Persuasion is a tool we can all use to better influence the position we are in — whether that’s communicating our ideas effectively to senior stakeholders or negotiating the right way to approach a problem. Sometimes we know it’s the right way of doing something but we lack the skills to persuade people too. And as designers our work is a team sport, so influencing those around us is a necessary step in driving any kind of change.
I first started researching this area in 2017 following a D&AD session with Kit Altin on The Art & Science of Persuasion. I, like many of us, had this preconceived idea that persuasion is almost like The Force. Some kind of metaphysical super-power, which only a few can manage to grasp.
This couldn’t be more wrong. The following are a few tips on how to be as persuasive as a Jedi Master.
The Power of Listening
The first step to being able to persuade others, is being able to listen to what they’re saying. Listening is extremely powerful. It prevents too many voices in a conversation. It also allows you to hear not only what’s being said, but more importantly, what is not.
“If while you’re making your argument, the only time the other side is silent is because they’re thinking about their own argument, they’ve got a voice in their head that’s talking to them. They’re not listening to you. When they’re making their argument to you, you’re thinking about your argument, so that’s the voice in your head that’s talking to you. So it’s very much like dealing with a schizophrenic.”
Chris Voss, Head of International FBI Hostage Negotiation
People enjoy being listened to; it generates empathy, which paves the way to building rapport, which in turn will lead to influence, the last step before behavioural change — the ultimate goal of persuasion.
Aristotle’s 3 Modes of Persuasion
Clever fella, this Aristotle. Amongst many other things, he came up with these 3 modes of persuasion. Time for some Greek words!
Ethos is all about credibility. Am I entitled to be speaking about these matters? If so, why? What are my credentials? Ethos can be achieved by different means, like being an expert in the matters in question, or being perceived as such.
Pathos is an emotional call. Words like sympathy, pathetic or empathy, are all derived from pathos. Adding an emotional dimension to a discourse can go a long way in terms of getting people’s empathy. This is particularly evident in advertising. You can probably easily think of a handful of TV ads, which had a strong emotional component to them (I’m looking at you, John Lewis).
Logos on the other hand, is the logical side of persuasion. It’s an appeal to facts — to things that cannot be easily contradicted. Using figures, numbers, statistics, in order to prove a point.
Distillation — Keep it as Simple as Possible
How much can you take out of a sentence or paragraph before it completely loses its meaning? Distillation is about filtering what’s unnecessary, leaving only the essential. For example, this blog post could probably be distilled a lot, but then again, I’m not trying to persuade you of anything, so I’ll stick as many words as I can to make it seem like a wrote a lot. However, if trying, I’d make it short, to the point.
Persuasion and confidence go hand in hand. Have you ever been persuaded of something by someone who didn’t look confident? Confidence can be hard to find for some people (trust me, I have the Ethos on this one), but it’s not impossible. Some people are naturally confident, but for those of us who are not so much, rest assured that there is a way out.
Fake it ‘till you make it. You see, the thing with confidence and persuasion is that you don’t actually have to be confident, as long as you seem confident. A lot of this comes down to body language. The way you behave, move, sit, look at people, all of those things, will have an influence in the way people will see you, and for a great part, that will determine how persuasive you can be with them. Confidence can be practised.
- Reciprocity: when you do something nice for people, they tend to do something nice back. Give something, get something.
- Commitment and Consistency: when someone commits to something, orally or in writing, they’re more likely to go through with it. Get people to commit to small steps, and you’re on the right path to get them persuaded.
- Social Proof: people are more likely to do something they see others are also doing. Monkey sees, monkey does.
- Authority: people are more likely to follow figures they perceive to have authority.
- Liking: people are more likely to buy something or be convinced by someone they like.
- Scarcity: ‘limited time only’, ‘last seats available’. Perceive limited availability will increase demand.
Get your Churchill on
Winston Churchill was known for being a brilliant speaker. His speeches helped inspire British resistance against the Nazis during the Second World War. A lot of his rhetoric techniques can be applied to persuasion.
“If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time — a tremendous whack!”
Repetition, accumulation of argument were techniques widely used by Churchill. If you have a point to make, don’t just state it. State it, repeat it, then say it again. Make sure your point is out there in people’s minds.
“The unreflecting often imagine that the effects of oratory are produced by the use of long words. The error of this idea will appear from what has been written. The shorter words of a language are usually the more ancient. Their meaning is more ingrained in the national character and they appeal with greater force.”
Simplicity was a key element of Churchill’s speeches. The use of familiar, simple words can have a stronger effect than that of using complex, elaborate words. Simple words are assimilated more easily by the brain — they require less processing.
“The influence exercised over the human mind by apt analogies is and has always been immense. Whether they translate an established truth into simple language or whether they adventurously aspire to reveal the unknown, they are among the most formidable weapons of the rhetorician. The effect upon the most cultivated audience is electrical.”
The use of analogies can bring a visual dimension to written and spoken words, making them come alive in the audience’s mind, leaving a lasting impression that will help you sell your point.
“These are not the colours you’re looking for”
Persuasion is not a magic trick. It doesn’t require supernatural powers or even natural ability. Anyone can do it. Having the knowledge of certain techniques, like the ones I briefly described, will help. Experience and actually knowing what you’re talking about, also help. But most of all, persuasion is a skill. And like any other skill it will improve with practice. So, even though I won’t be trying the above line with a client anytime soon, I do feel like I’m one step closer to becoming a Jedi Master.