Friday, September 2, 2011

Putting Persuasion to Work

In the competitive marketplace of ideas, it takes more than innovative thinking to succeed. You must be able to persuade others that your ideas are worthy of their attention, acceptance, or investment.

In my last post, I suggested why most technical professionals have a particular struggle with persuasion. They've been taught to communicate in ways that are fundamentally nonpersuasive. This week we turn the issue around and explore ways to become more persuasive as practicing engineers, architects, or scientists in this business.

These days it's hard to discuss the topic of persuasion without acknowledging the work of Robert Cialdini, an Arizona State University psychology professor who spent years investigating the body of research on this subject. He summarized his findings in the popular book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Cialdini concluded that among the different studies, six primary psychological and social principles emerge that underpin effective persuasive strategies:
  • Reciprocity. Most people are inclined to return a favor. Extend generosity or kindness to others and they will likely feel a sense of obligation to reciprocate in kind.
  • Commitment and consistency. Most people desire to fulfill promises and act consistently with their convictions. Get them to make an initial commitment in your direction and it becomes easier to persuade them to take the next steps.
  • Social proof. People tend to follow what others are doing, especially those who are respected or admired. We see this expressed in part through the so-called "herd mentality."
  • Liking. People are most inclined to agree to requests from people they know and like. No doubt, trust is a critical factor here.
  • Authority. People tend to comply with the requests or desires of those in position of authority. In our business, expertise can serve as a substitute for positional authority.
  • Scarcity. People tend to give greater value to something that is rarer, less available, or time limited. Thus they are more easily persuaded to choose a particular option if they perceive it's necessary to avoid a "missed opportunity."
These are valuable principles to keep in mind, but the challenge is transform these into practical application. Below are some persuasive strategies that I have used with success for years, going back well before I discovered Cialdini's research (it's always good to find empirical validation for what seems to work!). Where appropriate I'll reference the persuasive principles that seem to apply to each strategy:

Build a foundation of trust. You can't persuade others who don't trust you. That sounds obvious, but I've been associated with several high-profile persuasive efforts (e.g., community relations programs for controversial projects) where technical professionals seemed to ignore the obvious. It doesn't matter how well you construct your technical arguments if no one's listening.

How to build trust? Studies show that trust is derived from the presence of three key elements: (1) concern, (2) competency, and (3) candor. In the A/E industry, we are most focused on competency, demonstrating our expertise and qualifications. We generally get high marks for our candor and honesty. But where we most often come up short in building trust is showing others concern.

You've no doubt heard the old axiom: "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." That's certainly true in attempting to persuade others. The principles of Reciprocity and Liking come into practice here. You'll be far more persuasive if your audience thinks you care about them.

Some tips on demonstrating that you care: Listen, not just for information but to better understand. Focus on the needs and concerns of your audience. Make the connection between your technical solutions and "felt needs." Orient your business activities around serving others, before and after the sale. That establishes a ripe context for persuasion.

Communicate at a personal level. Several studies over the years have remarkably come to the same conclusion: The most persuasive word in the English language is "you." Yet this word is practically banned from many of our persuasive messages (e.g., proposals), seemingly because it's not "professional" enough. Sometimes our definition of professionalism equates to "detached" and "impersonal," even though that's likely not our intent.

Impersonal language and exclusive focus on technical matters impede persuasion. Review the above principles again, and tell me if you see anything that suggests people are moved by cold professionalism and objectivity. So why would we dare produce persuasive communication products that seem to set such a tone?

To reverse this trend, start with the use of first and second person ("you") whenever appropriate. Avoid stuffy "technicalese" and use conversational language instead. Remember you're communicating with people, not faceless entities. Address human needs in your technical discussions.

Engage the emotions. As I noted last week, persuasion is powered by emotion and steered by logic. Yet too often, our attempts at persuasion amount to sitting at the wheel of a motorless vehicle. Don't forget that people make decisions based in large part on how they feel. Ignore that dynamic at your own risk when you need to change minds and actions.

