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.

Use Fewer Words to Obtain More Results

During a recent visit to a Milwaukee-area post office, I couldn’t help but notice the abundance of service options and point-of-sale items available, all offered in an effort to stimulate postal sales and revenue.

But the attempts by behind-the-counter employees to persuade customers to purchase those services or items usually bordered on the feeble, if they’re talked about them at all. “Would you like your package to be sent overnight, Priority, First Class or regular mail?” they usually asked half-heartedly, sparking discussions about the differences in services and costs.

And so it went.

“Would you like delivery confirmation?”

“Do you need any stamps today?”

“Are you interested in renting a post office box?”

This all takes time, and most people want to get in and out of the post office as quickly as possible. Not to mention, when you are 15th in line, you’ve heard those phrases so many times that you stop caring.

If the U.S. Postal Service wants more business, its transactions should be more efficient! What’s my solution? Why, two-for questions, of course: “First Class?” “Delivery confirmation?” “Need stamps?”

Whether you are in a B2C or B2B selling environment, the sales-persuasion possibilities using the two-for method are almost limitless.

B2C face-to-face exchanges might include: “Day off?” “Come far?” “Nice outside?” “Half day?” “Lunch break?”

B2B exchanges could be one of these: “Big project?” “Good meeting?” “Tough sell?” “Long day?” “Good call?”

The only boundary is your creativity (and perhaps good taste).

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 Respond to All Those ‘Can We’ Questions

Often buyers (and other persuasion targets) will ask if they can do something out of the ordinary, some sort of customization to the sale. In the motorcycle business, one common question customers ask is, “Can we …”

Can we make it louder?
Can we make it faster?
Can we make it lower?
Can we make it shinier?
Can we make it …

Sometimes a buyers even asks all of those questions.

In other jobs, you might hear things like this:

Can we create our own color schemes?
Can we set our own fee thresholds?
Can we accelerate the timeline?
Can we not and say we did?
(I’m kidding.)

Far too often in the act of persuasion, people get side-tracked on some customizing-research adventure before they’ve even closed in on the primary decision: Are we going to work together? Do we have a project? Do we have a deal?

If you allow your target to derail that primary decision, you will end up increasing the amount of effort expended and in all likelihood reduce the possibility of actually reaching a worthwhile decision.

When your target asks one of those “can we” questions, be ready with an effective and compelling response. As long as you believe the request is within the scope of possibility, one of my favorites responses goes like this:

If you can devise it, we can do it. We believe we have the best talent and most capable resources in the businessWe can make just about anything a reality. Here’s what I suggest we do.

First, let’s pick the approach that’s right for you. Then once we get the basic agreement worked out, I’ll introduce you to our people and we’ll get busy.

Now, tell me more about …

Note that this reply assures the buyer you will be able to help, and that you’ve got the staff and resources to do so. Then, a transition statement takes you back to the primary decision that needs to be made.

This response helps you stay in control and not get sidetracked by all sorts of questions about customization.

Talk More, Persuade More

In a previous post, I wrote about ways you can use the written word to persuade others. 

Another method of sharing your ideas, boosting your credibility and helping others see that your way is best is to get up and talk to groups of people. This follows the same approach as writing, just using different communication skills.

Who should you talk to?

  • Local business clubs and associations
  • Better Business Bureaus
  • Area trade associations
  • Internal groups within your company
  • Audiences at specific industry events
  • Attendees of off-site business functions
  • Listeners to call-in radio talk shows

Anyplace you can position yourself as an expert will work. Remember, the message needs to be as non-promotional as possible. If you sell computer consulting services, provide advance information on computing solutions that will be available in the coming year, or ways to protect against identity theft. If you sell cars, explain the lasting impact of hybrid vehicles. If you sell real estate, expound on the “new normal” and how it relates to property values. Do this enough, and you’re talking real sales torque.

Most people aren’t professional public speakers, so it’s wise to learn how to create an engaging “open” – an interesting way to start your talk. My favorite involves asking a rhetorical question. For example, “Have you ever wanted an automated solution that could make your job easier and your commissions higher?”

Then make three to five brief points about your topic – each supported by a fact, statistic, or anecdote.

Finally, summarize what you talked about, and what you’d like your audience to do or feel as a result of spending time with you.

Whether you’re leading a talk at a local business association, writing op-ed pieces for newspapers on relevant topics, or starting meaningful discussions among your colleagues on LinkedIn, you mustn’t be afraid to put yourself out there by engaging in activities that will attract more people willing to sing your praises — I like to call them “personal evangelists.”

