Persuasive communication

Four Pillars of Persuasion Power

Today marks exactly one year since I launched Practical Eloquence blog, and I would like to take this opportunity to summarize and stress four key themes that weave throughout every one of the last 97 articles. They apply equally to presentations, to selling, and to any personal communication in which your goal is to persuade or influence others.

Outside-in thinking

It’s not about you—it’s about your audience or your listener.  Audience focused communicators know that the quality of the reception is more important than the elegance of the transmission. They use outside-in thinking, which looks at the persuasion process from the point of view of the other person first. What do they know and don’t know? What are their needs? Why would they say yes or no to your idea? How do they like to receive information?

Persuasion is not about getting people to see things your way; it’s about getting them to see your point in their way. People do things for their reasons, not yours. You have to begin with what the audience knows and believes. Any presentation, sale or other persuasive effort aims to take the other person from Point A, where they are now, to Point B, where you want them to end up. A bridge builder needs to know both the start and end points.

My daughter just delivered a presentation to the PR firm where she interned this summer, and it went off very well. Yet when she rehearsed it the night before for her roommate and her boyfriend (who both interned for a major consulting firm), they told her she needed to talk more about how she “added value” and made process “more efficient”. That was excellent advice—if she were presenting to their consulting firm. It was terrible advice for the audience she spoke to.

Focusing on the audience shows you care about them, and they will reciprocate that regard. Do you want people to listen to you and be interested in what you have to say? Then begin by listening to them and being interested in what they have to say. Do you want to influence them? Be open to being influenced yourself.

There are three sure fire ways to test how audience-focused your approach is:

  • Apply the “SO WHAT” test to everything you say. If you’re talking about your product, you can bet the customer is thinking, “so what?”
  • Count how many times you say “I” vs. “you”.
  • Pay attention to the talk/listen ratio in your conversations.

Clarity of thought:

Effective communication begins with clear thinking. Presenters spend far too much time worrying about their fonts and decorations, or their delivery skills, when most of the battle is won in terms of clear thinking. In the end, content is still king.

Dynamic and charismatic can take you far, but only for so long. As Lincoln said, you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Even the World’s Greatest Orator is learning that he can’t just trot out a speech and automatically work his magic on the American people when they don’t see value in his ideas. Here’s what a previous president said about it:

“And in all of that time I won a nickname, “The Great Communicator.” But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: it was the content. I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things…”[1]

In our era of information overload, clear thinking is more critical than ever. Your listeners will appreciate the value you bring by cutting through the clutter and distilling masses of data and information into nuggets of knowledge that make sense and affect them personally.

Persuasion is a process, and often a compelling presentation makes an impact on an audience—yet the good feeling may have worn off by the following week when they actually make the decision. I’m definitely not against emotional appeals, but I do think they are much more effective when wrapped around a hard core of logic and fact. Emotions wear off, but facts are stubborn things.[2]

Clear thinking begins with:

  • Figuring out your theme—write the headline first.
  • Making sure the content is sound before you worry about your stories, visuals, and metaphors.
  • Basing your case on data rather than opinion where possible, and being candid about your weaknesses.

Preparation:

Audience focus and clear thinking don’t come easily; they take work and preparation. As my first blog post pointed out, presentations are leadership moments, so you owe it to yourself and to your audience to give it your best.

Confidence of expression is a key asset, and preparation is the best guarantor of confidence. It’s also essential to creativity: if you prepare with plenty of time you can have a day or two to let things marinate in your mind and spark new ideas.

Rehearsal also helps to clarify your thinking, because what sounds good inside your head always sounds different when you say it aloud. Even better, try them on someone else. For example, you might find something that is clear to you is confusing to your listeners because they lack a key piece of knowledge that you take for granted.

Being genuine:

Regardless of all the audience focus, clear thinking and preparation you do, you still have to execute effectively when you talk to your audience, whether it is a large group or a single person. I’ve seen too many presenters and salespeople blow it by forgetting that it’s still a conversation in which one human being connects with another. It has to be a genuine conversation.

With the exception of speeches to large audiences,  there should in effect be no difference between a presentation, a sales call, and a conversation. The president of the bank where I used to work was a charismatic, confident speaker in small groups, but sounded like an incompetent fool when the group size reached double digits. You can see a similar phenomenon in sales calls where salespeople either sound like they’re mechanically reading from a script or they fire numerous questions at their prospects but don’t take the time to truly listen to the answers.

During presentations, it’s easy for your audience to be passive—like watching television. Make it a conversation with each individual in the room and, they won’t have a choice; they have to get involved because it’s a dialogue, and it’s personal.[3]

  • Be genuine. Turn abstractions into concrete realities.
  • Plain speaking. Talk to your listeners as you would talk to your best friend over a cup of coffee.
  • Listen. Even when you’re presenting, you should be “listening” by paying attention to the audience’s response—are they buying what you’re saying, or are they distracted or disagreeing?

Keep these four pillars as a guide, and you will become known as caring, smart, thorough, and genuine. Who can ask for more than that?


[1] Ronald Reagan, Farewell Address, January 11, 1989.

[2] John Adams first said that. Wow, I just realized that I alluded to four presidents in that section! I guess they have to know something about persuasion.

[3] It’s also one of the best antidotes to stage fright.

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Bad Is Stronger than Good
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Ask Them to Tell You A Story
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5 Comments
  • […] perspective of the other party—is the first of the four pillars of persuasive power, and it has figured prominently in this blog. Yet one can always learn more, and Daniel Goleman’s new book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of […]

  • Roger,
    thanks for the compliment and sorry for the late reply. I just got off a cruise ship this morning and deliberately stayed off the internet for a week. More people should try this some time.

  • Roger Strickland

    Jack-

    I wish more college teaching faculty would pay attention to this. Great stuff.

  • Superb Jack — an excellent article — I will pass it along to my network.

  • Hey, Jack,

    I absolutely love the idea of boiling down the first year of the blog to four key themes – brilliant!

    As I read over this fantastic article, I was struck by how well these themes seemed to map onto three key attitudes that the world-reknowned human potential expert Dr. Carl Rogers found to be critical to the growth and development of all humans: genuiness, positive regard and empathy.

    It seems to me that you are saying that it advantages us to be ourselves while understanding and valuing others well enough to deliver messages that they can truly understand and that are a value-add to their lives. I think your message above goes beyond persuading others (which is an important goal for many people) – science also tells us it is a way in which to help ourselves and others evolve into higher functioning human beings (how’s that for a win-win?).

    Once again, fantastic work, Jack – on this article and throughout the entire first year of this outstanding blog! Your work continues to inspire.

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