Logical arguments force us to accept a certain conclusion whether we like it or not, but soulful persuasion attracts us to a position. Genuine persuasion is about engaging rather than insisting.
Personal dispositions that can make you persuasive fall into four main categories. First, persuasive people are original. When they speak, you sense they are coming from a place of authenticity and honesty and that you’re getting a glimpse of the real, unique them—not some prepackaged version designed to please you. For people who possess this virtue, their thoughts and actions are motivated by a deep understanding of who they are, always being themselves and building deep, long-term commitments; they are not motivated by the desire for short-term gains. Second, persuasive people are generous. They give habitually and without expecting things in return. I’m not just talking about money or physical gifts. Persuasive people also are generous with advice, opportunities, introductions, respect, and emotional positivity. You never get the impression that they are just looking out for themselves. Third, persuasive people are empathetic. They are naturally curious about other people and seek out engaging conversations that delve past small talk into topics that genuinely matter to others. People of this sort are skilled collaborators and possess an outlook that emphasizes our common humanity, not our differences. Finally, persuasive people are soulful. They hold themselves to their own self-imposed ethical and personal standards, always strive to be better, and motivate others to push beyond their normal limits. They are sources of inspiration for those around them. As a result, they possess a personal authority that makes them naturally influential. I’ll explore these four principles in detail while focusing on the eleven specific habits that fall out of these larger principles, how they contribute to persuasion, and what each of us can do to develop and strengthen them.
Turn and face the strange
Character Is King. Persuasion is about personal character, not facts or argument. The most powerful modes of persuasion don’t have much to do with evidence, argument, or logic. In fact, often what persuades people isn’t the substance of what’s being said but the source—in other words, the person saying it. Aristotle knew this more than two millennia ago. As he put it, “We believe good men more fully and more readily than others … [A speaker’s] character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses.”
The first step in developing a persuasive character is learning to be unapologetically yourself.
In most situations where we are trying to be persuasive, our instincts lead us in the wrong direction. We try to hide those parts of ourselves that we assume the other person won’t appreciate. And we say and do things we think will make us more attractive to our audience. We smile more than usual or act excited about something we don’t really care about. We speak in more formal language than we normally do in real life. Put simply, we try to fake it till we make it.
Turning off your filter and showing a little psychic skin can give you a real leg up when you’re trying to sway your audience. There are a number of reasons why this works. First, an original human being—with real likes and dislikes, out-there interests, and surprising obsessions—is something other people can recognize and relate to, whether they fully identify with that person or not. After all, diversity is the one thing we have in common. Also, you become memorable, a known quantity, and that makes you far more trustworthy than someone who seems to be putting on a show. It also gives you a chance to share a part of yourself and tell personal stories.
When you let your freak flag fly, it shows the other person that they are trusted, respected, and welcome. And you also welcome hearing about their unique interests and obsessions.
Start by paying more attention to every interaction you have. What you’re looking for are instances when you say or do something that doesn’t reflect what you truly feel. Maybe you gave a half laugh at somebody’s off-color attempt at humor. Maybe you pretended to be way more happy or pissed-off by today’s weather than you really are. Maybe you stopped yourself from sharing something about yourself because you weren’t sure how the other person would react or feel about you. Most of us do these things automatically. And sure, each instance might be innocent enough. You’re just being polite, you tell yourself. Or you’re just trying to avoid confrontation, finish this awkward conversation, and get on with your life. But these little moments of insincerity can quickly add up to full-blown phoniness. At the very least, they are missed opportunities to show something about yourself that’s real.
Stop using language that waters down what we’re saying or suggests uncertainty. I’m talking about words and phrases like: maybe probably sort of I think I could be wrong I feel like … This might be a stupid idea, but … Just get rid of them. The same goes for throat-clearing introductory comments like “Can I ask you a question?” or “Let me bounce an idea off you.”
In today’s world, you have to relate to your audience in a more emotional, truthful, and soulful way if you want to make a connection. In this arena, facts and features alone simply don’t have what it takes. It’s storytelling that moves, connects, and creates meaningful bonds between brands and consumers. It’s storytelling that holds the greatest power of persuasion—and not just in the world of advertising.
