PUBLISHED OCTOBER 2015
by Mark Rodgers, Principal, Peak Performance Business Group
Persuading people to say Yes to your ideas, offers, and suggestions requires intellectual heavy lifting, and entails making a solid business case for what you’re proposing. And as noted last month in Part 1 of this series, your business case needs two primary building blocks: logic and emotion.
If you want to appeal to logic, you need quantifiable measurements, as explained in the September issue. Numbers are important—absolutely. But for many the real power of persuasion lies on the emotional side of your appeal. As Albert Einstein said: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
Qualitative reasoning can be just as important as quantitative reasoning (if not more important) as it addresses questions such as: Will the organization establish higher morale? Will communication be enhanced and problems more easily solved? Will silos disappear or at least be altered? Will the organization’s image or brand be enhanced?
Qualitative reasoning is much harder to measure and report, but with a bit of cognitive effort, practically any element of qualitative reasoning can be constructed to present meaningful numeric data.
Every organization—public and private, large and small, product-oriented or service-oriented—seeks the following for sound business mental health:
- sustained high morale
- efficient and effective teamwork
- rapid and accurate problem solving
- positive repute and community “citizenship”
- decreased distraction and disruption
- accurate and unbiased communication
These “emotional” factors (sometimes referred to as “soft factors”) are usually the most important for presenting your case and persuading your target. Because, as you already know, logic makes you think and emotion makes you act. All the new plant cost calculations in the world are useless unless current customers are providing the repeat business and referral business to drive the expansion.
Thus, your emotional appeals should deliberately and fastidiously involve soft factors, without exception. But you need to determine which emotional factors appeal to the person or people you want to persuade. Don’t attempt to please yourself or fulfill your needs, quantitatively or qualitatively. Instead, address the other person’s emotional needs and push the appropriate visceral hot buttons. This is not manipulative; it is the essence of sales and persuasion.
Measuring the Unmeasurable
Every persuasive argument contains both quantitative and qualitative aspects. You can’t afford to omit either dynamic, and you must appreciate the supporting role each plays for the other. Mastering a synthesis of the two components will place you far ahead of the other persuaders—both those at the table and those down the block.
“You can’t measure morale!” some shout. “You can’t measure enthusiasm!” Okay, fair enough, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. I have a two-step method to help prove the unprovable. First, describe an observable behavior that you believe is an indicator of the desired result. Second, count the occurrences.
If your proposal has to do with sustained high morale, perhaps you note whether people are on time for staff meetings, or perhaps you calculate what percentage of the staff is displaying positive emotions during a meeting. If you’re seeking efficient and effective teamwork, you might count the number of times people come into your office asking you to settle disputes. If you’re trying to build positive perceptions, you could count positive media mentions.
Is this a perfect method? Of course not, but it is certainly better and more accurate than using intuition alone. And, when you attach measures to the qualitative reasoning for your case, many people will find it more compelling.
To be compelling, you need to conjure emotions within your target. The English language has more than 400 words to describe the concept of “emotion,” and neurologists have identified distinctions between emotions (the automatic brain response) and feelings (the subjective way we interpret those emotions). To simplify things, let’s just consider three categories of emotions: negative, positive, neutral.
Do we ever want to create negative emotions? Well, in a word, yes.
Obviously, you often try to create positive emotions in your targets: If you want to be promoted, you’d like the person in charge of the promotion to have interest in and believe in you and your abilities. If you’re looking to partner with a venture capitalist, you’d want your potential partner to be ecstatic about your idea.
But there may be times when you need to provoke a negative emotion. For example, if you were attempting to convince a sluggish customer service manager that it’s finally time to do something about lackluster service, you might try to make him feel the same frustration you, your colleagues, and your customers feel about his insufficiencies in that area. You may even want him to experience some regret, as he realizes he’s not reaching his full potential as a manager.
Inducing someone to temporarily experience a negative emotion with the aim of having it become the catalyst for fixing a problem is not, in itself, a problem. But beware. Just as in rafting through grade-five white water, the way you navigate the rapids determines your success.
