Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Jay Heinrichs on his top 10 lessons learned in influence and persuasion. Jay is the author of the bestseller, Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion. I originally found out about Jay’s work through one of my mentors. It’s been one of my best investments. Aside from a great read, I’ve used Jay’s insights and actions to improve my effectiveness at work. Like revealing magic tricks, the world makes a whole lot more sense now. My favorite part is how Jay is able to take the lessons of the best Greek orators and show how to use them in practice in today’s world.
The 10 Best Ways to Persuade
Here’s a summary of the 10 best ways to persuade:
- Switch to the future tense.
- Use “code words.”
- If you can’t think of anything to say, repeat what your opponent said.
- When in doubt, concede.
- Express your opinion reluctantly.
- Image comes first.
- After image, logic.
- Save emotion for last.
- Timing is … well, it’s pretty important.
- The medium can help (or hurt) the message.
The 10 Best Ways to Persuade Explained
- 1. Switch to the future tense. My son George is a master of this essential tool of argument. One morning I found myself stranded in the bathroom, wearing only a towel, with a completely empty tube of toothpaste. I knew the likely perpetrator.
“George!” I yelled. “Who used up all the toothpaste?”
I heard my 27-year-old’s sarcastic voice on the other side of the door. “That’s not the point, is it, Dad?” George said. “The point is, how are we going to keep this from happening again?”
He had me. George lived through my rhetoric research and heard me read aloud from every draft of my book. He knew that the most productive arguments use the future tense, the language of choices and decisions. It works like a charm. When you’re accused of something (past tense) or insulted (present), switch tenses. Talk about how to correct the situation or improve the relationship. That’s the stuff of the future. Aristotle called this kind of persuasion “deliberative argument.” It was his favorite kind of rhetoric, and you can see why. It takes the anger out of confrontations.
- 2. Use “code words” To get your audience to like and trust you, use their language. It makes you seem to share their values; they think you have their best interests at heart.
Brits are mystified how someone as inarticulate as George W. Bush managed to become president of the United States. Code language had a lot to do with his success; he would repeat particular words that resonated with his audience. When he speaks to an audience of fundamentalist Christians, for example, he uses “I believe” in place of “I think.” In the summer of 2001 he used “believe” as a kind of fugue: “I know what I believe. I will continue to articulate what I believe and what I believe—I believe what I believe is right.” As silly as his Bushisms sound, they’re not as accidental as people think. “See, in my line of work, you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in,” he once said, “to kind of catapult the propaganda.” His use of code language made his audiences believe he was in their tribe, one of them, a true American. (And Americans have long distrusted eloquent speech.)
You can catapult your own propaganda by listening to what your audience say. Stay alert to words and phrases that seem to carry a lot of meaning to them. If, for example, your interlocuter refers to her volunteer work as a “journey,” then you know she views the ordinary activities of life in terms of adventure and growth (and that she will not shrink from a cliche). If she refers to “kids these days,” it is extremely unlikely that she enjoys hip hop. Use these terms yourself to convince her: “Kids these days don’t appreciate good music. That makes it all the more important to support the arts.”
- 3. If you can’t think of anything to say, repeat what your opponent said. If nothing else, that buys you time to come up with a reply. If you have some wits about you, try to twist your opponent’s words slightly to take some of the punch out of them.
Opponent: I can’t believe what you said about my mother’s goulash. That was just mean!
You: Yes, your mother’s goulash did trigger something mean in me.
- 4. When in doubt, concede. Don’t try to win an argument on points. My son George became a willing victim of this strategy on the morning of the Toothpaste Incident. After he switched the argument to the future tense (“How are we going to keep this from happening again?”), I conceded:
“You’re right,” I said. “You win. Now will you please get me some toothpaste?”
“Sure,” he said. He trekked down to the basement for a tube, happy that he had beaten his father in an argument. And indeed he had—on points. But who got what he wanted? By conceding the argument, I persuaded him. I made him feel triumphant, triumph made him benevolent, and that got me exactly what I wanted. I achieved the height of persuasion: not just an agreement, but one that made my audience—a teenaged one at that—do my bidding.