When told well, a great story draws people into the narrative, absorbing them in a world that is separate from their own and creating an almost supernatural connection with the main characters. For a brief moment in time, the audience forgets themselves and begins to inhabit the story. You’ve experienced this yourself while watching an engrossing movie or getting lost in a novel. And once you’re immersed in a story, you’re far more willing to let your guard down and loosen your grip on preconceived notions.
When you persuade through storytelling, you don’t have to hit your audience over the head with your main point. As Green and Brock’s shopping mall experiments make clear, it’s enough for a story to just imply your main points, and the audience will get there on their own—so long as you give them the opportunity to do so. That’s crucial, because conclusions that we draw for ourselves will always be more powerful than the ones we are forced to accept. The beliefs I arrive at on my own are mine—they belong to me personally. And as a result, I’m usually much less willing to give them up when push comes to shove.
Start with a Simple Truth This one is obvious—if you’re trying to communicate an idea with a story, you need to know what that message is before you begin.
Great storytellers are also truth-seekers—their aim is to convey an essential human truth through narrative.
If you can’t state your message in a single uncomplicated sentence, you haven’t got one. And if you’re trying to communicate more than one message with a single story, then you’re likely to lose your audience. Complex stories that allow for multiple interpretations might make for great literature or art, but they aren’t good vehicles for persuasive messaging.
Stick to a Classic Structure The story also conforms to a basic structure that’s as old as storytelling itself. In its simplest form, that structure looks like this:
The Goal: Who Are Your Characters and What Do They Want? It starts with a protagonist or several protagonists who want or need something badly. That motivation has to be strong enough to propel the story, and it also needs to be something that your audience can relate to. In the case of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus desperately wants to get home to his family after the Trojan War.
The Obstacle: What’s in Their Way? The protagonist( s) then encounter obstacles they must overcome in order to achieve that goal. By the time you introduce the obstacle, the audience should know what’s at stake and what needs to happen, and they should feel some sense of uncertainty.
The Resolution: What Is the Outcome? Either the protagonist( s) overcome their obstacles and achieve their goal or they don’t. Regardless, the emotional release that comes at the end of a well-told story should be the most memorable part. So that’s when you want your message to become apparent. The protagonist might achieve their goal or they might not, but the way in which they succeed or fail is what will convey your message.
Collect Great Stories : Stories like these are all around; you just need to look for them and structure them. Maybe there’s an episode from your family history that’s particularly entertaining, or something crazy that happened to you on the way to work, or that time you and your friends went to Barcelona. Maybe it’s just a story you read or heard or saw on the evening news. Whatever the source, when you happen upon a truly great tale, write it down in as much detail as you can. Keep a notebook or a section of your notebook where you collect these stories. Once you’ve got the story on paper, you need to determine what its core message is. Take note of the idea or lesson that the story brings to life. The story might illustrate the importance of keeping promises, or seizing the moment, or doing your holiday shopping late. Regardless, the message should be obvious the first time you hear it. Over time you’ll only add to your collection of great stories. And the next time you’re trying to make a point about, say, seizing the day, you’ll have a great story to draw from.
Storytelling Is Editing : Once you’ve found a story that conveys your message and written it out in detail, you still need to make it into something that will hit home with your audience. That means editing. And when getting a story into shape, I like to ask three specific questions. Am I Giving My Audience All of the Right Information? Am I Painting a Vivid Enough Picture? Your goal is to transport your audience, so you need to give them enough specifics to ignite their imagination. This means finding opportunities to add details that bring the story to life. What Can I Cut? Anything in the story that doesn’t help to establish the goal, the obstacle, or the resolution can probably be cut. Rehearse. Memorize Your First and Last Line. Don’t Overlook Familiar Stories. It’s tempting to believe that great stories need to be original—or at least unfamiliar—in order to captivate their audience. But this isn’t always the case. In fact, recounting a story that your audience knows already can sometimes be more powerful than telling them one they’ve never heard. Just because a story is fairly well known doesn’t mean it can’t be a great vehicle for conveying a persuasive message. In some situations, familiarity is exactly what’s called for.
