How to be persuasive when speaking

The origin of the word hints at how to be persuasive.

The latin ‘persuasivus‘ is about being ‘convinced by reasoning’.

So even though emotion plays an important part, our focus should be on a compelling argument and reasoning to back it up.
You don’t need to employ manipulative tricks to be persuasive, the core skill is the ability to persuade with clarity.
How to be persuasive?

  • Overcome the obstacles to persuasion
  • Use tools to be clear and compelling

Let’s start with the obstacles.

Overcoming the obstacles to persuasion

The Closeness Problem:

Persuasive speaking can only be effective when we understand people’s questions, concerns and objections. However, we all see the world from our own view. We can’t help it. It’s how we are built.
And the closer we are to an issue, the harder it is to see the perspective of someone else. This closeness problem interferes with our ability to be objective.

Subjective speakers don’t know how to be persuasive:

We suffer from subjectivity when we are influenced by personal feelings, tastes or opinions. And this is our default state. There is always a gap that needs to be bridged between your views, words, frame-of-mind and those of your audience.
For many speakers, that gap is never filled.
Now consider the root of the word ‘persuade’:

  • per – ‘through, to completion’
  • suadere – ‘advise’

A complete argument:

You won’t be able to ‘advise people to completion’ if you speak about the issue from your subjective viewpoint. Persuasive speakers are able to be objective, impartial, unbiased and open minded. Particularly during the planning stage.
When you fully understand their needs, concerns and objections, it’s much easier to satisfy them.

Techniques to get into their mind and see their perspective:

  • Write down the top 2 objections they might have. Say each one out loud as though you meant it. Now write down your response.
  • Picture a listener talking to a colleague about what they want.
  • Discuss the audience’s view with a 3rd person.
  • Ask them! Pick up the phone and ask what matters most.
  • Go deeply into their objections. Assess them. Find the openings for your ideas.
  • Try to get to the core of what’s important to them. For example: Ask them about what’s important to them, and then what’s important about that. You might reach something fundamental, like ‘So I’ll feel appreciated in this role’ or ‘So the world can see the great work we are doing here’. You don’t have to manipulate their emotions, just recognise that emotions play a huge part in decision making. And that emotions are often not articulated by the listener until you dig deeper.


3 Tools to be clear and compelling


1. Build trust

How do you build trust? The foundation is showing you understand their perspective. Other important elements include eye contact and a natural, believable delivery style that allows you speak with certainty.

– Name the elephant in the room:

One of the best techniques to build trust is to be the first to bring up the objection, concern or unspoken issue. Do your best to articulate this opposing point of view, then refute it with logical arguments of your own. Bringing up objections and opposing arguments makes you seem unbiased and builds tremendous credibility. It also makes your argument appear complete.

2. Add life to your ideas

Consider the following to bring your ideas to life:

– Social proof:

Social proof is one of core tenets of persuasion. People feel safer following the crowd. This herding impulse has provided an evolutionary advantage. If all of your friends started running, your chances of survival increased if you followed the crowd—otherwise you might be the only one the lion sees.
By showing how many other people (ideally, people who are similar to your audience) have succeeded with this idea, you break down resistance to it. Use examples and case studies to prove that your idea works in the real world.

– Contrast:

It’s easier for people to determine the worth of an idea (or product) when it is compared to something. When Howard Hughes was making the film ‘Hell’s Angels‘ in 1929, he created groundbreaking air combat scenes that are still admired today. The problem was there were no clouds in the sunny California skies and so no point of reference to see how fast the planes were going. Hughes halted production for weeks until they could shoot with clouds in the background. It was worth it. The contrast between the static clouds and the speeding planes brought the pace and drama of the aeriel dogfights to life for the audience.
Compare the outcomes of your idea with alternatives to show how valuable yours are.

– Focus on the end result:

Describe the specific outcome of your idea for your audience. Use the word ‘Imagine…’ and paint a picture using as many senses as you can; what they will see, how they will feel (contrasted to the alternative), the opportunities available, etc. Attach positive emotions to the outcome.

– Persuasive language:

Use words that will be understood easily so that your listeners won’t have to spend energy translating your jargon. When every part of your message seems simple, there is a greater chance you’ll get their agreement or support.

– Use their words:

The most persuasive language is a person’s own words. In the same way that the sweetest word is a person’s own name, hearing the world described in their own words will feel right. Even if you think your wording conveys the same idea; emotionally, people will connect when you use their words exactly. It creates certainty and certainty makes us feel safe. Safer about making a decision, safer about trusting you or your judgement.

– Use props or photographs:

Talking about something in abstract terms is good, but using real objects or photographs helps bring it to life. Visual evidence can be particularly compelling.

– Use comparisons, analogies, and metaphors:

Whenever you introduce new concepts, search for an appropriate analogy which helps the audience understand the new concept in terms of how they already understand the old one.

– Use facts and statistics:

Compare the following statements: (A) Every year, many people die of cancer. (B) Every year, 3000 people in our community die of cancer.

– Use personal stories and anecdotes:

A personal story combines the power of a real example with a credible source (assuming you are a credible source!). Personal stories and anecdotes are more powerful than stories or anecdotes “which happened to a friend of mine.”

3. Use chunking

– What’s the sequence?

The human mind is activated when processing a sequence of steps (as long as it’s not too long). Go through the steps or phases in order. If you jump around, out of order, your audience will switch off. As the number of steps increases, consider using a diagram.

– Consider models and diagrams:

Carefully crafted diagrams enhance the understandability of your arguments. It doesn’t matter if you use slides, a white board, or the back of a napkin, models and diagrams can clarify concepts for your audience.

– Number the steps:

Keep your broad argument simple. Number the steps and tick them off on your fingers.

Summary: Keep it simple

You don’t need to use all these tools to be persuasive. Just focus on the 2 areas: identify the obstacles and then cherry pick 2 or 3 tools to make your ideas clear and compelling.
If you’d like to learn how to master these skills, consider: