June 2014 | 

For Effective Persuasion, Turn the Focus off of Yourself

Effective Persuasion.

A recent study reveals that, when you’re trying to persuade someone, three is the magic number. “When Three Charms but Four Alarms,” by Kurt Carlson of Georgetown University and Suzanne Shu of the University of California, Los Angeles, argues against the popular theory that the more reasons or claims you present, the better. Instead, the authors found that offering three reasons got attention, but adding more turned initial interest into skepticism.

Mario Moussa, co-author of The Art of Woo, explains, “It’s compelling to offer three reasons. Human beings love order, and a set of three reasons gives them that. It shows you have organized your thoughts into a clear structure. But giving them more sounds as if you are promising too much.”

But, says Moussa, who teaches in Wharton’s Strategic Persuasion Workshop: The Art and Science of Selling Ideas, equally important as the number of reasons are the types of reasons you offer. “Effective persuasion takes into account the background of the person you’re trying to persuade. If you’re talking to someone on Wall Street, you need to be numbers-oriented. But a social worker would respond better to values-based reasons. Give some thought to what makes the person tick and the types of reasons that would appeal to them.”

In the Strategic Persuasion Workshop, participants learn to think about influence scientifically, developing hypotheses and assumptions about what will be important to the other person. Then as they present their argument, they test the hypotheses. “If you’re talking about numbers and you see that you are not getting through, change channels,” says Moussa. “Try something else. But if the person is nodding in agreement or offering examples similar to yours, you know you’ve gotten through.”

Moussa stresses that credibility is tied to your ability to focus on what is important to the other person. “It’s a mistake to focus on yourself and what you are trying to establish. The reasons you think are valid may be dismissed by someone else. The key to effective persuasion is tuning in to what resonates with the other person. They don’t want to hear about you. They want to know how you can help them.”

A few years ago a senior executive in the oil industry attended the workshop. He understood the importance of this insight, sharing a story from his organization that illustrates it perfectly. Bono, the lead singer in the rock band U2 known also for his work as a humanitarian, wanted to meet with the CEO. The CEO was understandably reluctant — what would the rock star know about his business? But the meeting was arranged, and Bono arrived with a colleague from his One foundation. He began the discussion by focusing on the company’s strategy, particularly in Africa. Bono showed knowledge of the business and the CEO’s priorities, and what followed was a challenging, productive conversation. His ability to find ways to connect with the CEO by adapting his message and highlighting what they had in common was all-important.

For Moussa, the story goes beyond the highly credible rock star’s strengths. He says Bono’s ability to connect his own priorities as a humanitarian with those of an oil industry CEO is the same skill needed by an executive charged with leading change in his or her firm. “Confrontation doesn’t work, and neither does giving an impassioned speech about why you are right. You do need to demonstrate that you know what you’re talking about — but in terms of the other person’s concerns, not your own.”

Ultimately, the art of persuasion comes down to a few key questions: who am I talking with, and what is on their mind? How can I communicate in a way that resonates with them? Finding three compelling reasons for what you’re trying to accomplish is important, but even more so is how you communicate those reasons. If they don’t resonate, your attempt to gain influence and build credibility won’t work.