No, George. I win.
- 5. Express your opinion reluctantly. Say you used to believe the other side but switched in the face of a change or overwhelming evidence. “Yes, I used to think that myself. But here’s what changed my mind…” This approach—I call it the “reluctant conclusion”–makes you seem impartial and even-minded. It works far better than, “Are you completely starkers?”
- 6. Image comes first. I mean this both literally and figuratively. Aristotle said that your character—the audience’s view of your trustworthiness and likeability—is your most important persuasive weapon. Character even trumps logic, he said. That’s why, in any argument or presentation, you should establish your image before anything else. You want your audience to think you know what you’re doing, you’re part of the same tribe, and you have nothing personal at stake. (“It’s not just the salary I’m after. I’m so excited about the opportunity to enter the field of waste management.”)
- 7. After image, logic. Persuasive logic is different from formal logic. Many fallacies, for instance, are in bounds. And you often can make your logical points by telling a story, especially a personal story. In fact, the great Roman orator Cicero calls this part of a speech the narratio, or narration. Instead of listing the ways that Labor will improve health care, talk about a friend who suffered from poor care during Maggie Thatcher’s day.
- 8. Save emotion for last. I advise job hunters to get zealous zealous at the end of a job interview. Just when your interviewer is about to get up, say, “May I add something? I really would love this job, and if you chose me I would do everything to exceed your expectations.” Now, this might seem a bit over the top for a Brit; we Americans are suckers for dewy-eyed sincerity. But Tony Blair knew when to tear up at the end of a speech, and he had a good long run as PM.
- 9. Timing is..well, it’s pretty important. Just as educators have their “teachable moments,” or spontaneous learning opportunities, a good persuader seizes persuadable moments. Spouses in happy marriages know this instinctively. I personally know from bitter experience never to propose buying a flat-screen telly while one’s wife is paying the bills. The Greeks called this timing knack kairos, and they considered it so important that they worshipped a god by that name. The Romans, for their part, called him Occasio. They sculpted the god as a young athlete with a bald spot in the back of his head. (Hence the expression, “Fortune is bald behind.”) In business, watch for the best moment to speak. Josef Stalin would sit mute until the very end of meet9ings. Finally, if there was any disagreement, he would weigh in on one side or the other to settle the matter. He did this so often that comrades would look at him toward the end of every meeting, waiting for his judgment. In a party of equals, he made himself more equal than anyone else, despite being a coarse, ill-dressed peasant among well-bred colleagues. If it worked for the mass-murdering dictator, it can work for you.
- 10. The medium can help (or hurt) the message. For one thing, it can send your message to unintended audiences. Witness Paris Hilton and her boyfriend’s video camera. A guy where I used to work speculated about the sex lives of a couple of office mates in what he thought was a private email to a worker, and ended up sending it to the entire company by mistake. Another guy I know commented enthusiastically on the breasts of a coworker in a manufacturing plant, unaware that his intercom was set on “Broadcast.” And most men, though not all, know that it is a bad idea to propose marriage at a football game. It takes a strange mix of shyness and exhibitionism to ask a woman to marry him via JumboTron.
Before you send someone a message, ask yourself how long you want it to last. Paris Hilton might have been happier in the long run if her boyfriend had used a mirror instead of a video camera. Also ask yourself how logical or emotional the message will be. Email, like most other forms of writing, is an especially rational medium. For that reason, never send an angry email; your emotion will come off bizarrely. Sound is another rational sense, which is why jokes often don’t fly during a conference call. Smell is the most emotional sense of all; the brain’s ofactory receptors lie closer to the emotional centers than the optical receptors do. This explains why corporations rarely burn incense at meetings with their stockholders.
Of course, Aristotle and Cicero didn’t have the pleasure of watching reading inappropriate emails or downloading Paris Hilton videos. But the principles are there, we need only apply them creatively, and there are plenty more where that came from.
- Figures of Speech (Blog)
- About Jay Heinrichs (Bio)
- Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion (Book)