The Art of Persuasion

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

By Susan Cramm
Fri, July 01, 2005

CIO — 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.

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