The 10 Best Ways to Persuade



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:

  1. Switch to the future tense.
  2. Use “code words.”
  3. If you can’t think of anything to say, repeat what your opponent said.
  4. When in doubt, concede.
  5. Express your opinion reluctantly.
  6. Image comes first.
  7. After image, logic.
  8. Save emotion for last.
  9. Timing is … well, it’s pretty important.
  10. 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.

Additional Resources


  1. Oh wow…the tips here are priceless! Being able to artfully employ them is going to make me a winner! I’m glad that you laid out the explanations behind each step. They are helpful for my understanding. Thanks, Jay and J.D., for sharing and featuring these fabulous tips!

  2. These are serious lessons for me to be learned. I am field consultant so persuasion and influence w/o authority are most important skills.
    Good stuff!

  3. Terrific post, esp the examples. Gave a new meaning to Bushims didn’t he.
    I’m definitely going to try Step 8 😀

    Thanks for sharing this info.

  4. This is one that I am going to have to read a few more times to make sure I don’t miss anything. Awesome stuff, super powerful.
    Thank you for sharing this with everyone.
    Giovanna Garcia
    Imperfect Action is better than No Action

  5. Switching to the future tense is new to me. When someone makes a mistake we have to figure out a way to solve it. The person doesn’t have a chance to raise their anger if you show them what they should really be focusing on.

    When my wife and I have a disagreement I find that showing that I’m not afraid to apologize, we can get over our feelings a lot quicker. My ego isn’t so big that I need to be right all the time.

    Deserved a thumbs up on Stumble Upon.

  6. Nice insight. Gave some focus to things I’ve felt / done both implicitly and explicitly and some guidance for moving forward

  7. Thanks for the list — great to read. The examples make it much more tangible too. I like #5 – Express your opinion reluctantly. This particularly helps to get others persuaded (i.e. a hung jury). I personally do not agree with #4 – When in Doubt, Concede. I know that sometimes you get what you ultimately want by doing so, but I will not say I am wrong if I am not. Call me hardheaded. 🙂

    Great list – very insightful to read!

  8. Thanks for this great post! I can appreciate the reasoning behind each of them and love the concrete examples that drive the point home.

  9. Great thoughts on manipulation. In the workplace we often get confronted by people who use fear to persuade. In a recent situation, humor was used to diffuse; ‘With one phone call I can end your career’, the response was: ‘Impressive, the best I can do with one phone call is order pizza’.

    I wonder where/how this would fit within your top 10?


  10. I enjoy Jay’s use of language here and in the book – THANKS! Plus, I concur with many of the techniques.

    A foundation for persuasion is to create rapport, which may be achieved by mirroring the person(s) use of verbal (“code words”, repeating what they say) and body language.

    When you have established rapport, and you may check by exploring if you can get them to mirror your change of body language. Now you venture into the persuasion; and I’d suggest to be focused on what you want at the level of aspiration rather than the topic at hand. This is why switching to the future is so powerful, because the aspirations for all involved are a possibility and with an aim to respect values.

    Short term, Jay wanting George to get the toothpaste seems reasonable. Then long term MAYBE Jay’s aspiration is to have George take an increasing level of responsibility for how their family works. Now, George getting the toothpaste is suddenly just one expression of being a contributing member of the family.

    Many decisions are based on pain and/or pleasure. We often try to decrease the pain and increase the pleasure. One interpretation of the story is that, Jay imposes “pain” on George by blaming him; and then provides “pleasure” by letting George “win the argument”. Jay enjoys “pleasure” by having persuaded George to get the toothpaste.

    I’d also suggest that you have a perspective of what you want to achieve, long term and short term in that order. This includes the topic at hand (like get the toothpaste) and also how you tune your image and influence the environment. How much do you want to invest in order to achieve something. What’s the smartest way of using your energy, time and money?

    Now, in the context of the longer term you might reflect on if Jay did the right thing by manipulating George.

    Then apply the same level of thinking for the other people and the system you are trying to influence – what’s in it for them? A system could be a family, a division in a company, or your church. What’s the analogies to pain and pleasure for systems?

    Also consider the values and the level of alignment of values; and how you want to influence and operate in the environment. In a corporate system two important values for individuals are connection and conviction. In one culture worked in for two years maintaining good connection in larger meetings was seen as essential.

    Stories help us make sense of life. We associate with and remember stories. They are a powerful tool for us to share, learn and influence. “Get the toothpaste George, please”…. easy to understand and illustrative.

    Also consider how to combine these technique, PLAY with them, modify them and make them yours. Example: one colleague at the end of meetings summarizes different opinions and even though I’m unclear whether he promotes his own opinions, this person has over time created an image of being balanced and reflective.

    Note: this response is inspired by NLP and “Getting to Yes”; and related to the NLP I encourage Jay’s approach of modeling the “best” and keep dreaming.

  11. Holy cow, what a literate readership. Thanks for all the kind words. Oran, George was 17 when I wrote the book–he turns 21 the day after tomorrow, so you might say “27” splits the digital difference. You might also say it was a typo.

    Rick, conceding doesn’t necessarily mean saying you were wrong. A mild form of concession might be, “Hm, I never thought about it that way before.”

    Per, my manipulation of my kids definitely had a long-term goal, which was to teach my kids to be verbally nimble, and to remain cheerful in an argument. This is where the personal analogy doesn’t quite scale up to the institutional level; though, come to think of it, a cheerful institution isn’t so bad, either.

    The pleasure/pain theory comes in big-time with both the ancient Greeks and Romans; even Cicero considered himself a Stoic. But they limit this aspect of rhetoric to pathos–the emotional tool of argument, which literally has to do with feelings. In a more logical argument, pleasure and pain aren’t as much of a factor.

    Your “alignment of values,” on the other hand, is pure ethos–the character you project to your audience, and the most difficult tool of all.

  12. Thanks Jay.

    You are underscoring the value of being cheerful and nimble in an argument. In some you may attempt to keep your emotions less exposed (irritation over the toothpaste not being there). I concur with the intent and believe it makes it a lot easier to defuse and resolve the issues and stay more resourceful.

    Are we able to split the persuasion in an emotional and logical part? Do they interact / connect? And if yes how/ when?

    Values: I’d wish for all of us that we as individuals and organizations understood and articulated our values. Considering that the wish may not be granted yet…., we might persuade people to expose them. It’s harder with organizations and for countries. It makes interesting that values may change over time, mostly at a glacial pace.

  13. @ Bad Economy

    I agree. Mirroring and matching are great techniques for building rapport and bridging communication gaps. I’m a fan of NLP.

  14. […] venita din partea femeilor este esentiala, zic eu) si doua dintre recomandarile sale – Cele mai bune 10 moduri de a influenta pe cineva si 41 de feluri in care sa-ti schimbi […]

  15. […] Sources of insight. This blog isn’t not only about persuasion, but it also is about sharing of knowledge between […]

  16. […] Sources of insight. This blog isn’t not only about persuasion, but it also is about sharing of knowledge between […]

Comments are closed.