Book reviews - Presentations - Sales

Persuasion Lessons from the Man Who Got Bin Laden

I was intrigued to read a profile on Vice Admiral William McRaven, the commander of Joint Special Operations Command which executed the nearly flawless raid to kill bin Laden. Admiral McRaven wrote a book, SpecOps: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice, which examines eight case studies of special operations raids and distills lessons from these into six principles that must be followed to varying degrees in order to succeed in these highly risky ventures.

My intention in reading the book was simple curiosity: I happen to like military history and I’m always intrigued by people who can combine action and scholarliness. As I read, however, I was struck by some of the parallels with practical persuasion efforts. So, with advance apologies to the Admiral, I’m taking the liberty of applying most of his lessons to persuasion campaigns, especially presentations and sales calls to high level decision makers.

In conventional operations, the inherent advantages of being on the defensive mean that attackers usually need a significant numbers advantage to succeed. Special operations are risky because the operators are outnumbered and on the attack, but special operations have to be small because size slows you down, adds to complexity, and reduces the advantages of surprise.

So, how do outnumbered attackers succeed? By achieving relative superiority, “the condition which exists when an attacking force, generally smaller, gains a decisive advantage over a larger or well-defended enemy.”

In military operations, relative superiority provides more force over an opponent at a decisive place and moment. In persuasion, there is no force involved, and the people you are trying to persuade are usually not your enemies. Most importantly, failure during a presentation does not get you killed nor does it have the potential to result in national humiliation. Yet, I believe the principle still applies. When you’re facing a room full of high-level decision makers, they usually outrank you, may be more generally knowledgeable, and have the money or resources you need. Or, you may be facing an entrenched competitor who is well-positioned in the account. Both of these conditions confer “weakness” on you, but you can achieve relative superiority in the sense that you are better prepared and know more about that particular topic at that time than anyone in the room.

The six elements are: simplicity, speed, security, repetition, surprise and purpose. If you plan, prepare and execute keeping McRaven’s principles in mind, you can do the most humanly possible to achieve success.


Let’s start with your planning phase. McRaven says simplicity is the most crucial of the six elements, because it makes each of the other principles easier to achieve. In persuasion, this means limiting your objectives and clarifying your explanations. Trying to do too much, such as having too many purposes in your sales call plan, reduces the chances of each single purpose being achieved and confuses your customer. In a presentation, having one clear theme forces you think very carefully about what your audience needs to know to understand and buy into it.

Intelligence (substituting for Security)

The second principle is security, which is necessary to prevent the opponent from finding out in advance about your plans. Persuasion is different in that it’s generally a good idea for people to know in advance what you’re going to ask for, because new ideas may take time to become acceptable. So, instead of security I’m going to substitute intelligence as a vital principle. McRaven does not discount the importance of sound intelligence—he just lumps it under simplicity, because good intelligence limits the number of unknown factors that must be considered. The 1970 raid to free American POWs in Son Tay prison demonstrates both the possibilities and limitations of intelligence in special operations. Intelligence was so detailed that planners found a five-minute gap in the way two radar systems rotated and were able to slip aircraft into that time slot. Of course, the glaring intelligence failure was that the prisoners had been moved out some time before the raid.

Before a presentation or sales call, avoid the Dreaded DK² by gathering as much information as possible about your customer, the people in the audience, competing alternatives,


The third principle, repetition, applies during the preparation phase. As I’ve written before, excellence is not an act but a habit. Repetition hones your skills so that you can react quickly and surely when the need arises, even under severe stresses. Repetition is not merely practicing your presentation several times, because there are bound to be unexpected deviations from the original plan, and you must be able to deal with those as well. When the Israelis flew 2200 miles to Entebbe airport in Uganda to rescue hostages, the lead C-130 pilot had to perform a difficult short-field landing at night with only one rehearsal, but he had done hundreds before as part of his training. This means that you must practice the basics over and over; the best way to be a better salesperson or speaker is to go on lots of sales calls and speak as often as possible—and learn from each iteration. That way, you will be ready to deal with unexpected objections or quickly take advantage of opportunities.

The final three principles, surprise, speed, and purpose, apply during the execution phase.


As we saw earlier, surprise is not always a good thing to achieve in strategic persuasion, but it does have a place in the actual execution. When you surprise people during a presentation, for example, you get their attention, and that can help make your message memorable. Surprise may also be necessary when facing a hostile audience. If you try to argue against their position from the beginning, you are likely to be met with closed ears and minds, so you should begin by seeming to side with their position and then gradually undermine it.  (Re-read Mark Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar for a masterful demonstration of this tactic.)


If you’re outnumbered deep in enemy territory, the need for speed is obvious. But it also applies as well to persuasion, as illustrated by the old saying, “Be brief, be bright, be gone.” Conciseness is a huge asset, especially when talking to senior level people. It’s important to them because of the incessant demands on their time; if they tune out before you get to your point, you’ll lose no matter how well-argued it is. It’s important to you because the process of making your message concise will clarify it and make it better.


The final principle is the moral factor of purpose, which means that every member of the team understands and is personally committed to achieving the prime objective of the mission regardless of what obstacles arise. The book contains two case studies of underwater attacks on ships that demonstrate the incredible results that can be achieved through sheer determination and commitment to purpose. In persuasion, being committed to your idea and your cause is probably the most important asset you can have.

McRaven’s book is excellent overall, but the best part about reading it is the knowledge that its author applied its lessons in one of the most successful and consequential special operations mission in history. Sometimes persuasion does not work and you need men like the SEALs to get the message across in a different way. He and so many others like him, deserve our gratitude.

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October 12, 2012
1 Comment
  • Krishnan Vijayaraghavan

    Very nice article and am grateful to the armed personnel for the level of planning and systematic thought behind these repeated efforts. You bring about the similarities between these two worlds very well. I can personally relate to one or two meetings where the surprise factor did work very well.

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