There was a FedEx commercial where a low-ranking employee suggests opening an online account to save shipping costs. No one responds. A few seconds later, the boss says exactly the same thing, only this time using emphatic gestures. Everyone cheers and adopts the solution. When the young guy points out that he suggested the same idea, the boss says: “But you didn’t go like this”, as he karate-chops the air.
That scene may be a bit exaggerated, but the fact is that many speakers unconsciously disarm themselves by imprisoning their hands while they speak. They lose the effectiveness that gestures can contribute to the effectiveness of any presentation or conversation by supplying information, view authenticity, and energy.
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.
They say an expert is someone who learns more and more about less and less until finally he knows everything about nothing. I’m not sure if that’s true, but many of the senior executives I speak with come away from encounters with experts feeling they’ve been told a lot but still understand nothing.
One of the most common issues that I am asked to address in my coaching sessions is how to communicate complex and difficult information to a lay audience. My coaching clients, who include engineers, scientists, and lawyers, sometimes understand on their own that they take too long to express their ideas, and are frustrated by it. More often, they’ve been counseled by others that they must be more concise and clear. As one senior person in a high-tech company told me when he hired me to coach his staff: “I ask people what time it is, and they tell me how to build a watch.”
The real issue is not in making your listeners understand—it’s how to help them get it efficiently.
Just Listen by Mark Goulston is one of the few books I’ve read more than once (three times so far, actually) because it has given me many useful insights that have helped me both personally and professionally. Here are three:
I wrote recently about using labeling as a mental strategy to deal with pre-speech jitters. I first learned about it from reading this book, as a way to take control of your “reptile brain” when it is about to hijack your behavior. We all know how to move from the fight/flight mode to the logical mode; we just don’t always know how to do it fast. Goulston calls it “getting through to yourself first.” About a week after reading it, I actually got to put it into practice during a nasty encounter with a very rude person at the mall during Christmas shopping. After the person left, the sales clerk thanked me for the way I handled it.
The concept of the persuasion cycle is also useful as a model for knowing how to get through to people. Speed and directness aren’t always the best way to get someone to agree with you. If you’re trying to convince someone to have Indian instead of Italian for lunch, that’s a pretty easy sell. But if you’re trying to drive fundamental change, you have to be more patient. People go through various stages in the persuasion cycle: from resisting to listening to willing to doing to glad they did. This book shares nine principles and twelve techniques that are useful at various stages of the persuasion cycle.
Another principle that resonates with me is “be more interested than interesting”, because it ties in so neatly with my own advocacy of the “outside-in” approach to persuasion. People will be persuaded for their own reasons, not yours, so the best persuaders are not those who are glib and articulate—the best persuaders earn the right to be persuasive by taking time to listen, show interest and empathize.
I enthusiastically recommend this book. Maybe that rude person will have read it by the next holiday season. The world would be a better place!