After a few well-received presentations to senior executives, a few colleagues at my new company asked me, based on the positive effect I got, “Can you give us some tips on persuasion?”
I’ve been doing product management a long time, and over time my presentation skills have just naturally gotten more polished. A lot of it seems like second nature to me. But I have studied presentation skills and persuasion skills over the years. And as I reflected on all the books I’ve read, and videos I’ve watched, and the trainings I’ve taken, I realized I do have a few tips I can share. They could help you level up your persuasion game right away.
At the end of this article, I provide a short bibliography of a few books and presentations on persuasion that have been very influential.
Fundamental rule of persuasion
There’s one fundamental rule about persuasion.
People make decisions emotionally then justify them rationally.There’s one fundamental rule about persuasion. People make decisions emotionally then justify them rationally. Click To Tweet
This oversimplifies how people really decide a bit, but not by much. And it certainly is a good rule of thumb.
If you want to be persuasive…
If you want to convince people about something…
If you want them to change their mind…
To make a decision…
Then you have to give them:
- Information or a story that convinces them emotionally.
- Information and facts that allow them to rationalize the decision.
That’s the most important single thing to know about persuasion.
What you can control, and what you can’t
There are a lot of different tools for persuasion, and I list a lot of them below. But there are other components that you have less control over. And some are inherent in the situation.
For example, I am a middle-aged white male. In itself, that gives me privilege in many situations, which I recognize. In addition, I have been doing product management for years and I wrote a book on it. That gives me additional advantages when I need to persuade people about product-related topics. I’m automatically granted authority and gravitas due to my age, race, and expertise.
I can’t suggest that you become an older white man like me, so I’m offering a lot of other tools and techniques instead!
So, let’s talk about a few tips you can take some action on right away. They don’t depend on your physical state or your personal characteristics. I’ll list them below then expand on them in the next few articles on the blog. (I’ll be updating this article as I add new persuasion-related posts.)
- Have a goal
- Have stories, not just facts
- Pre-handle objections
- Acknowledge unknowns (with a plan to address)
- Put yourself in your audience’s shoes
- Use conversational language
- Guide the listener/user
- Listen and acknowledge
Have a goal
The first tip is to have a goal. See the next post for more details on goals for persuasion, but in short, here are a few things to think about regarding persuasion goals.
One goal could be that you’re trying to convince somebody or get someone to make a decision.
But you may have other goals. One common goal (I’ve been there!) is “I’d like to get out of this meeting alive.”
That is a reasonable goal if you’re a presenter and you have some bad news. What does that goal mean for how I need to present my information to make it persuasive? (The next article will answer that question!)
I mentioned that people use emotions, not just facts, to make decisions. One of the best ways to get emotions into your presentation is to use stories about real or real-sounding people. (And not just facts.)
Just presenting facts does not work well for persuasion, because facts don’t have emotional heft or resonance. On the other hand, humans are hard-wired to respond to stories about people, about problems that real people are facing, how they (or a hero, or our product) solved the problems, and how they changed as a result.
“Pre-handling objections” is really about empathy for your audience. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes, figure out what they’re going to be worried about, and make sure you have answers to some of those worries. Sometimes the worries will surface as questions if you don’t pre-handle them, but often the audience just sits there, silent but festering, if you don’t address their concerns proactively.
This means you have to know what the objections are going to be in advance. And then, instead of waiting for them to come up via questions, or not come up, and just remain in peoples’ heads, you address them head-on in your presentation.
Use conversational language
You’ve probably heard this before, but why is it so important? It turns out that human brains crave conversation with other humans – it’s just the way we’re wired. And you can use that to good effect when you’re trying to persuade people. Using conversational language helps keep your audience engaged with what you’re saying.
For example, if someone asks you a question, your ancient human brain puts you on the hook to respond to the question. Of course, you can resist, but your nature is telling you to respond. And your audience is the same – if you ask them a question, they are likely to form a response, even if they don’t answer it out loud. It’s a built-in response that we have as humans. It’s part of our language center’s programming.
