Knowing how to influence others can pay off big in your life and career, whether you’re a recent college grad, manager, or stay-at-home parent. The art of persuasion can help you convince your boss to let you work from home. It can help you convince your teenager to stop smoking or your spouse to take out the garbage consistently.
Being more persuasive can increase your sales, enhance your reputation at work, help you get key projects approved, win you a leadership position in your company, or even help you land the job of your dreams.
But how do you convince someone to do something, or believe something, without seeming manipulative? Let’s take a look.
Persuasion vs. Manipulation
It’s important to realize that persuasion is not the same as manipulation. Manipulation is dodgy, even unethical, while persuasion is an art.
Manipulation is the practice of fooling, or even forcing, other people to do something or believe something that’s not in their best interests but benefits you in some way. Manipulators act with the intent to harm, punish, or control so that they “win.” In manipulation, the truth is twisted or even withheld.
For example, imagine a marketing firm develops an ad campaign for a company that sells dehydrated food. The ad campaign uses current news clips and sound bites that are completely out of context to make consumers fear a national emergency is imminent and their health and safety is at risk. Commercials and online ads continue to stoke these fears, and sales for dehydrated food skyrocket as people stockpile for the so-called emergency.
In this example, the advertising company manipulated their audience because it caused people to develop untrue beliefs. A national emergency was not imminent or even likely, but the advertising company made it appear as if it was. It played on powerful fears, such as consumers’ worry over their health and safety, to benefit financially.
Manipulation is the same as lying. It’s a dangerous and immoral practice.
Persuasion, on the other hand, is the art of influencing others to believe something or do something that benefits both you and them. With persuasion, you stick to the truth, but you structure your argument or message in a way that aligns closely with your audience’s emotions, mindset, beliefs, or values.
For example, imagine the dehydrated food company hires a different advertising company to take over their marketing. The new firm develops an advertising campaign that illustrates how dehydrated food can help families prepare for natural disasters such as hurricanes and tornadoes. It uses government and historical data to educate the audience on the likelihood of such a disaster.
You might think this is still an act of manipulation. After all, the advertising company is still preying on people’s fears. But persuasion comes down to truth and intent. Every family wants to have enough food for their children, especially when disaster strikes; that’s a common concern. However, the advertising company didn’t twist facts or spin information to make people believe something that wasn’t true. It used hard data from reliable sources to make its case, and its intent was to help people prepare so their families wouldn’t go hungry during an emergency. The dehydrated food company benefits from sales, but consumers also benefit.
Persuasion is ethical because it relies entirely on truth with the intent of helping others. Done well, it’s an art form – as Aristotle knew well.
Aristotle’s 3 Pillars of Persuasion
The great Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 to 322 BCE) is considered by many to be the father of persuasion. In his book “Rhetoric,” he laid out three “pillars,” or “appeals,” that are essential in the art of persuasion.
Although Aristotle lived thousands of years ago, the most effective influencers still rely on these three pillars when persuading others; they’re the foundation of any good argument. In order of descending importance, these three pillars are:
Ethos is your credibility as a speaker. You must convince your audience that you have a trustworthy character, that you’re telling them the truth, and that you empathize with whatever situation they’re in. If your audience doesn’t trust you, you won’t be able to convince them of anything.
Many factors influence your credibility in the minds of your audience, including your body language, reputation, dress, expertise, and the quality of your message. Character is king when it comes to persuading others.
Pathos is the emotional state of your audience, whether it consists of one person or 100. Using the concept of pathos, a speaker not only understands the current state of their audience’s emotions, but they also know how to awaken certain emotions that already reside in the people they’re speaking to.
Think of pathos as your “emotional appeal.” It’s your ability to understand what your audience is feeling and arouse these emotions to prove your point. Pathos also encapsulates people’s desires, goals, beliefs, and values.
For better or worse, humans are emotional creatures. Knowing how to harness that emotion makes an audience more receptive to your message.
Logos, or logic, is the last element you need in a persuasive argument. It’s the data or evidence that supports your position, the expert opinion or logical reasoning you use when making your case.
Of Aristotle’s three pillars, logic is the least important – at least, in most circumstances. That’s because humans don’t need logic or evidence to take action, but they do require trust and emotional alignment.
How to Be More Persuasive
Understanding Aristotle’s three pillars of persuasion is the start of effective persuasion. With those in mind, here are some actionable strategies you can use to become a better influencer.
1. Build a Solid Reputation
Your reputation is everything when it comes to persuading others. If someone doesn’t trust you or believe that you care about their well-being, they will never listen to what you have to say – end of story. Integrity is the foundation of persuasion. If you don’t have it, you’re sunk.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to build a great reputation.
- Keep Your Word. Always do what you say you’re going to do, even when it inconveniences you or puts you at a disadvantage.
- Help Others. Do what you can to make things easier or better for the people around you.
- Go Above and Beyond. Keep your promises, but do a bit more. Overdeliver whenever you can, and people will take notice.
- Dress Professionally. Your image matters. Know how to make a great first impression and always dress professionally.
- Be Authentic. People know when you’re faking it, so just be yourself.
- Be Humble. Admit when you’re wrong, you’ve dropped the ball, or you’ve made a mistake. Apologize and then do whatever you can to make it right. Everyone makes mistakes, but not everyone takes responsibility for their mistakes. The phrase “that was my fault” is one of the most powerful statements you can say to anyone; it instantly makes people more receptive and forgiving.
- Listen. Knowing how to listen is essential in developing emotional intelligence. When you show others that you’re really listening to what they have to say, they’ll return the favor.
A great reputation speaks for itself, and you’ll find that the more you do to build trust with others, the easier it will be to influence them.