One other note about negative emotions: We’ve all heard that emotions are infectious and that enthusiasm is contagious.
Well, the research is in. Scientists now say that negative emotions are more contagious than positive ones. So induce them judiciously!
What emotions could you create? What emotions should you create, so that you can do the right thing for all involved?
Here are seven emotional objectives to consider when building your case to persuade or dissuade.
- Provoke, by causing a reaction, especially an angry one.
- Inspire, by giving people hope or a reason to agree with you.
- Invoke, by enabling someone to see a particular mental image.
- Awaken, by making someone experience a new feeling or emotion.
- Arouse, by exciting someone with ideas or possibilities.
- Touch, by generating a sad or sympathetic emotion.
- Ignite, by invoking a feeling of success or accomplishment.
Building one or more of these emotional strategies into your business case will materially improve your chances of success. Taking advantage of synergies between quantitative and qualitative justification, you can use the power of emotion to grab attention for your argument and then augment your position with a logical case that will reassure doubters.
I am talking about creating both real and hypothetical case studies to prove a point. To best convince others that your emotional case is relevant and powerful, consider these techniques:
- Draw from other industries by demonstrating how and when your idea has worked elsewhere and why it’s likely to work here. Show precedent.
- Leverage contemporary issues by showing parallels.
- Provide examples that show why quick action is necessary or why a more measured approach is appropriate.
- Create “positional critical mass.” In other words, focus your early arguments on the movers and shakers, champions and avatars, who can best rally support for your position. It also helps to get support from people at the top of the company hierarchy and from popular staff members for the position you espouse.
- Cite external experts (living and deceased) to help cut through uncertainty. If I were attempting to persuade about technology, I’d cite Walt Mossberg, former Wall Street Journal columnist and creator of the popular conference D: All Things Digital; if my persuasion priority involved organizational strategy, I’d reference the late management consultant Peter Drucker.
- Provide opportunities for validation and verification. Present the metrics (quantitative help, once again) that will justify and validate your proposal. For example, if you have 20 percent more customers six months from now than you do today, you’ll know your referral initiative was successful.
- Argue against yourself. Make the anticipated arguments against your own case and rebut them.
Knowing Who You’re Talking To
The primary rule of communication is “Know your audience.” To maximize the chances that your persuasive efforts will be successful, you need not just an airtight pitch, but also key facts about anyone you’re pitching.
There are three key categories to explore: personal information, preferences, and parameters. You won’t need to provide every detail for each category, but the more information you have, the better your chances of success will be. You’ll also be amazed at what you’ll learn.
Personal information. Consider:
- Professional objectives, the goals that are important to a person’s business or career, which may involve status in a hierarchical structure, entrepreneurialism, or business ownership.
- Personal agendas, the goals that involve family, friends, hobbies, travel, recreation, civic and service involvement, religious commitments, and self-development.
- Emotional intensity, which comes into play if a persuasion situation also involves a personal relationship, a belief that goes beyond intellectual evaluations, or commitment over compliance. Think of emotional intensity as the volume knob, not the on/off switch. You can turn it up or down, depending on your needs.
- Personality considerations: Is there any style clash between your personality and that of your target?
- Gender or generational differences: Are you two potentially out of sync because of behavior tendencies influenced by gender? Are generational differences creating a wall between you?
- Organizational influence: What is your target’s organizational horsepower?
- Publicly stated perspective on a given issue: This can include conversations, written communication, the championing of or opposition to similar issues, a role as a stakeholder, and experience with the given situation.
- Trust level: What is the degree of trust shared between you and your target? Think of your personal history with the target, respect given and shown, mutual obligations, favors supplied, and reciprocal support.
- Communication: Does your target prefer to communicate with you and others via e-mail, phone, or text message?
- Data: Some people want all the information; others just want the executive summary. Some people like to study the stats; others like to hear the story. How does your target prefer to get information?
