Wharton@Work

August 2018 | 

See It My Way: Top Tips for Persuading Others


See It My Way: Top Tips for Persuading Others

Wharton professor Richard Shell recently spent a day teaching persuasion and influence skills to a group of physicians. All of the attendees were transitioning from clinical roles to administrative ones — positions that included change leadership. In other words, they needed to get beyond their innate feelings that they were “experts” to start learning a new science, the science of getting things done. Shell says the challenge of persuading others to go along with change (or support new initiatives that require collaboration with other business units) is always difficult, even for highly experienced leaders. For transitioning professionals, though, it is truly daunting.

“Persuasion challenges are not just about rhetoric. They usually start with social network problems,” explains Shell. “You must understand the connections between people and how to draw the shortest distance between any two of them in an organization. And that is almost never a straight line.”

In Strategic Persuasion Workshop: The Art and Science of Selling Ideas, he helps participants understand the social systems within their organizations. The goal: discover who to talk to and, just as importantly, in what order. But that’s just the first step. Shell says once you’ve got a plan for strategically reaching out to the right people in the right sequence, you must map out what you want from each person.

“Having a very specific goal for each encounter is crucial. It may not be money or authority. It could be that you need them to open the door to someone they know better than you do, or to give you access to some important information. Having a systematic strategy for these conversations beats just following your gut every time. In the program, we identify the main barriers to influence so you can prepare for these encounters. You need to be aware of who may put up resistance, what kind of resistance it might be, and how you can adjust your pitch to better appeal to them.”

The program uses three self assessments to help participants develop greater self awareness and use that knowledge to better persuade others. “Your personality can limit your effectiveness if you don’t work around your shortcomings and play up your strengths,” says Shell. “Instead of operating in default mode, consider the many things you can do to be more strategic in how you encounter others and how you frame your pitch.”

For example, some people won’t be effective if they’re in a closed room with someone who’s guaranteed to be adversarial. If you know your personality is a weakness in that situation with that type of person, build in a buffer. That might mean bringing someone else with you, or having the conversation via email or phone call.

In the end, says Shell, you cannot be too careful in designing an organizational change strategy. “Winging it is not a strategy. Make a plan and use a step-by-step approach. Take a thoughtful survey of your options, and account for the right variables. The title of the program references art and science because effective persuasion needs both. Our approach is grounded in social psychology, but we help people draw on their personal experiences and judgment to make it work. Then we inspire them to practice their skills on a daily basis so they can continue to improve.”

Here are some of Shell’s best persuasion tips:

  • It’s always about relationships. He quotes the African folk saying: “If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.”
  • Grab their attention. Develop and practice the perfect five-minute pitch. Nobody is going to listen longer than five minutes if you don’t get that right.
  • Give them credit. When you make others look good, they want to support you.
  • Practice fairness. In the American South, people like to say, “Pigs get fat, but hogs get eaten.” Build trust by refusing to overreach.
  • Develop multiple paths. Then pick the best one for the most people.