or detract from the attractiveness of a work of art, how you frame your options will impact the likelihood of hearing “yes” or “no.”

So prepare to be the Renoir of revenue, and the Picasso of profit!

Always begin with the most expensive option first. If you do, your target may just select your “best” option. And if he does? Well, that’s frost on the beer mug for you and your organization. But the real reason you frame your options in this manner is because your target might say “no.”

Nobody likes to be turned down, because it feels like failure. But if you know what to do in those seconds immediately after rejection, a “no” can be a lot less painful. This approach is often called “rejection-then-retreat,” or as psychology and marketing master Robert Cialdini sometimes refers to it, “concessional reciprocity.”

Walking in front of a university library one day, Cialdini was approached by a Boy Scout who asked him if he would like to purchase tickets to the Scouts’ circus for that Saturday at the local arena. The tickets were $5 each. Cialdini politely declined. Without losing an ounce of composure, the boy replied, “Oh, well, then would you like to buy a couple of our chocolate bars? They are only $1 each.” Cialdini bought two chocolate bars. Stunned, he knew something significant had just happened — because he doesn’t even like chocolate!

Analyzing this exchange, Cialdini discovered concessional reciprocity — the idea that when you decline someone’s offer and that person comes back with a smaller, less extreme offer, you want to say “yes” to reciprocate for the concession he made to you by accepting your original “no.”

That’s why it’s imperative to have options and frame them accordingly. If your target says “no” to one, you can retreat to your next offer.

Discuss the pros and cons of each option objectively, understanding that they all lead to your desired outcome. Allow the target to comment critically, perhaps eliminating one option altogether while seriously considering the other two. You might even want to combine aspects of the three options to create one acceptable hybrid.

Remember, all options are fine with you, because you created them around the goals you’re pursuing. Providing choices, any one of which creates the results you and your target both require, is at the heart of forming and framing options.

But this doesn’t ensure unmitigated success. I’ll cover that next time.

Enhance Persuasion by Exploring the Situation

In previous posts, I revealed the formula for persuasion success and explored ways in which to engage your persuasion target.

As a reminder, here is the formula: Yes = E2F3.

1. Engage your target.
2. Explore the situation.
3. Frame the options.
4. Finesse the rough spots.
5. Finalize the decision.

In this post, I’ll discuss how to explore the situation:

Exploring the situation means delving into the content of the issue, as opposed to navigating the approach.

• What does the issue mean to your target — personally and professionally? By personally, I mean issues such as ego, legacy, gratification, self-worth and off-the-job priorities. By professionally, I’m referring to promotion, remuneration, status, leadership, recognition and perquisites.

• What does the persuasion topic mean to the organization? Is it transformational or minor? Can it mean recovery or market dominance? Will it be widely known and applied, or localized? What are the time implications? Are we talking about a closing window of opportunity? Is there the need to be opportunistic and innovative?

• Examine budget parameters. Can this issue be accommodated within the existing budget and, if so, from one source? Or does it require several (and commensurate consensus)? Is the investment unprecedented, or is there precedent for it? Will other issues be delayed or sacrificed because of the investment?

• Explore risk. Some people have a higher tolerance for risk than others. Will the desired result, in your target’s eyes, justify the identified risk? Can you separate the probability of the risk from its seriousness, so your target can make separate judgments? (Great seriousness can be offset by very low probability, and high probabilities ameliorated by low seriousness.)

• What is the target’s appetite for the change? Is his interest the same as it’s been in the past, or is it enhanced or reduced? Can you suggest preventing actions for any foreseen risks? Have you considered contingent actions for dealing with problems that do arise?

• Does your target — having explored the issue with your guidance — offer solutions, new ideas and insights? Is he clearly excited and willing to take part or even lead? Or does he seem wary and hesitant to commit until others have done so?

If you engage and explore properly, these are all important early indicators. The way in which you ask these questions is critical. Remember that persuasion is an art; it’s a conversation. Don’t interrogate, and don’t try to wing it.

Don’t take sides too early by stating your opinion, either. Leave room for you to appear as a curious but well-informed onlooker. Don’t be a zealot seeking to convert; rather, ask follow-up questions for clarity and understanding. Give your target the opportunity to think and respond. And after he or she does respond, count to four and see if your target adds something else. Don’t rush to fill the silence.

Amazing things can happen in between the conversation.

How Do You Engage Your Persuasion Target?

Last time, I shared the formula for persuasion success, which is Yes = E2F3.

1. Engage your target.
2. Explore the situation.
3. Frame the options.
4. Finesse the rough spots.
5. Finalize the decision.

In the next several posts, I will explore each element of that formula. Let’s begin…

Engage Your Target

Find the time that your target will be most approachable and receptive. You’ve heard about how some people shouldn’t be bothered until after they’ve had that first cup of coffee, or how the boss is far less ornery after downing a big lunch.

Just as important as when you approach your targets is how you approach the target. Persuasion relies on relationships, so a face-to-face encounter is always better than a phone call, while an email shouldn’t even be a consideration when it comes to persuasion. Consider those methods three-, two-, and one-dimensional, respectively. Which method of engagement would you most like to encounter when you’re being persuaded?

When you’re engaging, either go with a formal meeting (“Can we meet at 8:15 in my office?”) or what some people call “systematic informality,” which is accidentally on purpose bumping into them (“Hey, I’m glad I bumped into you. I have an idea I’d love to discuss.”)

The first aspect of engagement involves building rapport or confirming it. The most ideal situation is you already know your target well and don’t need to do much in terms of establishing a relationship. If you don’t know your target all that well, begin a conversation about a common topic and then eventually transition to the persuasion topic. How do you do that? Mention a project you’re working on, offer help, ask for advice or cite a common experience. Maybe you both previously worked for a competitor, for example, but at different times.

In any case, transition to your persuasion topic. In music, when a song changes to a different key, it’s called modulation. Often that shift is subtle (from C to C#, for example) and almost imperceptible to the average listener, but it slightly changes the mood of the piece.

That’s exactly what you’re doing when you change the energy in the room, ever so slightly. You want to build on the rapport you’ve established and shift the conversation. Here are some tips and language suggestions for a smooth transition:

  • Ask questions: “What do you think of [the situation you have in mind]?” “Do you have any experience in [the topic}?” You may find out that your target is already closer to your position than you anticipated.
  • Refer to a publication in which the topic at hand was recently mentioned.
  • Ask if your target will be at a specific meeting or event related to that topic.

The engagement aspect is intended to begin a dialogue. I don’t advise taking a stance at this point; rather, simply explore the other person’s attitudes. One of the persuasions “sins” that people commit is assuming that they absolutely know where the other party stands on a certain position. But people are often wrong, because of the influence of such factors as geography, constituency, personal experience and beliefs.

Another key engagement element is understanding the target’s level of knowledge. Has he or she been approached by others regarding the persuasion topic? Read up on it? Have personal experience in dealing with it? Or are you dealing with a blank slate?

This is why rapport building is so essential; it increases trust and frees others to be honest, while revealing additional information about them. Engaging with another person and not being told the truth is worse than not engaging at all. The more time you take to build rapport, the faster you can gain enough engagement to explore the issue. More on that next time…

Here’s the Formula for Persuasion Success

I’m sure you’re familiar with the mathematical formula for Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, E=MC2. (Well, we all know that part, but I’ll be smacked if I can find someone who can explain it to me.)

There also exists a formula for persuasion success: Yes = E2F3.

You get to “yes” by engaging your target, exploring the situation, framing the possible options, finessing the rough spots and finalizing the decision.

Yes = E2F3
1. Engage your target.
2. Explore the situation.
3. Frame the options.
4. Finesse the rough spots.
5. Finalize the decision.

The best way to embrace this formula is via the “principle of nudge.” This is a series of small agreements you can elicit from your target.

In most cases, you wouldn’t walk into the office of your company’s vice president and demand more money and power — unless, of course, you have an absolutely monster credibility and track record, and even then I wouldn’t recommend it. That’s like asking a person to marry you on the first date. You can, but it doesn’t make for good policy.

Compare and contrast this:

Q: “May I have $1.5 million dollars and complete unilateral responsibility for a project you’ve never heard of?”
A: “Are you out of your mind!? Get out of here before I call security!”

