The Art of Persuasion

It’s not how much you know, it’s what you know about your audience.

It’s tough to admit mistakes. But after all these years of dissecting others’ mistakes (or should I say, "learning opportunities"), it’s time I picked on myself. I recently did something so stupid, the memory still hurts. While in some sort of PowerPoint-induced haze, I thought I could persuade somebody who doesn’t know me to buy into a proposal that he was skeptical about in the first place.

On the surface, the situation seemed fairly innocuous. A client who likes and respects me wanted me to meet with her boss in an effort to get his support for launching an initiative that is important to her. So the two of us scheduled a meeting with him to discuss the topic and argue for a particular approach to the initiative. Before our ill-fated meeting, the boss and I had barely exchanged 20 words. Given the torturous 15 minutes we spent together (that’s right, he ended the meeting early), it’s safe to assume that our relationship (or lack thereof) is going to remain pretty much status quo.

This case is a perfect example of the hazards of focusing on the hard stuff while forgetting the soft skills. I treated the meeting as just another event in a busy day, week and month, and approached it in a way that is typical for many people: I prepared for the content of the discussion without spending a like amount of effort on the context.

My doomed-from-the-start approach and consequent failure is described perfectly by Jay Conger, a professor of leadership studies at Claremont McKenna College. In a 1998 Harvard Business Review article, "The Necessary Art of Persuasion," he defines effective persuasion as "a negotiation and learning process for which a persuader leads colleagues to a problem’s shared solution." My approach neglected the learning aspect and therefore could not result in a shared solution.

In preparation for our meeting with her boss, my client and I had a series of self-congratulatory sessions in which we discussed the current environment, weighed the options and fell in love with an approach. Never did we explore the boss’s views. Like founding members of the "it’s all about me" club, we fell upon our swords, believing that our impeccable "logic, persistence and personal enthusiasm," in the words of Conger, would carry the day.

With full support from my client (who was unable to save me from myself), I came to the meeting armed with a PowerPoint deck. But formal presentations often shut down the very communication that they are meant to foster. Without sufficient knowledge of the interests of the audience, a slide show says, "I’ve got the answers, and you’re here to listen." This type of presentation tends to fall short of the impact of simply asking a few well-thought-out questions earlier in the process.

To make matters worse, I agreed to lead the meeting, assuming that my client’s convictions about my credibility would somehow magically be transferred to her boss. The fact is, credibility is personal. Without a preexistent relationship, whatever favorable goodwill I may have had diminished the moment the meeting started and I fired up my laptop—especially since I was armed with an approach guaranteed to thwart relationship-building. I allowed myself to be lulled by my workload and the comfort I felt with the topic and my existing relationships.

The final mistake—surely the death knell for an approach that was already on life support—was sticking to the PowerPoint deck once the boss volleyed an opening salvo, challenging the first word on the first chart. It was as if he held up a red neon sign that read, "I hate this topic. I hate your approach. And I am starting to hate you." To which I responded, "Yeah, I know, but look at the chart on page 3."

It’s my hope that this column serves as a reminder of what we already know: Persuasion is a process that starts with credibility. Credibility comes from listening to people to understand them and respect their points of view. You must address both sides of persuasion by spending as much time on the negotiation and learning process as you would on the content of your solution. If you do so, you will spend less time with your computer and more time with people, listening to their views.

Reader Q&A

Q: I did the same thing recently while pitching to a venture capitalist for an investment. My similar mistake was assuming that his partner’s excitement about our company would be instantly transferred to him. This lesson is timeless and should not be forgotten. Human beings live in this digital world, and we all gravitate to people we like and respect, in that order. You proceed at your own peril when you forget to establish the relationship and credibility up front.

A: Hopefully, you have an opportunity to get up to bat again. After my disastrous meeting, I sent an apology letter and have since smoothed over the situation.

Q: I am having a lunch meeting with three executives as part of a daylong interview process. I’m taking your advice to heart about the soft side of persuasion. Do you have any additional words of wisdom concerning "selling" in an interview situation?

A: Read the book Don’t Send a Resume: And Other Contrarian Rules to Help Land a Great Job (Hyperion 2001) by Jeffrey Fox. He underscores the value of doing your research, preparing a list of great questions and listening to identify the value proposition that you can address with your skills. If you start with effective inquiry, you can transition to advocacy once you know what issues or opportunities are important to your audience.

Q: Your point as I understand it is that the meeting failed because you and your client did not gather sufficient information about the boss’s needs prior to the meeting, and the proposed solution was way off target as a result. I doubt that a reasonable boss who is looking for the ideal solution for his company’s needs would turn you down just because he did not know you before the presentation. I am sure there are such bosses, though, and I think they are a problem for the companies they work for.

A: Think back to the last time you tried to buy a car, a computer or manage a complicated health situation. People have proven time and time again that they will stop listening to people they don’t like or who aren’t listening to them—regardless of the suitability of the product or idea.

Susan Cramm is founder and president of Valuedance, an executive coaching firm in San Clemente, Calif. E-mail feedback to susan@valuedance.com.

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