When a crisis hits your company--a data breach, a mass exodus of clients, or a product failure--you need to be able to master persuasive messaging. If you're the leader of a failed initiative or business, your employees may not want to follow your advice.

The art of persuasion is not about the content--you can convince people to do most anything. People want to trust you; they want to believe. The art of persuasion, says Steve Martin, co-author of The Small Big--Small Changes That Spark Big Influence, is all about the messenger.

"There are lots of reasons why well-crafted messages fail to persuade, but one of the most common is because the communicator focuses too much on constructing the content of the message rather than choosing the right messenger," Martin writes in Harvard Business Review. "The distinction between the messenger and the message is an important one. In today's information-overloaded world, in which we're exposed to lots of conflicting messages, people will often act more on the basis of who is communicating the message rather than the actual message itself."

Below, learn about the three characteristics of persuasive messengers.

The messenger as the expert.

The first thing you need to realize is that you may not be the right messenger. If you're not an expert, find one who is willing to work with your company. "When people feel uncertain, they typically look to experts to guide their decisions," Martin writes. He mentions a recent study where subjects were asked to make a series of financial decisions they had never made before. When the subjects received advice from a renowned economist, brain scans showed their decision-making area was not active. When experts speak, Martin explains, "processing activity goes away."

Besides being an actual expert, you need to employ authority cues, Martin says. In another study, patients were more likely to take a doctor's advice if the doctor had his or her medical diplomas hanging on the wall or were wearing a stethoscope. "Messengers who see that their messages are falling on deaf ears should ask themselves whether they're taking steps to credentialize themselves before delivering their message," he writes.

Instill trust by showing both sides.

During a controversial situation, you need to establish your or the messenger's trustworthiness. Martin says if there are multiple answers to the problem, the messenger will be tempted to "conceal any small doubts or uncertainties about their message by sweeping them under the carpet." That's a bad idea. There is evidence that shows people will trust you more if you point out the uncertainties in your argument. "Start your message with a small weakness or drawback, then use the word 'but' before delivering your strongest message. A doctor who says, 'No vaccine in the world is without the occasional adverse event, but this vaccine is extremely safe and has been used to protect millions of children,' strengthens her trustworthiness and credibility," Martin writes. "But notice how reaction to the message feels different if the weakness follows, rather than precedes, the strength."

Find common ground with your audience.

You are more likely to believe someone who's like you over a total stranger who has nothing in common with your experience. If you cannot connect with your employees through common ground, find a messenger who can. Martin gives an example from Africa, where a public health program to increase condom use and curtail the spread of STDs had the expertise down, but did not connect with the locals. But when local hairdressers were recruited to get the message out, the campaign "Get Braids Not Aids" became a success in lowering transmission rates. "Even though you may be the best qualified person to deliver your message, you may not be the most effective messenger," Martin says.

Published on: Jan 30, 2015