As a leader, your persuasive skills are often the most critical determinants of your success. Or at least, that’s what many people believe.
If it’s so important then, why do so few people develop this competency?
It is a skill that (much like leadership itself) is something many think that you either have it or you do not. You may even have said of someone, in some awe, “Oh, s/he’s very persuasive”.
So what is it and how do you develop this skill?
Let me start with the dictionary again…
Firstly, what is persuasion?
per·sua·sion per-swey-zhuhn –noun
1. the act of persuading or seeking to persuade.
2. the power of persuading; persuasive force.
3. the state or fact of being persuaded or convinced.
4. a deep conviction or belief.
So when we talk about persuading someone, the skill is to persuade or your persuasiveness…
Persuasive Per*sua”sive, n.
That which persuades; an inducement; an incitement; an exhortation. — Per*sua”sive*ly, adv. —
the power to induce the taking of a course of action or the embracing of a point of view by means of argument or entreaty; “the strength of his argument settled the matter.”
The literature usually instructs us to follow two parallel streams of logic. First, we are taught to frame the message based on the other party’s needs and the specifics of the situation. Sadly, this advice is tantamount to telling an insomniac that the best cure for his problem is a good night’s sleep. ‘Framing’ your message should be based on the needs and the situation. (Sussman 1999).
Secondly, the message should be constructed such that the recipient perceives it with an overarching theme, either evaluative or descriptive. For example, we may want the recipient to interpret the message through a filter of “good-bad”, “profit-loss”, or “cost-benefit”.
A frame orients the recipient to examine a message with a particular disposition or inclination. Framing a message focuses recipient’s attention on data and premises within the frame – i.e. attempts to reduce ‘noise’ and external environment influences that may detract from the intended message.
By framing a message, we achieve three interrelated goals. First, we select an evaluative theme or perspective believed to be the most credible, compelling and appropriate to our intent. This view provides a filter through which we want the recipient to assess our position and supporting evidence. Secondly, we select specific evidence that best supports the perspective. Finally, we create a structure for organizing the evidence. Thus, the frame provides the recipient with a focus on perspective and rational supporting evidence presented in a clear sequential pattern.
Sussman (1999) presents four practical steps to creating a frame.
Determine your specific objective. What specifically do you want the decision-maker to do?
- Conduct a focused SWOT analysis on the other party’s current status. This enables you to develop strategies that either make the most of the recipient’s strengths and external opportunities or minimize internal weaknesses and external threats. Sussman’s advice is to focus attention on the most significant element in each of the four quadrants rather than being exhaustive.
- Determine the recipient’s core values. Values reflect character, motives and behaviour. For some individuals and groups, the values are implicit and must be inferred. One useful technique for developing a frame based on analyzing core values is to demonstrate any inconsistency between what other party’s espouse and how they actually behave. This technique is an application of Festinger’s (1957) cognitive dissonance theory. If you can frame your message by demonstrating a contradiction between stated values and actual behaviour, you have tapped into a powerful, persuasive technique.
- Write a simple, vivid, evaluative statement that links steps 1 and 2.
- The statement should be simple and short to convey the message quickly. Use of ‘emotional’ words makes the statement vivid. The frame created by the declaration must orient the decision-maker from the specific perspective that casts the most favourable light on the proposal. This prepares the recipient to judge the subsequent arguments and evidence as being on either end of the following value dichotomies: good-bad, right-wrong, smart-stupid, risky-conservative.
Williams and Miller (2002) identify five styles of decision-making and the ways to influence each. Their study of over 1600 executives across a broad range of industries identified the different forms of decision-making exhibited by senior leaders in a purchasing decision. Whilst recognizing that executives may not present only one style exclusively, they suggest that they will typically show a default style. The five styles are:
- Charismatics – enthusiastic, captivating, talkative and dominant characteristics – they are easily intrigued by a new idea, but experience has taught them to decide based on balanced information.
- Thinkers – cerebral, intelligent, logical and academic characteristics – impressed with arguments supported by data, tending to be risk averse.
- Skeptics – demanding, disruptive, disagreeable and rebellious characteristics – tend to be highly suspicious of every data especially anything challenging their worldview – often aggressive and combative.
- Followers – responsible, cautious, brand-driven and bargain-conscious characteristics – make decisions based on similar choices in the past or how others have made them.
- Controllers – logical, unemotional, sensible, detail-oriented, accurate and analytical characteristics – abhor uncertainty and ambiguity – tend to focus on the pure facts of an argument.
Williams and Miller suggest tactics for dealing with each style fitting with the way in which decisions are made.
In practice, the styles are useful guides, but it is especially difficult to pigeonhole a decision-maker in a short period. Questioning and probing skills may reveal underlying characteristics as discussions unfold though this may be too late to change tactics mid-stream or indeed prepare for a different decision-making style. However, preparing in advance for each of the various styles makes for thorough preparation and the persuader’s art is in choosing the approach that instinctively feels right given their current understanding.
Strategic selling techniques
Heiman and Sanchez (1998) have developed a sales system that encourages a detailed analytical and strategic approach to each sales situation. Key to this method is how a salesperson works with the various buyers in a sales decision process. They identify four key Buyer Influences:
- Economic – releases the money
- User – judges impact on the job
- Technical – screens out
- Coaches – guides the salesperson on a particular sale
In addition, they identify five critical factors to consider about each individual’s degree of influence on the sales process:
- Organizational impact – where in the organization will the proposal have the greatest impact?
- Level of expertise – who is the most knowledgeable and likely to be referred in the area of expertise being judged?
- Location – where in the world are the key influencers… and can you get to them?
- Personal priority – those, who place this proposal highest in their priorities, are likely to exert greater influence deliberately
- Politics – consider the politics of the proposal and how it might impact. Are you likely to be treading on somebody else’s turf?
Festinger, A. (1957). Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, Stanford University Press.
Heiman, S. E. and D. Sanchez (1998). The New Strategic Selling. London, Kogan Page.
Sussman, L. (1999). “How to frame a message: the art of persuasion and negotiation.” Business Horizons 42(4): 2-7.
Williams, G. A. and R. B. Miller (2002). “Change the way you persuade.” Harvard Business Review May 2002.