Effective Persuasion: Ten Things to Know and Five Things to Do

by | Aug 18, 2015

Have you ever tried to persuade someone and it did not go well? You have all the facts and data; you have a compelling case and the answer seems obvious – at least to you. Yet, they are not convinced and their arguments seem counterintuitive. This situation plays out with city councils, legislatures, the C-suite, board rooms, your boss, and your spouse. What is happening when a seemingly logical approach doesn’t win support?

Neuroscience research provides nine insights that you need to know about persuasion and five tips to persuade more effectively

Conformity. The opinions of others are a powerful motivator. Groups easily and unconsciously sway the perceptions of an individual. In fact, research indicates that people will give an obviously wrong answer if that answer conforms to the viewpoint of the group. An individual will gravitate to the common answer. Conforming activates the social part of the brain (the occipital parietal regions) . This is the part of the brain that responds to group activity and our relationship with others. That powerful pull to conform explains the tendency for groupthink.

Dissent. On the other end of the spectrum, when you put forward a dissenting viewpoint you activate the threaten response in the brain . This creates discomfort for you and makes it harder to disagree with the group viewpoint. As a leader, at times you must challenge the status quo and push people outside their comfort zone. If you think it’s hard to sustain, you’re right. Your brain doesn’t cooperate when you are the lone voice. At least knowing that your brain is over-reacting helps push past the norm.

Repetition works. According to research, when a message is repeated enough our habit brain – the limbic system and oldest part of the brain – begins to believe it is true. This explains why politicians find a core message and continue to repeat it.

Engaged audiences respond to cognitive persuasion. Highly engaged and analytically oriented people respond well to logic-based, cognitive persuasion. This appeals to the thinking brain which is attractive for those inclined and have time to deeply understand an issue. Even so, this type of audience needs a reason to pay attention and that is best initially done with an emotional connection

.Unengaged audiences use the habit brain. For people who are not highly engaged or don’t have time to devote to detailed understanding respond best to an emotional appeal that connects to the oldest part of the brain, the limbic system.

The messenger counts. We are more likely to be persuade by people we like, who we believe have credibility, and who feel sincere. It makes a difference to have a positive connection with the audience being persuaded.

Emotional appeals work best if they are positive. Emotion is a powerful motivator and it is even more powerful when the emotion generated is positive. Fear can work but something too fearful or distasteful may be a turnoff rather than be persuasive.

Primacy rule. The first item mentioned is likely to be the best remembered. Make the first words count. If there is a long time between the first and the last statements, the last statement may also be a key to persuasion.

In person. Face-to-face is the most persuasive. Since the brain is wired for personal connection, persuasion is more effective in person. The exception is if the data is very complex (and the people involved are inclined to study complex data).

Persuasion is social. Neuroscience supports the finding that at the moment of persuasion, the social brain is activated. This notion points to the desirability to incorporate social connections into the persuasive process.
So what does this mean as you assess the most effective approach to persuasion?

• Social connections are key to persuasion. Find others who support the idea you seek to advance and, ideally, who are highly regarded by those being persuaded. Incorporate them into the discussion in two ways. First, their relationship creates a sense of connection and trust which feels good to the brain. Keep in mind that the messenger matters. Find people who relate to the audience. Second, having others who take your viewpoint creates its own group and who, with you, creates a group that fosters its own social connection. It gives those being persuaded an opportunity for a social connection.

• Repeat the message again and again. Also, you can use varying forms of media to get the message across. For leaders, it’s important to continue delivering a message like a drum beat until you are sick of hearing it. It’s only then that the message is likely getting through.

• Develop cognitive and emotionally appealing, positive arguments. It is rare that you are persuading only one type of audience. Instead, you are more likely to be dealing with a mix of people to persuade – either in a group or individually. Take care to formulate an argument that has supporting data and logical benefits plus a story to convey benefits that connect at an emotional level. You need both.

• Be sincerely interested in others’ views. People know when you are sincerely curious about them. Sincerity can’t be faked at least not by most of us. Find out the interests of those you wish to persuade. Why do they care about this issue? What is their current perspective and why? How can you specifically address their interests? The effort to understand and show empathy communicates a sincere attentiveness and it is more likely to create an inclination for others to listen to your points.

• Communicate the message in person with supplemental written materials as backup. There is nothing like face-to-face communication for effective persuasion. People like to talk to other people. Just think about the last time you hoped an answering device would help you with a question. Personal communication is far superior for making an emotionally powerful connection. Provide printed material with details, data and analysis for those who want to dig in and study.

The next time that persuasion is your goal, review these ten points and spend the time to thoughtfully consider the approach and adapt to the needs of the audiences’ brains.


Author Byline: Founder and CEO of Blue Fjord Leaders, Shelley Row P.E. CSP, was named by Inc. Magazine as one of the top 100 leadership speakers. Professional engineer and former senior executive, she was recognized as one of the best minds in advanced traffic management systems.

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