How to Maximize Results in the Art of Persuasion

Howard Gardner photo via TheDish.org

Being a good entrepreneur means being able to effectively convince an investor that you have a great idea, persuade partners that your approach is right, and convince potential customers that the solution is right for them. If all your ideas are intuitively obvious to everyone, you probably aren’t thinking outside the box, or don’t really have the next big thing.

The process and tactics involved in winning over others with your views have has been studied extensively by Howard Gardner, a Harvard developmental psychologist, in “Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Minds.” It turns out that the same principles apply to changing your own mind (learning new things), as well as others.

There is no single “silver bullet” here. Leaders seeking support for their ideas shouldn’t rely on a single method of persuasion. I agree with an old Harvard Management Update, which suggests you need to tailor your approach to the audience, as well as use as many of the following pragmatic approaches as possible:

  • Try often and in many ways. Many people mistakenly assume that their message is so powerful and so convincing that a single delivery should do it. Plan to deliver your message artfully several times (not all in one meeting), in different formats, including written, verbal, graphics, scenarios, and demonstrations.
  • Lead from a familiar problem. Start with a familiar problem, presented in neutral terms, that your audience can relate to. Then apply your new idea, technology, or solution, to show the added value in concrete terms. Avoid abstract or academic discussions that often sound like an effort to show you are smarter than the audience.
  • Leverage the power of contrast. Contrasting scenarios can also prove powerfully convincing, one with your message implemented, and one without. If you can challenge or involve the receiver in creating this contrast, it will help them move from old beliefs to your new ones.
  • Tune to receiver expertise and intelligence. Your approach to right-brain (visual and intuitive) people should be different than left-brain (logical and analytical). That usually means listening first, consulting with others, and taking time to establish a relationship with an investor before you hit him with your startup idea.
  • Get help from friends and experts. None of us is equally comfortable with, or skilled at all the possible approaches. Don’t hesitate to get help from a colleague on a creative demo if you are analytical, or a good writer if you need a strong business plan.

Theoretically, all these tactics can be related to Gardner’s seven levers of persuasion:

  1. Rational reasoning: Logically outline the pros and cons of a decision.
  2. Research: Present data and relevant cases to support the argument.
  3. Resonance: Use your likeability and emotional appeal to win support for your view.
  4. Representational re-description: Make your point in many different ways.
  5. Resources and rewards: Use rewards or punishment as incentives.
  6. Real-world events: Use events from society at large to make your point.
  7. Resistances: Understand the factors that cause people to reject your view.

As a practical implementation, I find that the most persuasive leaders start their conversations by asking questions. They get to know what is important to that person, what moves them, and what level of resistance the receiver has to the new idea. The higher the level of resistance, the more time and more of these techniques will be required.

If you are an entrepreneur, or any business professional, you need to change people’s minds, including your own, on a regular basis. I’m convinced that the tactics listed here can improve your success rate, and your overall effectiveness in your job. Feel free to try to change my mind.

Martin Zwilling , Founder and CEO, Startup Professionals
January 27th, 2013