I often joke that as communications professionals, we are more therapists who have to master the art of persuasion while allowing others to think your idea is theirs. There is some truth in that joke—how often do you sit and listen to colleagues or clients vent about the latest goings on within the organization? And, as you listen, help them formulate a plan to work around the issue.

Persuading others to go along with a course of action, agree to a commitment, or accept a decision can be difficult even for highly experienced leaders. Often, that’s because of a mistaken belief that it’s all about the evidence: make your data-supported case, and you’ll win. 

In fact, persuasion is not just about rhetoric. There’s plenty of work to be done before you even approach an individual or team, especially when you’re working with multiple audiences, both internally and externally. 

It turns out persuasion, as they say, is an art—one that many of us use every day while also needing to improve on it. So we’re therapists, psychologists, neurologists, human behaviorists, and communicators, all rolled into one.

The Art of Persuasion

Our former CMO, Laura Petrolino, was a master at the art of persuasion. Not only could she help turn clients around, she could stick ideas in their heads that eventually they would think were their own, making our jobs significantly easier. She also could tell someone to stick it where the sun don’t shine, and they would thank her for it and send her flowers as a form of gratitude. It was fun to watch—and certainly to learn from!

Several years ago, we had a client who refused to do any video. I mean, downright refused. He didn’t believe in it, didn’t watch videos, and didn’t think anyone else did, despite all of the statistics we would show him. We succumbed to the idea that we would win if we showed him enough data. We were wrong. 

So their COO and I concocted a plan: he would start recording videos to use internally to make announcements, reward employees, and impart news. To no one’s surprise—except maybe the CEO—they were highly effective. And, in fact, he collected quite a fan club from their more than 1,000 employee base. 

A year later, the CEO came to me and said, “You know, I think we should be doing video. I’m ready to get in front of the camera.” I grinned and said, “I think that’s a fabulous idea!”

The art of persuasion.

Understand Who to Get On Board

My friend Peter Faur sent me a recent article from Wharton by G. Richard Shell, Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics and co-author of the book The Art of Woo: Using Strategic Persuasion to Sell Your Ideas. He wrote about how to increase your influence and get more of what you want by mastering the art of persuasion.

He says, “First, you need to understand who to talk to and, just as importantly, in what order.”

This means that if you want to do video but the CEO is adamantly against it, you start with someone who will not only do it with you, but has enough influence on the CEO (and inside the organization) to help make change. 

Then Identify the Connections

First, identify the connections between people and how to draw the shortest distance between them. In the case of our client, working with the COO made a lot of sense because he was bought in, and he’s a direct line to the CEO.

In other cases, you may not have such a direct line. In another client example, when social media became a thing, we were working to build an internal team of employees who would embrace social and bring it into the organization as a way to communicate with one another and externally. 

Not everyone was bought in, and the senior leadership team thought it was just a fad (LOL!). So we built a group of team members who were already playing with it a bit on their own and worked with them to begin using it inside the business. Eventually, it became something that everyone did.

Of course, some of that was because social media became a part of all of our professional and personal lives, but the organization adopted it much more quickly because of the group of employee ambassadors. It put them ahead of their competition by a few years—and the CEO finally admitted it wasn’t a fad. 

Five Action Steps

You must have a strategy to identify the connections and get people on board to help you push things through. Be aware of those who will put up resistance, what that resistance will be, and how you adjust your request to appeal to each person. 

In his article Professor Shell recommends five action steps:

  1. It’s always about relationships; 
  2. Grab their attention; 
  3. Give them credit; 
  4. Practice fairness; and 
  5. Develop multiple paths.

Let’s go through what he means by each and how you can implement them in your daily lives. 

It’s Always About Relationships

This is not a surprise to you—communicators are relationship builders. And it’s important to remember that relationships come first when you are working to gain consensus and persuade groups of people to move toward action.

He says, “As the African folk saying goes, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.'”

Build relationships to help you achieve the best results. 

Grab Their Attention

Develop and practice your five-minute pitch. Shell and his team a simple four-step structure for your pitch:

  1. Frame the problem so they understand it and accept it as legitimate.
  2. Explain how the problem arose.
  3. Propose your answer in simple terms.
  4. Make the case that your answer is the best compared to obvious alternatives.

In the case of our client who didn’t want to do video, I framed it to the COO—who was very willing to do the work and also believed video was the future—as a way to get his boss’s involvement while proving that it was the most engaging medium we could use. 

The four-step structure worked because he knew we had to do something but wasn’t sure what the right solution was. We got there together.

Give Them Credit

We all like to be given credit for the work we do. And we all hate it when someone else takes credit for our work (unfortunately, it happens way too often in the work world). It costs you nothing to give credit where it is due and it creates the best kinds of relationships (go back to the first action step here!). 

When the CEO finally said he wanted to do video, I gave all of the credit to his COO. As my mom would say, “You attract more bees with honey than vinegar.” 

Give people credit for doing the hard work with you.

Practice Fairness

I have five thousand siblings, and my mom always worked hard to ensure things were always fair for us. Her aunt—my great aunt LaVin—did the same. For all of our birthdays, she would spoil us rotten with lots of gifts, and always brought everyone else a small gift. We all got spoiled on each other’s birthdays and it was fabulous. I miss that woman!

But people also know when you’re not being fair or when you’ve treated others differently.  

This is challenging, particularly when you’re practicing the art of persuasion and working with someone who may not be, shall we say, your favorite. But that’s when it’s even more important to be fair.

Develop Multiple Paths

This is what Professor Shell has to say about developing multiple paths, “Brainstorming a variety of options for solving problems rather than settling on the first one you happen to stumble upon will give you the chance to enhance working relationships with more people. You will also solve problems in ways that do not create new or unexpected issues for others. The chances are good that the first solution you come up with will work well for you, but the second or third may work equally well for you but also better for others. To put it simply: consult widely before deciding what to do. Then examine the available options from multiple perspectives, not just your own.”

All to say: explore different options and figure out which will work best for each of your intended audiences. As you build relationships, you’ll know how to persuade each person. 

Just like I quickly figured out that pounding the CEO with all the video engagement data wouldn’t work, I had to develop another path to get him to the point that he would (finally) agree to do it.

Master the Art of Persuasion

The art of persuasion is something every communicator must master—both internally and externally.

You will get there with these five action steps and some consistent elbow grease. 

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

View all posts by Gini Dietrich