What Do Mirrors Have to Do with Effective Persuasion?

I still remember a classic cartoon in The New Yorker that depicted a hiring manager and a job candidate sitting across a desk from each other, looking like mirror images. The hiring manager said, “I don’t know what it is about you, but I really like you!”

You look like me, and I like that about you.

Behavioral reflection can create more agreement, faster. It’s imperative to mirror your target’s body language, but the key is subtlety. If your target knows he or she is being mimicked, your persuasion prospects are greatly diminished.

It’s dangerous to hire, befriend, or support only those people who resemble us, and that’s not the point here. But making others feel comfortable by your actions is strong persuasion. That can be accomplished by “mimicking” (and I mean that in the best possible sense of the term; mimicking is not “mocking”) others’ own comfort zones.

The most obvious behavioral reflections include examples you probably already feature in your repertoire: Don’t remain seated if someone who is standing begins speaking with you. Smile if the other person smiles in greeting. Show proper facial expressions as the conversations develops. Don’t begin eating until everyone at the table has been served and your host begins to eat.

Those should be fairly obvious (though in today’s educational environment and lax society, you can never be sure). But what about more subtle forms?
Look at the person speaking, but don’t reveal any indication that you might be skeptical or feel exasperated. Don’t shift nervously, and attempt to match the speaker’s own level of energy and excitement, or his low-key minimalist nature. This is not manipulative body language; rather it comforts, enhances communication, and strengthens your persuasion power.

Reflect on situations you expect to be in and the people you expect to join you. Rather than constantly interrupt someone who needs to “think out loud,” exhibit patience and make that person feel at ease with his own cognitive processes. Similarly, don’t demand that someone who doesn’t get excited join in your excitement. Moderate your tone, and never insist on your own comfort. If people prefer to stand and converse, or chat over a meal, or sit in casual furniture, or walk about the property, join them. The more comfortable they are, the more likely they will be to listen to your case.

In new situations, take time to observe and evaluate the other person’s preferences. Mirror what you see. In ongoing situations, prepare accordingly for what you’ve experienced in the past. The key to the artistry of persuasion is flexibility — not some perfect style or behavioral predisposition.

All of this is simple to understand but may require time and practice in perfecting. Amazing things can happen when you adjust to environmental conditions in order to make your point.

How Savvy Words Can Increase Your Persuasion Success

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating — especially in discussions about persuasion: Logic makes you think, emotion makes you act.

Some words are more compelling than others because of their emotional heft. They create powerful mental images to which listeners can readily relate.

That’s why some of the best word choices are aspirational (terms that compliment and inspire), emotional (ones that prompt an immediate response) and involve loss language (which spells out the potential consequences or risks):

  • Our savviest customers; the company’s diverse suite of products; your compelling presentation
  • A sensitive situation; an urgent response; a feel-good solution
  • If we don’t act now, we might have to forfeit this opportunity; are you really willing to surrender to the competition?

    Unpack your trunk of adjectives and punch up the power quotient.

    Instead of just saying the team has to make a decision, try describing it as a crucial decision, or perhaps a far-reaching decision or a key decision.

    Be descriptive of your perception of another person’s perspective as enlightened, critical or well- informed.

    You’ll often see these words repeatedly used in advertising copy, because they repeatedly work: fast, easy, guaranteed, powerful, quick, inexpensive.

    Remember that a strength overdone is a weakness. Judiciously used, well-chosen adjectives can work tremendously; overuse, on the other hand, leads to hyperbole.

    Choose your words wisely.

  • Use These 6 Words to Hear ‘Yes’ More Often

    When you are in the process of persuading, remember six powerful words that will force you to link a meaningful target benefit to your request: What this means to you is … 

    You can’t say it without saying something after it.

    When you start to focus on your justification points for why someone should take you up on your offer, liberally use this phrase as part of your rhetoric.

    Say, for example, you sell Harley-Davidson Motorcycles and are trying to explain to customers why the new Dark Custom™ series rivals the brand’s traditional bikes. Here’s a good line: “The Iron 883™ positions the Evolution engine in the nimble Sportster frame. What this means to you is you’ll be riding an iconic bike that’s dripping with power and character.”

    And what this means to you is … you’ll hear “yes” more often.

    If you don’t include these six words in your pitch, here’s another six words you might want to get accustomed to saying: Would you like fries with that? 

