We all admire the heroic view of persuasion, where the hero deploys his impeccable reasoning, formidable personality and eloquent words to sway an audience. Think 12 Angry Men, or Win One for the Gipper, or, for the more literary-minded, Mark Anthony’s eulogy for Caesar, where he artfully turned the anger of the mob away from Caesar and against his murderers. It’s easy to be fascinated, because that’s where the drama is.
But the most effective persuaders in the long run usually do it without the dramatics. They understand that, in the words of Sun Tzu, the best general is not the one who wins the most battles, but the one who wins without having to fight battles. I learned this on my own when I was a banker, and used to have to bring loan proposals to a committee for approval. After a few rough presentations, I learned to work the system. I would bring the rough version to one of the more influential members, for example, and ask his help in structuring the deal so that it would make sense. This not only gave me the benefit of his experience to improve the proposal, but also would get him committed to the deal, and I would then have an influential champion. I could then go to another member and say, “Chuck and I think____.What do you think?” (By the way, if you can’t find a champion for your idea before you go into the presentation, maybe you’d better reconsider the whole idea.)
I would also figure out quickly if there was going to be a deal-breaker, in which case I would “lose early”. This improved my overall success rate (and hence my reputation). It fed off itself, because with a reputation for bringing in sound proposals I found that I would get fewer questions from the group. I learned that trust must be painstakingly built brick by brick, over time; but once it’s built, assuming you don’t get complacent and do something stupid, it’s a gift that keeps on giving.
In large organizations the complexity of persuasion mushrooms because of the number of people involved. Strategic persuaders learn to figure out the informal paths of influence within the organization; they find out who has the most influence in each type of decision, how they perceive their interests, how they like to receive information, and dozens of other bits of information that go into completing the persuasion mosaic.
Because of their complexity, persuasion campaigns take on the character of a military campaign, where countless details need to be considered, resources marshaled on your behalf, allies to be lined up, and opponents’ moves and countermoves to be considered. Today’s military planners are taught to “shape the battlefield”; the last thing they want is a fair fight. For example, seasoned negotiators know that their personal performance at the negotiating table can only influence the final agreement within a narrow range that has been dictated already by the respective power and positioning of the participants.
Of course, because people are unpredictable and circumstances change, you have to strike the right balance between process and flexibility. There’s an article in this month’s Harvard Business Review that compares the management styles taught by the Air Force and Navy to those used in the Army and Marines. Because of the complexity and immense expense of the weapons platforms of the former, their style is much more rigid and process-driven. Persuaders need to follow the lead of the Army and Marines, who stress careful planning as well, but also place a premium on flexibility and individual initiative. I personally have never seen a sales call go exactly as planned, but the process of planning has saved me on numerous occasions.
When you’re careful to stack the deck in your favor, it also has an effect which I didn’t realize at the time. Trying to persuade another before you’re ready increases the risk not only of failure but of hardening their position. If your arguments are easy for the other person to counter, they act as an “inoculation”, in which fighting off a weaker version of the disease strengthens the immune system against the stronger version. By causing them to bring arguments against your position, they strengthen their “mental immune system” against your position. And, if they oppose you publicly, they are much less likely to shift from their original position. We all admire those who are persistent in the face of disagreement, but it’s usually better to put in the time before the first persuasion attempt rather than after.
Persuading a single individual is less complex, but even then you must contend with the Persuasion Cycle: new ideas automatically meet with resistance, because our minds are conditioned to resist change and look for the hidden risks (better back this up). Your listener must go from resisting, to being willing to listen, to actually considering, to accepting, and finally to being committed. The process might take seconds or years, but it’s still a process, and skipping a step will probably lead to a breakdown. Good persuaders provide a clear and compelling path from where the other person is to their own position. You can’t provide the path unless you know where they are to begin with, and that takes learning and understanding. If you skip the questioning, listening and understanding steps, it’s much more difficult to make the connection.
In Glengarry Glen Ross, Alec Baldwin plays the hard-nosed sales manager who tells his salespeople: “A-B-C. Always Be Closing.” When you see persuasion as an event instead of a process, ABC is about your only choice. It may work occasionally in the short run, but if you try this with your internal persuasive efforts, you will soon find that no one listens to you. In the long run, it’s better to remember that the way to succeed is to use the three Ps: Process, Positioning, and Preparation.