How To Be Persuasive
Being Persuasive Is Both an Art and a Science
Throughout your life and career, you are going to face many situations in which you are dissatisfied. Often, these situations will arise because of legitimate grievances you have about a person, behavior, policy, or system. There are a few strategies that, used judiciously, can exponentially increase your effectiveness.
1. To Be Persuasive, Clearly List Your Grievances, Your Proposed Solution, and Define Winning from the Outset
One of my favorite Benjamin Graham quotes comes from one of his older books in which he writes something along the lines of “criteria based upon adjectives is necessarily ambiguous.” There is great wisdom in that seemingly obvious observation. You can only benefit from specificity. For example, when setting goals in your own life, leave no room for question about what it is you want to accomplish and the timeframe on which you want to accomplish it so you can measure your results. Don’t say, “I want to save money”. Instead, say, “I want to save $[x] by [insert date].” Don’t say, “I want to lose weight”, say, “I want to lose [x lbs] by [insert date]”.
The same goes for causes about which you care. To be persuasive:
- Detail exactly what happened that you consider unacceptable.
- Detail exactly how the person or group you are targeting for change is directly responsible using verifiable facts if possible.
- Explicitly spell out your proposed solution, making sure each suggestion is:
- Measurable, and
- Perceived as fair or reasonable relative to the circumstances.
Furthermore, it is imperative that from the outset, you identify what you consider “winning” so you don’t get dragged into a perpetual conflict that drains your resources and emotions, invites further counterattacks, or damages your cause in the long-run.
2. To Be Persuasive, Avoid Making Unnecessary Enemies and Focus on Drafting Allies To Your Cause
You want to recruit as many allies as you can, essentially creating a self-replicating army that goes on to gather more allies on your behalf. Changing a person’s heart by getting them to empathize with your situation and having them internalize how they benefit from the reforms you are suggesting is far more effective than achieving compliance through the threat of force (though there are situations in which the latter remains the only justifiable course of action, such as the rest of the country forcing Southern states to desegregate schools in the name of racial equality). If you use force or the threat of violence, you trigger reciprocity, among other mental models. The secret: You cannot think in terms of “us vs. them” but rather a “we vs. the problem”. Any time you draw battle lines based upon identity, and exclude people based upon their intrinsic characteristics, you’ve done enormous damage to your own desired outcome.
This is best achieved by taking advantage of existing bonds. Racism was ended in a not-insignificant number of families as interracial grandchildren were born to formerly bigoted grandparents who saw themselves in the child they loved. Homophobia was overcome when a person’s friend, brother, or son came out of the closet and opened up about how they didn’t want to be alone for the rest of their lives. Women’s rights were achieved as mothers, sisters, and wives chained themselves to fences and marched in the streets demanding the ability to vote.
3. To Be Persuasive, Create a Simple, Catchy, Easily Identifiable, and Emotionally Powerful Brand Image or Slogan
As objectionable as the idea may seem, any political movement is a product no different from laundry detergent or frozen pizza in the sense that getting “market acceptance” requires convincing folks to put it in their proverbial cart, often to the exclusion of the alternative. Your cause is a brand. It is going to be tied up with multiple associations and result in feelings that motivate behavior, often happening at a subconscious level. The imagery you use is powerful. It is entirely possible to select a method, use speech, employ body language, or some other means of communication that turns those who would have supported you, and fought by your side, into your enemies because you trigger a culture code, mental model, or click-whirr response that overwhelms their rational mind. Once you’ve done this, it can be extraordinarily difficult to reverse. You’ve cut off what could have been powerful sources of influence, money, and supplies.
American political history is chock-full of case studies two of the most famous being “No taxation without representation” and “Make love, not war”.
4. To Be Persuasive, Only Use Spokespeople or Illustrations That Are, Like Caesar’s Wife, “Beyond Reproach” (or, Alternatively, Frame the Discussion with Comparable Examples)
Signaling theory and mere association are real. Signaling theory and mere association are powerful. They can overwhelm logic and cause people to make emotional decisions based on fear, superstition, prejudice, stereotypes, and a host of other factors that work against your cause.
