Expression - Persuasive communication

Do NOT Take Persuasion Lessons from These People

The Presidential primary races this election season have been interesting, entertaining, and hugely confounding, as persuasion experts like myself have been proven wrong time after time. I thought for sure that Donald Trump would be undone by his extremist and outlandish statements, but instead he has continued to rise in their polls and show remarkable staying power. And it’s not just Trump: his brand of rhetoric seems to have infected others who feel they have to ratchet up their remarks either in response or just to be noticed.

My hope in writing this post is that I can prevent the spread of that infection to your persuasive efforts, by explaining that what works for them will not work for you.

First, let’s look at what’s working for the candidates:

Appeal to fear and loss: We know from Kahneman’s Prospect Theory that fear appeals work, because people are more likely to take risks to avoid costs or pain than to move towards gain. That’s why there’s so much talk of what’s broken in America, how we’re under unprecedented threat that threaten our existence, and how we are losing our greatness.

Extreme opinions and expression: Political correctness has done a lot of good things for the tone and content of our discourse over the past 50 or so years, but it has also gone too far and created a climate where people can be so easily offended—or at least pretend to be, to further their own goals. So, there is an understandable pleasure that people get when they hear others say publicly what they might be thinking but would not dare say.

Ad hominem attacks: Reagan’s 11th Commandment, “Thou shalt not speak ill of fellow Republicans”, seems a quaint relic of more genteel days. Debates have turned into cage matches, with politicians attacking each other’s personality, motives, backgrounds, and even their looks. While this can actually liven up the race, it unfortunately crowds out criticism of their actual positions and prevents substantive discussion. Why take the time to patiently explain your position when it’s easier and faster to trash the competition?

Whether this brand of persuasion will continue to be effective in the coming weeks when voters actually go to the polls and make a choice is still an open question, but I’m not going to bet against it. It seems to be working really well, so why wouldn’t it work for you, in your sales or internal persuasive efforts? There are at least three good reasons:

First, others expect different things from you. In business there is still a strong expectation of professionalism and civil behavior, and violations are usually swiftly punished. Speak ill of the competition and you may not be invited back; overstate the fear appeal and you risk a backlash.

Second, you usually have to live and work closely with the people you’re trying to persuade, and scorched earth tactics that may work once will carry long term consequences. Trump can get away with saying shocking things because it’s part of his ethos; it’s what people expect from him. It’s highly unlikely that you could pull it off, and the unemployment lines are full of people whose career was undone by one careless remark. While a guy like Trump can’t lose from his tactics (he either wins the election or goes back to TV as an even bigger draw), you can.

Third and most important is the fact that the people you are trying to persuade in business are on average better educated, more intelligent, and usually have a strong stake in the decision you’re trying to influence. They are turned off by strong one-sided appeals and respond more favorably to two-sided appeals, in which you at least make an effort to understand the other side.

All this doesn’t mean that you can’t use some version—albeit much more moderate and toned down—of a couple of the candidates’ effective tactics. Here are a few suggestions.

Appeal to fear and loss: Don’t dump this as a useful persuasion tool. For example, SPIN selling approaches are powerful precisely because they bring in the Implication of inaction. But for that to work, the Implication has to be something the other person legitimately accepts, and that’s why questions rather than direct statements are the best way to bring them out.

Extreme opinions: That does not mean you should not have strong opinions or be candid when the situation calls for it. When something needs to be said, you should say it, but don’t confuse candor and directness. Candor is about having a responsibility to speak up when necessary, but directness is a choice about how to say it, and you can sometimes be more persuasive by mitigating your speech enough to make it palatable to your listener.

Ad hominem attacks: This is one tactic that I recommend you leave out of your repertoire entirely. Never do this, even when it’s being used against you. This includes trashing the competition, if you are a salesperson.

In summary, the rulebook for political persuasion may have changed, but it is still firmly in place for business and most personal persuasion, so don’t try to become a better persuader by closely following politics—spend that time reading this blog instead.

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