Human beings have been telling stories to one another since our earliest days on the planet—it’s one of the reasons we’ve survived as long as we have. Stories are the way we recount our history and communicate our values; they are how we structure new information and make sense of the world around us. So when you come across a powerful story, hold on to it—whether it’s a personal anecdote or a work of literature, a unique experience or a timeworn piece of popular culture. Make sure it has the goal, the obstacle, and the resolution. And make it your own. If your goal is to change minds and move people to action, learning to tell compelling, meaningful stories is essential—and will do you far more good than any amount of logical argument. Reason might reveal why we should believe a certain truth. But a well-told story does something even better: it transports us to a place where we can see or experience that truth for ourselves. As the psychologist Jonathan Haidt puts it, “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.”
Never be closing
In that classic scene in the 1992 film adaptation of David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glenn Ross, Alec Baldwin’s character, Blake, stands before a room of salesmen and delivers a remedial course on the basics of salesmanship. His takeaway message: “A-B-C. Always be closing.” It’s a time-honored sales mantra that goes back decades, if not longer. It also happens to be completely wrong. In fact, the “always be closing” approach to sales is the enemy of soulful persuasion. This may have worked in the past, but today’s low-trust world demands an entirely different approach to persuasion. The basic presumption behind that infamous saying is that everything a person says or does in the course of persuading someone should be aimed purely at getting to yes. It’s about aggressively pushing your audience to make the decision you want them to make, whether it’s in their interest or not. It’s about finding a way to close the deal at all costs. This is short-term thinking at its crudest. It’s manipulative—and it doesn’t work. People don’t want to be forced into a decision; they want to make up their minds for themselves, on their own terms, for their own reasons, and in their own time.
Don’t Be a Brand—Be a Human Being At some point over the last couple of decades it became trendy for people to talk about themselves as brands. The concept may date back to 1997, when business magazine Fast Company ran a well-known article entitled “The Brand Called You.” 1 Since then, a belief in the persuasive power of cultivating one’s brand has hardened into conventional wisdom. Courses on “personal branding” have become business-school staples, but most people encounter the notion much earlier in their education. 2 College students are often taught that crafting a personal brand can help them land on their feet after graduation. And even high school seniors are advised to build personal “brand equity” to help win a spot at the college of their dreams. 3 The idea is that a carefully tailored perfect public image, and a consistent “brand voice” across all social media channels, can help a person sell themselves to the world. But as someone who works with top brands every day, I find this whole line of thought antiquated. The notion of “personal branding” is based on a conception of brands that no longer applies. In this view, brands are highly manicured corporate identities strategically designed to do only one thing: turn a profit. They are, in a word, transactional.
This isn’t what a brand is anymore. In fact, most of today’s brands are doing their best to get away from this idea.
The audience needs something else in order to be persuaded. They need to feel, intuitively, that the persuader cares about more than just getting a yes. Effective persuaders care about purpose. They are soulful.
Play the Long Game Transactions are about getting what you want; the long game is about forging relationships. “Always be closing” is about pushing people to do something; the long game is about pulling people toward your way of seeing things by engaging them on a human level.
In my experience, the most common relationship-killer is simple neglect. Taking steps to ensure that none of your relationships drop to zero—that you never lose contact with anyone for too long—is half the battle when it comes to keeping relationships alive. Here are a few techniques I use to make staying in touch a little more automatic. Set a Reminder. check in with the person, usually quarterly. It all depends on who the person is and what kind of relationship you have. But if they’re important enough to have in your contacts, then they’re important enough to stay in touch with.
Pick four people a week to touch base with. It doesn’t need to be a long email or phone conversation—it could just be a quick “I was thinking about X and that reminded me of you” text message. It could also be a face-to-face meeting or scheduled phone call.
Shift from Social to Personal. Next time you go to share a thought on social media—whether you’re tweeting out praise for a new TV show or liking an article on Facebook—don’t. Instead, go through your contacts and figure out who specifically would appreciate the recommendation or insight. Then send out a few emails or text messages aimed at individual people. In other words, use your thought to restart a personal conversation.