    Want Your Voicemail Messages Returned? Follow These 7 Tips

    If you are currently engaged in the profession of selling and grasp even the basics of solid communication skills, you can stand out like a pro. Here are seven ways to receive a stronger response from your voicemails:

    1. Be interesting, fast.

    You literally have nanoseconds to get someone’s attention. Rather than leave a message that says this: “I’m just calling to follow up on our conversation,” try something like this: “Steve, Mark Rodgers, ABC Motorcycles. I received a status report on your special order, and I think you’re going to like the news. Give me a call and I’ll fill you in.”

    2. Don’t rush the phone number.

    One of the most frustrating things for me when retrieving voice messages is making sure I catch the callback number. You can’t always trust a cellphone’s callback option, which might register as a general number and not a direct line. When leaving your phone number in a voicemail, say the numbers singularly and slowly, and then on the second go-round, deliver the final four digits in pairs: “That’s 2-6-2, 7-5-4, ninety-six, thirty-seven.”

    3. Use a cliffhanger.

    You know how reality TV shows always go to commercial right before a big reveal? That device is known as a “cliffhanger” — which leads to an “I gotta know!” moment. In the previous example, the caller is teasing Steve by not revealing the good news until Steve calls him back.

    4. Choose your words carefully.

    Let’s go back to the example above for what not to say when leaving a message: “I’m just calling to follow up on our conversation.” Use of the word “just” diminishes the importance of your call and could make the recipient feel as if you’re calling out of obligation. Why should he or she bother to return the call if you don’t really care?

    5. Ask for a specific commitment.

    Think about how you can weave active and voluntary commitment into you message: “Steve, would it be OK if I follow up with you next week to see what you think about some of the options we discussed?” Asking for permission to follow up helps ensure your message will be well received and not considered an intrusion, and being specific helps the recipient focus on one thing.

    6. After three, let it be.

    If you’re working on an immediate objective and have left three messages for your intended target, it’s time to move on. In your final voice message, say something like this: “I’m surprised I didn’t hear back from you, as you seemed quite interested during our initial conversation. I don’t want to hound you, but know that I’m here if you need anything or want to pick up our discussion where we left it.” Then be sure to touch base with that person once a year.

    7. Believe in communication karma.

    Promptly return messages, and others will be more prompt when returning yours. In my consulting practice, I respond to all phone messages within one day, and usually sooner. And people return my calls, too.

    How to Argue Effectively

    I remember a long-ago staff meeting in which I was asked to share my thoughts on a proposal I didn’t much care for.  I knew, though, if I blurted out something like, “I think this is a horrible idea that could potentially debilitate our market share,” I wouldn’t have done myself any favors.

    So I kept my emotions in check and learned a valuable lesson about how to make a valid point in a staff meeting that can potentially change the future direction of a particular initiative.

    The first step is to remain calm — unemotional, even. Don’t change your facial expression or display body language that shows you disagree with something being said. Simply and politely interject and casually reframe the issue under discussion: “If I may interject here, I think the real question we should be asking ourselves is … ”

    Then provide three points supporting your position, and reinforce each one with a fact, statistic, or anecdote: “Why would we want to enter an already overcrowded marketplace with a new product that strays from what we do best? First, we’ll be behind all of the existing manufacturers in the market, and that’s not a place we’re accustomed to being. The latest user surveys suggest we are the go-to brand in all of our product categories; we won’t be with this new one. Do consumers really need or even want another choice? Research shows they already think the market is saturated. Also, some of our current customers might question why we’re moving away from our niche. We’ll be like Coors deciding to sell bottled water in the Nineties.”

    Finally, make a recommendation: “I’m in favor of pouring our resources and talent into a new product that will strengthen our current market share and not erode our credibility with consumers.”

    If your persuasive tactics are met with skepticism or downright ignored, bring in the heavy artillery: “Do we have data and examples that prove there is a need for the type of product you want to develop?”

    If your targets are unable to come up with satisfactory answers, great. Your work here is done. But if they engage your artillery with their own, inquire about the source of that information. Perhaps the firm used to gather market research has been the target of other companies regarding its questionable data gathering.

    This process works in non-meeting situations, too. Consider the people who work at a Kia dealership and need to convince BMW loyalists that Kia’s K900 luxury model (with a base price of $50,000) is an overall better value than that 528i sedan they’re driving now. Those salespeople don’t want to waste their time and energy talking about Kia’s lengthy and successful tradition of making mainstream, economy-friendly cars; they must focus on the fact that Kia is a luxury automobile maker, too, and emphasize that from visual, drivability and technological perspectives, the K900 compares favorably to the 528i. But add in options, and you’ll be paying a lot more to outfit that Bimmer with what comes standard on the K900.