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9 Habits of Remarkably Persuasive People

You don't have to be born with an incredible power of persuasion. Here's how you can develop that vital skill.
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Show me a successful person and I'll show you someone incredibly good at persuading other people.

Oh, I know: "Persuasion" implies manipulating, pressuring, cajoling … all the used-car salesman stereotypes.

But if you think of persuasion as effectively describing the benefits and logic of an idea to gain agreement, then everyone needs to be able to persuade--to convince others a proposal makes sense, to show stakeholders how a project or business will generate a return, to help employees understand the benefits of a new process, etc.

That's why the ability to persuade is critical in any business or career--and why successful people are extremely good at persuading others.

Here are some of the habits of remarkably persuasive people:

1. They take bold stands.

You would assume data and reasoning always win the day, right?

Nope. Research shows humans prefer cockiness to expertise. We naturally assume confidence equates with skill. Even the most skeptical will at least be partly persuaded by a confident speaker.

In fact, we prefer advice from a confident source even to the point that we will forgive a poor track record.

So be bold. Stop saying, "I think" or "I believe." Stop adding qualifiers to your speech. If you think something will work, say it will work. If you believe something will work, say it will work.

Stand behind your opinions--even if they are just opinions--and let your enthusiasm show. People will naturally be more persuaded.

2. They adjust their rate of speech.

There's reason behind the "fast talking salesman" stereotype: In certain situations, talking fast works.

Other times, not so much.

Here's what one study indicates:

  • If your audience is likely to disagree, speak faster.
  • If your audience is likely to agree, speak slower.

Why?

  • When your audience is inclined to disagree with you, speaking faster gives them less time to form their own counterarguments and you have a better chance of persuading them.
  • When your audience is inclined to agree with you, speaking slowly gives them time to evaluate your arguments and factor in a few of their own thoughts. The combination of your reasoning plus their initial bias means they are more likely to, at least in part, persuade themselves.

In short: If you're preaching to the choir, speak slowly; if not, speak quickly. And if your audience is neutral or apathetic, speak quickly so you'll be less likely to lose their attention.

3. They start with small "wins."

Research shows--yep, more research--that gaining agreement has an enduring effect, even if only over the short term. So instead of jumping right to the end of your argument, start with statements or premises you know your audience will agree with. Build a foundation for further agreement.

Remember, a body in motion tends to remain in motion, and that also applies to a head nodding in agreement.

4. They occasionally swear.

Of course swearing for no reason is just swearing. But say your team needs to pull together … right freaking now. Tossing in an occasional--and heartfelt--curse word can actually help instill a sense of urgency because it shows you care. (And of course it never hurts when a leader lets a little frustration or anger show, too.)

In short, be yourself. Authenticity is always more persuasive. And if you feel strongly enough to slip in a mild curse word, feel free. Research shows you're likely to be a little more persuasive.

5. They know how their audience prefers to process information.

A fellow supervisor used to frustrate the crap out of me. (See? That swearing thing works.) I was young and enthusiastic and would burst into his office with an awesome idea, lay out all my facts and figures, wait breathlessly for him to agree with me … and he would disagree.

Every. Freaking. Time.

After a number of failed attempts, I finally realized he wasn't the problem. My approach was the problem. He needed time to think. He needed time to process. By demanding an immediate answer, I put him on the defensive. In the absence of time to reflect, he would fall back on the safe choice: sticking to the status quo.

So I tried a different approach. "Don," I said, "I have an idea that I think makes sense, but I feel sure there are things I'm missing. If I run it by you, could you think about it for a day or two and then tell me what you think?"

He loved that approach. One, it showed I valued his wisdom and experience. Two, it showed I didn't just want him to agree--I genuinely wanted his opinion. And most important, it gave him time to process my idea the way he felt most comfortable.

Always know your audience. Don't push for instant agreement if someone's personality style makes that unlikely. But don't ask for thought and reflection if your audience loves to make quick decisions and move on.

6. They share positives and negatives.

According to University of Illinois professor Daniel O'Keefe, sharing an opposing viewpoint or two is more persuasive than sticking solely to your argument.

Why? Very few ideas or proposals are perfect. Your audience members know that; they know there are other perspectives and potential outcomes. So meet them head on. Talk about the things they're already considering. Discuss potential negatives and show how you will mitigate or overcome those problems.

The people in your audience are more likely to be persuaded when they know you understand they could have misgivings. So talk about the other side of the argument--and then do your best to show why you're still right.

7. They draw positive conclusions.

Which of the following statements is more persuasive?

  • "Stop making so many mistakes," or
  • "Be much more accurate."

Or these two?

  • "Stop feeling so lethargic," or
  • "Feel a lot more energetic."

While it's tempting to use scare tactics, positive outcome statements tend to be more persuasive. (The researchers hypothesized that most people respond negatively to feeling bullied or guilted into changing a behavior.)

So if you're trying to produce change, focus on the positives of that change. Take your audience to a better place instead of telling your audience what to avoid.

8. They choose the right medium.

Say you're a man hoping to convince a man you don't know well, or even at all. What should you do?

If you have a choice, don't speak in person. Write an email first.

As a general rule, men tend to feel competitive in person and turn what should be a conversation into a contest we think we need to win. (Be honest; you know you do it sometimes.)

The opposite is true if you're a woman hoping to persuade other women. According to the researchers, women are "more focused on relationships," so in-person communication tends to be more effective.

But if you're a guy trying to convince another guy you know well, definitely communicate in person. The closer your relationship the more effective face-to-face communication tends to be.

9. Most of all... they make sure they're right.

Remarkably persuasive people understand how to frame and deliver their messages, but most important, they embrace the fact that the message is what matters.

Be clear, be concise, be to the point, and win the day because your data, reasoning, and conclusions are beyond reproach.

And always use your persuasion skills for good, not evil. They should be the icing on an undeniably logical cake.

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Aug 19, 2014

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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