Zip Your Backpack (And Other Pieces of Persuasion Advice)

Do you remember buying your first home? This time of year, my mind often drifts back to our first autumn of home ownership — oh, so many years ago.

After years of carefree condo living, my wife, Amy, and I found ourselves overwhelmed with the chores a house requires. I do not live to putter, paint, fix things or — heaven forfend — cut our grass in crazy patterns. In my mind, taking out the recycling bin should qualify me for a show on HGTV.

Driving home one glorious afternoon that first fall in our new home — dreading the prospect of raking those ever-deepening, never-ending, football-interrupting, infernal leaves — I found my salvation. A neighbor was using a Ghostbusters-like leaf vacuum to make short work of his leaves.


One Home Depot visit later, I was all fired up (literally and figuratively). I had my backpack strapped on, and I was ready to attack our leaves. “Man, this thing works great.” I said to myself as my new contraption sucked up the piles of leaves in front of me. “Maybe I am a chore guy, after all!”

As I consumed pile after pile of leaves, I began to wonder: “Man,” I said to myself, “this backpack has incredible capacity.” Just then, I looked over my shoulder and saw a plume of mulched leaves shooting out behind me like the fountains at the Bellagio.

Here’s the lesson I learned that day: Zip your backpack.

So many people just go through the motions — letting crucial information, opportunities and clues to their persuasion success pass through their consciousness like leaves through my leaf vacuum. Here are some tips for tuning in to others and helping you become more persuasive:

1. Ask short, two-word questions. 

End on an up inflection, and then punctuate with a pregnant pause. 

  • “Good meeting?” 
  • “Tough quarter?” 
  • “Big day?”
  • “Exciting project?”
  • “New client?” 

And then listen, making note of the response. Even a casual “Fun weekend?” will result in information about the other person’s current state, or personal and professional agendas.

2. Note if someone is wearing a Fitbit or some other biofeedback device.

That means he or she is likely into health and is familiar with metrics. (“Work out?”)

3. Pay attention to what people drive, wear and put on the walls of their office. 

If they’re driving a Jeep with a roof rack, they might be an outdoors person. Wearing Birkenstocks? Your prospect is no doubt interested in personal care and comfort. Is the office adorned with family photos, pictures taken with celebrities or plated with degrees and certifications? Those items were selected for a purpose. Remember: Small details can signal big tells.

4. Listen to what they argue for stridently in meetings.

Consumer data? More reasonable project deadlines? Are there recurrent themes in your conversations with them? Perhaps long weeks? Capacity constraints? The dearth of qualified job applicants?

These are the items on their agenda (which is not a negative; everyone has a personal and professional agenda). Your objective should be to help link your agenda with theirs.

5. Remember: It’s not about you.

Getting what you want is about helping others get what they want. To do that, you must be tuned in and reduce your own obliviousness.

Like me and my unzipped backpack, far too many of us let these crucial pieces of data go in — and then immediately out of — our consciousness. When you are able to capture them, and use them with purpose, you’ll ultimately be able to get what you want.

It starts with zipping your backpack and tuning in to the other person.

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