Let’s use one example where there can be no doubt among reasonably mathematically literate people that systematic discrimination exists and results in serious, lifelong harm: Criminal sentencing based on race and gender. The numbers are so overwhelmingly indisputable that judges and juries convict and sentence not solely on the crime, but on the characteristics of the defendant as subconscious associations and biases come into play, there are even arguments it is a violation of the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution. The same crime, the same facts, and your punishment is going to depend in no small way on whether you are male or female (females routinely get significantly lighter sentences), white or black (whites routinely get significantly lighter sentences) entirely irrespective of the facts in your case. Put another way, if you are male, you are going to suffer discrimination. If you are black, you are going to suffer discrimination. Another major influence is the level of beauty capital a person possesses. If you “look right”, things are going to go a lot better for you to the point you might not even be convicted because of the horns and halo effect. This means if a person commits armed robbery – say, stealing money from convenience stores without hurting anyone – and broader trends apply, you can reasonably predict that a white woman is going to get the most lenient sentence and a black man is going to get the harshest sentence. The Bureau of Justice Statistics released a working paper on October 22, 2015 titled Federal Sentencing Disparity: 2005-2012 [PDF Source] that found this discrimination had increased since the Supreme Court decision in United States v. Booker.
Here is a case where nearly everyone on all sides of the political spectrum should agree: It isn’t fair, desirable, nor righteous that people are judged differently for the same crimes. It shouldn’t matter if you are male or female, young or old, black or white, rich or poor, if you rob a convenience store with a gun, you should be punished similarly to anyone else who robbed a convenience store with a gun. This goes to the very heart of decency in a civilized society. It also benefits everyone to correct this disparity because the last things any of us should want is a person who could otherwise be rehabilitated into a productive member of society sitting in a prison cell, on the taxpayers’ dime, doing nothing. It’s better for everyone if he or she becomes a doctor or attorney, entrepreneur or teacher. It grows the economy. It reduces future crime rates. It increases the human capital in society, which tends to drive up discretionary income (and subsequently dividends and other passive income for owners).
Over and over, I see people who don’t understand this principle violate it to their own detriment. I’ve witnessed well-meaning activists, who are in the moral, ethical, and legal right, constantly undermine their own goal – equality in sentencing outcomes regardless of gender or race – by using terrible examples framed in terrible ways. They fight against the mental models and you cannot win that way.
Real-world illustrations are often more useful than academic abstractions so here’s a situation I witnessed first-hand: An activist in a discussion about the University of Missouri – Columbia protests posted a high profile link on Facebook to a story about first-time offender, Quartavious Davis, receiving a 162 year prison sentence without the possibility of parole despite the fact that no one was harmed during the crimes he committed. He wrote eloquently and passionately about how it was an illustration of a black man suffering from institutional racism; how it was indicative of the injustice in America.
Again, we’ve already established that he is correct. There is institutional racism in sentencing outcomes. It’s right there in the numbers; indisputable, beyond question. Yet, the methodology he employed to try and persuade others will doom him and his cause to failure. Why? Anyone who bothers to look into the Davis case discovers that he committed a spree of seven armed robberies, during which, according to the New York Daily News, prosecutors claimed he became violent: “At an auto supply store, he fired two shots at a dog that chased him; at a beauty salon, he brandished a gun and threatened to kill a man; and at a fast-food restaurant, he exchanged gunfire with a customer who had a concealed weapon.”
Anyone familiar with cultural attitudes in the United States is going to know that, upon seeing that type of crime streak, most people are likely to say, “Good. He should rot in prison.” The activist confused the issue. The issue is not the length of the sentence as it pertains to his or her agenda. Rather, the issue is that the sentence was longer than he would have received if he were female or white. That is what should be hammered home each and every time it is brought up for discussion.
How would I have gone about trying to persuade someone?
