To be persuasive, stop trying to prove you’re right

Persuasion is not a one-way street; it requires input from your audience. Graphic by Delilah Zak.
Persuasion is not a one-way street; it requires input from your audience. Graphic by Delilah Zak.

I tend to be a “prover.” When I want to change someone’s opinion or behavior, my first inclination is to offer a string of reasons—data points—which, taken together, build a solid case for me being right. Astoundingly, this doesn’t always work.

So when proving ends, what begins? The answer: an effort to truly understand your target audience’s concerns and motivations. I was recently reminded of this by the wonderfully insightful and collegial Jean Egmon and Leigh Thompson at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, as we worked together on an article about collaboration. Their research findings suggest that to really change people’s attitudes and behavior, we have to show how data points connect not only with each other but also with an audience’s needs.

This reminds me of an important lesson I learned in rhetoric 101, one that is frequently overlooked in business writing: I can’t fully understand my own argument unless I understand that of my opponent—that is, my reader.

For thousands of years, writers have been discussing the art of persuasion. Whether you’re trying to persuade a customer, boss, regulator, or employee, I find that two steps are always helpful:

  1. To the best of your ability, determine what your target audience really cares about. In many cases, this is as easy as asking them—through interviews, surveys, or perhaps even focus groups. When that’s not possible, take a step back and try to view the issues from their perspective.
  2. Then, anticipate dissent. You must accurately articulate your audience’s initial point of view—including misconceptions and antiquated ways of thinking—before you can present an alternative or lead your readers through a new way of thinking. This approach builds credibility and makes an audience much more receptive to any appeal.

Making this connection with your readers is essential to changing their attitudes and behaviors. My usual “proving” approach might persuade some who are receptive to that sort of argument (including my fellow ENTJs, for those of you who are familiar with Myers-Briggs types). But our messages fall on deaf ears when the audience’s priorities are different than we thought or when there’s an emotional component that’s ignored. Imagine a young mother in the market for a new car meeting a salesman who wastes her time discussing performance, features, and a warranty when his potential buyer is mainly concerned about keeping her family safe.

The next time you’re tempted to present an argument based solely on facts—for example, trying to boost sales with a list of impressive product attributes—take a step back. Try to see the issues from your audience’s perspective and understand what motivates them. An added benefit of educating yourself on the issues is that you might reach a different conclusion and change your opinion. As George Bernard Shaw famously wrote, “Those who can’t change their minds can’t change anything.”

Heather Ploog

Heather is the managing partner of Leff. Her background in business coupled with her experience in editing and user-created content has given her a unique skill set and advanced insight into both the management and editorial fields. She enjoys expounding in the Leff blog on the business writing tactics that bring clarity to complex ideas and make your content distinctive.

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