… with this:

Q: “Will you have a few minutes next week? I’d like to get your input on something.”
A: “Sure.”

(See, you’ve already got your first “yes” by engaging your target!)

The idea is to plan for and then guide your target toward the next yes by following the next step in the persuasion success formula:

Yes = E2F3

Like stepping-stones across a stream, this practice can lead you effortlessly from one agreement to the next. Just ask yourself: What is the appropriate next step?

Here Are Six Signs That You Have More Credibility Than Others

Regardless of what line of business you’re in, every organization, every department, every team has at least one person whom everybody trusts. When that person takes on a project, it’s done well, on time and on budget. He gives you advice? It’s solid. She provides data or other information? It’s accurate. These are the people who get things done. And these are the people who hear “yes” more often.

In short, they possess the secret to persuasion success: killer credibility. The dictionary defines credibility as “the quality of being trusted; the quality of being convincing or believable.” I define it with one word: “essential.”  Throughout your career, your credibility will be tested. All the time.

Easy to lose and tough to build, credibility ranks as one of the primary characteristics of a successful and professional persuader. A basic determination of credibility can be found in the following six indicators:

  1. You do what you say you’re going to do.
  2. Your information is accurate and unbiased.
  3. You’re not prone to exaggeration or hyperbole.
  4. You admit when you’re wrong and accept blame.
  5. You share the credit when successful.
  6. Your word is your bond.

The key question is this: What do people say about you when you’re not in the room?

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.

How to Bounce Back from Hearing ‘No’

You’ve worked hard to hone your pitch, state your case and present your ask. And then someone says “no.”

What now?

Here are four ideas to help you bounce back:

1. Move on to what’s next.

My favorite TV series was the seemingly timeless political epic The West Wing. In it, Martin Sheen played the role of President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet. It  captured a fairly accurate portrayal of life in The White House. President Bartlet — whether triumphant in victory or suffering a crushing setback — always responded in the same manner: “What’s next?” That’s a brilliant example of how to handle any situation. Activate the next issue on your own agenda, and don’t deliberate over defeat. Autopsies are for medical examiners, not managers.

2. Realize that you’re not the problem.

In his groundbreaking work, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, Ph.D. Martin Seligman wrote what should be required reading for every persuasion professional. He initially concentrated on the habits of explanation, or how people explain what most frequently happens to them. Those who were pessimistic (and less resilient) when facing setbacks would blame themselves: “I’m the reason this sale failed.” Optimists, on the other hand, (predisposed to being resilient) would blame the circumstances and then move on to the next challenge: “The buyer was in a bad mood, and there’s nothing I can do about that.”

Seligman notes that optimism won’t change what a salesperson says to the prospective buyer; rather, it will change what the salesperson says to himself after a negative exchange. Instead of telling himself, “I’m no good,” he might rationalize that “the client was too busy to fully consider my offer.” That particular target chose not to agree to your course of action at that particular time. That’s it. There is no connection to your worth as a person or the validity of your viewpoint.

3. Understand the external locus of learning.

For people who claim they already know what they need to know, a setback can be devastating. If, on the other hand, people believe their locus of learning is internal, they can shrug off the setback and tell themselves, I’ll have to get some coaching or read up on how to improve my presentation skills, so next time I’ll experience a better result. The world always seems a little brighter for these people, because they have more arrows in their quiver. You can always learn more about the subject, the target and/or the process of persuasion.

4. Ignore unsolicited feedback.

Alan Weiss, author of Million Dollar Consulting: The Professional’s Guide to Growing a Practice, tells the memorable story of how — following a rousing talk to a capacity crowd that gave him a standing ovation — a speech coach approached him and asked if she could provide some feedback. “Is there anything on the planet that might stop you?” Weiss wisecracked in his own inimitable way. She proceeded to tell him that she couldn’t concentrate on his message, because he always moved around on stage, and that he should stand still to make a point. My point: Pay no attention to suggestions of your so-called “supporters” — especially if they tell you that you should have tried harder or danced on the ceiling. Instead, seek out constructive feedback from credible individuals you trust.

Next time, I’ll explore four more ways to bounce back after hearing “no.”