What is persuasion?

As a leader, your skills of persuasion 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 actually 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 persuuading 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. —

Per*sua”sive*ness, n.

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”.

Framing messages

A frame orients the recipient to examine a message with a certain 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 perspective 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 of 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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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 are able to frame your message by demonstrating a contradiction between stated values and actual behaviour, you have tapped into a powerful persuasive technique.
  3. Write a simple, vivid, evaluative statement that links steps 1 and 2.
  4. he statement should be simple and short to convey the message quickly. Use of ‘emotional’ words makes the statement vivid. The frame created by the statement 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 wide range of industries identified the different styles of decision-making exhibited by senior executives in a purchasing decision. Whilst recognizing that executives may not exhibit only one style exclusively, they suggest that they will typically show a default style. The five styles are:

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 of time. 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 different 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 technique is how a salesperson works with the various buyers in a sales decision process. They identify four key Buyer Influences:

In addition they identify five critical factors to consider about each individual’s dgree of influence on the sales process:

  1. Organizational impact – where in the organization will the proposal have the greatest impact?
  2. Level of expertise – who is the most knowledgeable and likely to be referred in the area of expertise being judged?
  3. Location – where in the world are the key influencers… and can you get to them?
  4. Personal priority – those who place this proposal highest in their personal priorities are likely to deliberately exert greater influence
  5. 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.
Selling techniques
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.

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