- Work: Does your target approach problem solving in a particular way? Have a go-to person? Often resort to cutting expenses or sales promotions? Exhibit behaviors that may impede your path to yes?
- Interpersonal: Examine your target’s advisers, peers, and sources of influence. Does your target have any exceptionally positive or unusually strained relationships? Also evaluate the probability of whether the target will act independently or succumb to peer pressure.
- Approval authority: This usually relates to economics, budgets, and the ability to secure funding. (Note: Knowing this detail is crucial when dealing with targets in nonprofit organizations.)
- Budget jurisdiction: This relates to your target’s ability to make unilateral decisions, control timing in the budget process, determine ROI considerations, change priorities, and allocate discretionary funds.
- Time constraints: Consider the deadlines you and your target are facing, the magnitude of what needs to be accomplished once agreement is reached, and the hours/days/months/years it will take to make the concept of the ask a reality.
- Issue expertise: This may involve credibility, history in this and similar circumstances, ability to research and study the issue, and public statements.
You may wish to add or amend categories. My point is that in order to define your target and the likelihood of persuasion, you need intelligence—not brain smarts, but “intel.”
I choose not to think of this as “competitive intelligence,” because the target isn’t necessarily in a competitive position (at least we should hope not). But the target is in a questionable position, in terms of how amenable that individual might be to your persuasive charms.
How to Get the Intel
It’s easy to say what to do, but the larger question is how to do it. Here are seven ways to gather evidence:
- Be present. When you’re attending meetings, working with others, or engaging in “hall chat,” try not to be consumed with your own tasks and agenda. These are key times to discover crucial clues that can help you find yes more often.
- Learn to watch and listen. What someone says and how that person says it can tell you a lot. You know your target’s hierarchical rank, but how carefully are you really listening? Pay attention to the inflection, tone, and degree of passion with which your target is communicating. How close is the target already to your position on the issue? Be alert to the reality of the moment.
- Review applicable internal and external information. Think about the conventions, beliefs, protocols, and values people employ to govern their actions. Have conversations, not interrogations. Subtlety is an art form: Rather than say, “What do you know about the organizational politics regarding this project in marketing?” try, “Do you think the new project will be a tough sell to marketing?”
- Use the FORM model for conversations. In other words, bring up “Family,” “Occupation,” “Recreation,” and “Motivation” as you talk with your target. (“Tell me about your family. What do you like best about your occupation? What do you do for recreation? What’s your motivation for working on this project?”)
- Master the fine art of secret polling. Once people make their opinions known, they are loath to change them. That’s why it’s far easier to change the mind of someone who hasn’t yet made a public statement. Attempt to find positions privately without demanding, or even innocently inducing, a public declaration.
- Practice convergent validity. Don’t believe anything until you’ve obtained three pieces of evidence to support it.
- Use the “nod quad.” The following four questions help you hear yes in almost any evidence-gathering situation. You won’t always use all of them, or use them in any particular sequence, but put these in your pocket and pull them out, as needed, to help you find the information you need:
- How much organizational agreement is there about the challenges we’re facing as a company?
- When you say _______ [about time, money, risk, resistance], what specifically do you mean?
- What are you most excited about in your world right now?
- Do you think _______ [this proposal, this initiative, this idea] will be a tough sell in ________ [marketing, legal, research]?
The more significant your request, the more careful your intel gathering should be. When it comes to major projects, issues near and dear to your value system, and asks that are important to your career, you can’t afford to do anything less than engage in some serious quantitative and qualitative reasoning. People who are “natural” persuaders already go through this kind of process automatically and viscerally, without much conscious effort. Call it unconscious competency. You can get there, too.
Mark Rodgers is a principal partner of the Peak Performance Business Group, which helps clients improve their ability to persuade. He has conducted more than 1,500 sales and persuasion workshops. This article is derived from his book Persuasion Equation: The Subtle Science of Getting Your Way, published by AMACOM Books, a Division of the American Management Association; © 2015 Mark Rodgers. All rights reserved. To learn more: amacombooks.org; PersuasionMatters.com.