The rules of thumb for conversational language:
- Ask questions, especially open-ended questions.
- Use the word “you.” This is another “keyword” for our brains.
- Use active voice, versus passive voice.
Guide the audience
This point is a big part of the book Badass by Kathy Sierra, one of my favorites and the one I recommend most highly for product managers.
And it’s related to what I said earlier about pre-handling objections. If you can guide the audience, the listener, the user, through the obstacles, and along the path you want them to take, your persuasion efforts will be more successful.
The path is simply the set of steps that the user or audience will have to go through to achieve the benefits of the information you’re sharing. There’s a familiar aphorism about presentations – “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.” This is an oversimplified example of the idea of letting people know the path.
It’s why meetings (good meetings) have agendas – so everyone knows what’s going to happen and can stay mentally tuned in to what’s going on.
Acknowledging for the audience that there are potential obstacles helps eliminate their anxiety. Especially if you give them guidance on how they can avoid or get around or through the obstacles. The audience is always worried about the dangers of a new idea, even if they don’t know what those dangers are. By sharing the actual risks, you reduce their scariness, and if you explain how people can get through them, it reduces their fear even more.
Talking about paths and obstacles has different forms for different situations.
- If you’re asking for funding for a development project, the obstacles will be the risks that you know and the risks you don’t know. The path will be the technologies you’re going to bring to bear, the actions you’re going to take the mitigate the risks, and the overall project management approach you’ll take.
- If you’re trying to persuade a user to start using a new feature in your product, the obstacles might be things like the data you need to have on hand to be successful, and the set of clicks or keystrokes you need to execute to make the feature work. The path would be a description of the steps involved in when using the feature to solve the user’s problem.
Practicing is a very important component of being persuasive. One of the reasons that my recent presentations went well is that I practiced them!
Did I practice them as much as I could have? No. But I did practice some, and if I hadn’t practiced them, they would not have gone as well.
Even one practice session will have a big positive impact on your persuasiveness.
One of my presentations was a demo. It was a brand new product to everybody in the room, and almost new to me. But because I’d practiced the demo, I knew what was going to happen on screen and when I was going to see challenges (and how to avoid challenges I didn’t want to show).
As a result, I could guide peoples’ thinking and understanding of what they were watching. I could point out things that I wanted them to notice and things that, if they noticed, not be concerned about.
Silence, waiting, and listening
Then we have silence, waiting, and listening – these are not so much about what you say but what you don’t say.
Pausing, and waiting, and silence…
One more characteristic of the human brain is that it doesn’t like to leave a silence. If you say something, or ask a question, and then pause… and keep paused a little longer… in many cases someone will speak up to break the silence. It can be uncomfortable, but it’s sometimes a good way to get your audience engaging and responding. And often once one person responds, other will chime in as well.
Even if you’re presenting, don’t discount the power of listening. Of course, to listen, you have to get others to speak. Perhaps this is in response to an open-ended question. Perhaps it’s to stop a period of silence, as discussed above. But if you listen effectively, to what the audience really cares about (and not what you care about), you can often find out how to guide the conversation to a better outcome.
This article is a summary of useful tips for being more persuasive, but the real meat is in the follow-on articles that expand on each of these topics.
I look forward to sharing a lot more on persuasion in the next few weeks.
Please let me know your favorite persuasion techniques in the comments.
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Here is a short bibliography on persuasion:
- Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and Presuasion by Robert Cialdini
- Badass: Making Users Awesome () by Kathy Sierra (also check out this video of her presenting on the topic.
- To Sell Is Human, by Daniel Pink
- Made To Stick and Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath
- Two Andy Raskin articles: “Want a Better Pitch? Watch This” and “The Greatest Sales Deck I’ve Ever Seen”
- Copywriting guides in general. Two specific resources are David Garfinkel’s Copywriter’s Podcast; Joanna Weibe’s CopyHackers