Again, we can see all of the principles of persuasion at work in this regard. So how specifically do you engage the emotions? Showing concern and interacting at a personal level are a good start. Once you've established a rapport, ask questions that explore opinions and reveal feelings. Try to uncover felt needs, not simply objective information. Also, show some enthusiasm about your topic or position. People are more persuaded by your passion than your facts.

Proceed from common ground. One of the most powerful persuasive tactics is to define what you and your audience already agree upon. Begin this process by learning their position, not by telling them yours. Establishing areas of agreement draws on the principles of Consistency and Social Proof. Understanding positions you hold in common enables you to make an appeal for consistency in decision making, while showing agreement among parties can encourage social influence.

Often you will find agreement on the problem and the desired outcome, but lack of consensus on approach. Assuming you've gained the other party's trust, this is where you can best leverage your expertise. I've had good success persuading others on a course of action when I can demonstrate that my ideas are better researched and tested (that's the principle of Authority). But I've learned that this kind of facts-based persuasion generally works well only after I've first built trust and staked out common ground.

Offer legitimate choices. People are by nature reluctant to accept take-it-or-leave-it offers. Yet that's essentially what is presented, for example, in most public meetings where A/E firms outline the proposed design or solution. "This is what we've decided to do, now we'd love to hear your comments." Normally we get away with this, but such meetings sometimes blow up in controversy--and it usually has little to do, really, with whether the audience liked the proposed option.

The reaction comes in response to a perceived attempt to coerce or manipulate rather than persuade. Persuasion by definition involves choices. You're trying to convince someone to choose your position or option. Remove choice and you remove the need for persuasion; instead it becomes more PR or damage control. Now you may argue that in many cases, there are no choices to offer. But that's rarely the case.

For example, at one contaminated site, the owner (and we, their consultant) concluded there was little opportunity for meaningful neighborhood involvement on cleanup options. But we were able to gain their acceptance on technical strategy by opening up discussions on future land use options. In other situations, offering choices on less critical matters helps gain buy-in where choice is limited (i.e., "Do you want that in blue or beige?").

Offering choices helps build trust, and lends the other party a sense of control over the situation. These conditions facilitate the persuasive process.

Feature a few key messages. People may consider a lot of information in making a decision or taking a position, but usually they are persuaded by only a few points of differentiation. A common mistake in our profession is to present lots of facts and data, but to obscure the key decision points. I addressed this issue in part in recent posts on clarifying your proposal's core theme and organizing your writing.

I illustrated the power of focusing one's message last week in a seminar on persuasion. I flashed two sample documents on the screen. Document A was typical of most reports and proposals I've seen--nondescript headings, long blocks of text, few if any graphics. Document B captured main points in bold inline headings (as in this post), short paragraphs, at least one graphic per page.

"Which of these two documents is most persuasive?" I asked. Everyone quickly answered, "Document B."

"Why?" I queried. "You haven't even read what these documents say. How can you say one is more persuasive than the other?"

"Because the second one presents the key points," came the reply. We may not often apply this persuasive tactic, but we intuitively understand it. Why then is it so rare in our firms? Has common sense been preempted by common practice?

To overcome this shortcoming, let me encourage you to do the following: First, determine your purpose; what specific response or outcome are you seeking? Identify what 3-5 key messages you need to clearly communicate to accomplish that purpose. Then present those key messages in such a way that they are unlikely to be overlooked or easily forgotten. This applies to both written and oral persuasive messages.

Another tip for clarifying and focusing your persuasive messages is to practice the "Two-Minute Drill." Imagine you were given only two minutes to persuade your audience. What would you say? What key messages would you need to communicate? Write out your response word for word. Then use it for the close of your presentation. Expand on it for the executive summary of your report or proposal. Break it down to form the starting point of your document or presentation outline.

There's probably someone you need to persuade even today. Take that as an opportunity to begin putting these persuasive strategies into practice. Don't let misplaced conventions get in the way of your being convincing.

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