5 Ways to Become More Persuasive

To convince someone to buy into your ideas, you need to be able to think on your feet.
5 Ways to Become More Persuasive
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Executive Coach, New York Times bestselling Author, Leadership Development Consultant
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To give your career a boost in 2019, consider beefing up your soft skills. According to a new LinkedIn survey, 57 percent of senior leaders said such abilities are more important than technical expertise in any given area.

The reason for the growing appreciation for soft skills may be the rise of automation and AI. Those developments make it crystal clear that interpersonal effectiveness is uniquely human, and thus not easily outsourced to machines.

Soft skills encompass many qualities -- adaptability, a positive attitude and problem-solving abilities are a few examples -- but the survey suggests that the soft skills most in demand in 2019 will be persuasiveness and creativity. It is no surprise that these two qualities sometimes go hand in hand. To convince someone to buy into your ideas, you need to be able to think on your feet.

Related: If You Want Power and Opportunity, Work On Your Persuasion Skills

It may seem that some people are born with these two talents. But the truth is that these skills can be learned -- and refined. Here are five strategies for honing your own powers of persuasion.

1. Speak to the other person’s values.

All you need to do is glance at the U.S. political climate to know that both liberals and conservatives are doing a poor job of convincing each other of their respective points of view. That is exactly what prompted Matthew Feinberg, who teaches organizational behavior at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, and Robb Willer, a sociologist at Stanford University, to study how to overcome such polarization.

The two researchers ran a series of experiments in which the participants had to convince their political opposites to buy in to such policies as legalizing same-sex marriage or making English the official language of the U.S. Unsurprisingly, the success rate in this intentionally polarized experiment was low -- less than 10 percent. In some cases the participants’ conversations devolved into claims of loose morality and other unhelpful accusations. But the one bright spot in this bleak picture is that participants who presented arguments that aligned with their opponents’ values were much more likely than other participants to gain support. For example, conservatives could conceive of supporting universal health care -- a salient issue for liberals -- when it was suggested that diseases might spread if people were uninsured and couldn’t get proper medical care. 

"Instead of alienating the other side and just repeating your own sense of morality, start thinking about how your political opposition thinks and see if you can frame messages that fit with that thought process," Feinberg advised.

2. Know when -- and when not -- to use emotional language.

It’s one thing to be positive when you’re trying to influence an outcome, but it’s quite another to use effusive language for that purpose. In a 2018 experiment exploring this idea, participants were tasked with trying to convince someone to buy a product on Amazon. The findings, based on more than 1,200 participants, revealed that they relied on emotional words such as “exciting” or “thrilling” in their sales pitches, and did so much more often than they did when they were asked to write a five-star review for the product but not actually trying to sell it.

Why do people automatically resort to emotion-laden language in seeking to convince someone of something? The researchers concluded that this pattern is rooted in an unconscious impulse -- and one that doesn’t always work. "Our findings indicate that there is a strong enough connection between persuasion and emotion in people's minds that they continue to use emotion even in the face of an audience where that approach can backfire," they wrote. Emotional language can be quite powerful, but, particularly with audiences that are more data-oriented, it may not help you make your case and may even interfere with it.

Your best bet, then, is to practice self-awareness. Gut check your urge to expound on how overjoyed the team will be when they adopt new project-management software, for instance. Focus instead on tangible, practical outcomes including time saved, meetings avoided and productivity levels boosted. All these results may add up to a happier team, but let them discover that on their own.

Related: What Aristotle Can Teach You About Marketing

3. Harness the power of science.

"Anything that looks scientific can make the information you read a lot more convincing," said Aner Tal, a post-doctoral researcher at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab.

Tal’s assertion is based on an experiment involving the product description for a new medication. About 68 percent of the study’s participants believed the featured medicine was effectively reducing illness, however, when a graph was added, the number of believers rose to 96.6 percent -- even though the graphic contained no new information beyond the original description.

This experiment is obviously a cautionary tale if you’re talking about pharmaceuticals. However, it also proves that charts, graphs and other such visuals will enhance the persuasiveness of a presentation. Why do these visuals carry such clout with viewers? A classic study from the University of Minnesota offered some answers. It showed that our brains process images 60,000 times faster than it processes words and that information presented visually is more likely to be remembered -- as well as perceived to be more credible.

4. Frame your argument in a personal story.

Personal storytelling speaks so loudly to the human brain that it can muffle even the most compelling facts. A case in point: childhood vaccinations. Although there is overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccines prevent deadly epidemics, parents who resist vaccinations are often very effective at persuading other parents to do the same -- so much so, in fact, that there was a recent outbreak of measles in Washington state.

Why are anti-vaccination parents so effective in the face of contrary evidence? Because in recounting the drama and vivid details of the side effects their child has experienced from a vaccine, they offer their listeners a story that is compelling and persuasive, said Michael Dahlstrom, an associate professor of journalism at Iowa State University.

Remember this when you’re trying to win someone over. Tell a story, make it personal and keep the data to a minimum -- or better yet, just leave it to the visuals. Your authentic experience clothed in narrative stands an excellent chance of inspiring them to come around to your way of thinking.

Related: Instantly Be More Persuasive With These 12 Tips

5. Arrange seating for maximum impact.

As the above strategies suggest, persuasiveness largely depends on what the presenter does. But, surprisingly, it also depends on where the listeners sit, according to an experiment designed to elicit responses to certain advertisements. 

The researchers discovered that chairs set in a circle fostered a sense of belonging among members of the audience, while chairs set at angles emphasized their individuality. If an ad showed something about family, for example, viewers were more receptive to it if they were seated in a circle.

So think about your goals before you gather your audience to make your case. Are you trying to sell them on something that will impact the group? Or that will affect each one individually? Design your seating accordingly.

Some of these five tactics may have more potential in certain circumstances than in others, but all five can often work in concert to prime the persuasion pump. In any event, practice all of them. If senior leaders believe soft skills are now on the rise, and if they believe persuasiveness and creativity are two that will be in great demand, the sooner you sharpen them the better.

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