- I would have found a comparable case of a white woman committing a similar crime with a conviction that resulted in a much lighter sentence.
- I would have put their pictures side-by-side so they could be instantaneously processed, with very little reading, in a matter of seconds.
- Underneath each picture, I would have put the number of years they were convicted in large letters (e.g., “162 years”)
- At the bottom of the graphic, in large letters, I would have written “Equal Crime Should Mean Equal Punishment” or, alternatively, “Do You Think It is Fair They DIdn’t Receive the Same Punishment for the Same Crime?” (Both would be effective with slightly different audiences.)
That’s it. Framing the issue this way, you sidestep all of the cultural, racial, socioeconomic, and interpersonal baggage your audience might be carrying with them and get them to focus on what matters: The central question. That is what should be debated. Whether the reader thinks all criminals should be sentenced to 162 years or much shorter periods of time doesn’t matter. Like engineers seeking simplicity to avoid breakpoints, you want as few breakpoints between the audience and the decision as possible. Make them reflect internally and ask themselves, “Is that right? Shouldn’t she have been treated the same way he was since she did the same thing?”. The best part, it all happens in a fraction of a second because there isn’t a lot of cognitive load to digest what is happening; two pictures, an insignificant amount of text.
5. To Be Persuasive, Identify the Pressure Points of the Obstacles in Your Way and Determine Whether or Not You Will Exploit Them
Money, reputation, social approval … there are all sorts of ways to exert reward and punishment on people or institutions to get them to modify egregious behavior. Sometimes, you may consider exploiting these weaknesses too damaging to a cause you support so you opt not to do so – e.g., you don’t want to suppress the freedom of speech or press because you, yourself, may someday need their protections if you find yourself on the wrong side of the culture or law. Other times, you strike. While not always possible, the most effective way is to remove the so-called “barriers to yes”, making it effortless for the person to support whatever it is you want supported, come out looking like a hero, and improve their own standing by doing what it is you wanted done in the first place.
Whenever you rely on disutility to influence someone into an action you want, you need to recognize, at least in the United States, freedom of speech does not protect you from the social, economic, or political ramifications of that speech. You can make any demand, reasonable or unreasonable, justified or ridiculous, and others are free to change how they interact with you. You are not entitled to be heard. You are not entitled to support. You are not entitled to have your opinion considered valid. No one is obligated to acknowledge or respect your feelings.
Being a fully autonomous, responsible adult means accepting the consequences of your decision to pursue change. Choose carefully. You can’t always get what you want and choices have consequences (from a purely strategic point of view, it’s best to have your affairs arranged in a way that you can effectively isolate yourself from those ramifications). In some cases, winning is itself losing as the best you can hope for is a pyrrhic victory.
Related: Never make a threat unless you are willing to back up that threat and can live with the consequences. An excellent example is the University of Missouri – Columbia football team, which went on strike recently. The members of that team had every right to do so despite the criticism they’ve received. They exist in a free market system in which they are exchanging their skill set for financial consideration in the form of scholarships that provide free or reduced-cost education. No member of the team has an unconditional obligation to continue supporting an institution they believe doesn’t have their best interest at heart. However, had the Missouri University system decided that it was going to disband the football team, revoke their scholarships, and expel them from the university, that would have been perfectly permissible, too. That’s life. That’s how the real world works. You make choices and you live with those choices. It was a risk they were willing to take, betting that the school wouldn’t want to surrender a $1 million penalty to another university for missing an upcoming game, and they turned out to be correct.
6. To Be Persuasive, Reconcile After Victory, Bring Former Foes Back Into the Fold if Possible, and Heal Wounds
Even if you are tempted to “spike the ball” after winning, so to speak, remember the goal was not to harm people, it was to effect positive change. You want the people who opposed you to eventually come around to your way of thinking, which will be all but impossible if you erect barriers in their mind that make them hate and resent your movement to the point of irrationality. Choose your own long-term best interest over short-term emotional satisfaction.