2. Find Common Ground
Stop and think about how you typically try to persuade someone else to your point of view. If you’re like most people, you probably start with logic, using evidence or data to prove your point. However, this is the least effective way to influence someone.
When you use logic to try to prove that you’re right and someone else is wrong, they do one of two things: Either they put up a mental wall and ignore you, or they immediately look for ways to twist your data or find holes so that what you’re saying doesn’t conflict with what they already believe.
Don’t get me wrong; logic has its place. But that place is at the middle or tail end of your message, not at the very beginning.
Instead of starting with a logical, reasoned argument, look for ways to find common ground with your audience. Common ground helps create a foundation that you can use to build a reasonable argument. For example, what shared experiences do you have in common? What values, motivations, interests, challenges, or beliefs do you share?
Imagine that you’ve asked your boss to let you work from home three days a week so you can spend more time with your young children. You can tell that she’s reluctant, so you try to find some common ground. You know she has older kids, so you ask her how she balanced parenting and her career when her kids were young. You then talk about your fears that your kids are growing up too fast and you’re missing a lot of milestones because of your long commute.
You also know that your boss cares deeply about meeting the company’s key performance metrics each month. So do you, and you explain how you’ll continue to meet these metrics while working from home.
Finding common ground is like building a bridge between you and the other person; it’s a place to start. So share your feelings. Tell a joke or a story. Ask someone’s advice. Look for ways to build an emotional connection using something you already have in common.
You can also use specific key words or phrases to help build common ground, including:
- “We both know that…” or “All of us know that…”
- “I trust your judgment.”
- “You might be wondering …”
- “Can I ask your advice about something?”
- “What can I do to help?”
- “We both have the same goal” or “We all have the same goals.”
3. Harness the Power of Reciprocity
Leading influence expert and best-selling author Dr. Robert Cialdini cites an interesting series of studies about the power of reciprocity in his book “Influence.” In these studies, researchers went into restaurants to examine how tips increased when a waiter gave customers a small gift – typically a mint – when they brought the bill.
The studies found that tips increased by 3% when the waiter left a single mint. However, when the waiter left two mints, tips increased by 14%. Even more surprising is that when the waiter left a single mint, started to walk away, and then turned back and said, “For you nice people, here’s an extra mint,” tips went up by 23%.
As humans, we’re hardwired to “return the favor.” So do unexpected favors for other people. Give what you can, with no strings attached. Be the first to do something for your family and colleagues, and you’ll find that they want to return the favor when it comes time for you to ask for something.
4. Be Likable
People are more likely to say yes to someone they like. Typically, we like people who are similar to us, who pay us compliments, or who are willing to work with us on mutual goals.
On Cialdini’s website, he describes a series of negotiation studies that were carried out with MBA students at two top business schools. One group was told that “time is money” and that they should immediately get to work. In this group, around 55% of students were able to reach an agreement in their negotiations.
The second group of students had different instructions. They were told to chat with each other first and try to find something they had in common. Once they did this, they were to start negotiating. In this group, 90% of students were able to achieve a successful and agreeable compromise.
The point is simple: Be likable. Find common ground, help others, and give sincere compliments whenever you can. You’ll build goodwill and trust in everyone you meet, making them more receptive to you.
5. Emphasize Scarcity
People are more likely to want or value something if there’s a limited amount of it, even if that something is you.
When it’s appropriate, include an element of scarcity in your message. What will your audience stand to lose if they don’t listen to what you have to say, buy your product, or take a certain action? What will a company miss out on – and their competitors gain – if they don’t hire you?
6. Be Assertive
Which of these statements are you more likely to believe?
- “I think this is going to work great.”
- “This will work great.”
The second statement inspires more confidence and trust because it doesn’t beat around the bush; there are no second-guessing qualifiers, and the speaker it’s hemming and hawing their way around the message. It’s important to be bold and assertive in what you say. Stop using qualifiers, such as:
- Just (as in, “I just want to say…”)
- I think
- I feel
- Ending sentences with questions such as “… don’t you think?”
Qualifiers are like little escape hatches in your message. They sow uncertainty by leaving you a way out if you need it. Instead, use words and phrases such as:
- I’m convinced
- I believe
- I expect
See how much stronger these words sound? They’re precise and confident, and they inspire trust. When you sound strong, people will believe you are strong, and they’ll be more likely to listen to and accept what you say.
7. Address the Downsides
There’s no perfect product, proposal, or plan. No matter what you’re talking about, there will be some downsides, obstacles, or risks that need to be addressed.
Some people think that talking about the downsides or opposing viewpoints makes their position sound weak. However, addressing these obstacles up front actually helps build trust because it shows your audience that you’re not trying to sweep these issues under the rug.
Be candid about the risks you’re facing. Talk about them honestly and make sure you have a plan to overcome them.
It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do; knowing how to influence others can make your life better.
You may want to get your 5-year-old to clean up his room, to convince your teenager to do his homework, to pitch a groundbreaking new idea to your boss, or to buy a home for significantly under list price. The key to being successful in all of these situations – and countless others – is knowing how to angle your argument so that the other person responds.
It doesn’t take a lot to be a better influencer. Simple steps like always saying “thank you” and meaning it, helping other people whenever you can, and keeping your word will not only build your ability to influence, but will also strengthen your reputation and make you more likable.
If you want to learn more about how to better persuade others, check out Robert Cialdini’s classic book “Influence” or his newest book, “The Small BIG: Small Changes That Spark Big Influence,” co-written with Steve Martin and Noah Goldstein.
What do you want to achieve in your life or career? How can you apply these tips to achieve it?