In any organisation, power moves inexorably to those who speak well.
By well, I don’t mean eloquently. I mean persuasively.
There is an art and a skill to persuading people to accept your ideas. In this essay, I will tell you about the simple, four-part strategy that I use.
It’s useful online, on the phone, and in person. And you’ll be able to use it as soon as you finish reading this.
But before I reveal my technique, I’d like to persuade you that speaking well is indeed a powerful success tool. Because if you have any doubt, you won’t put my trick to work, will you?
Think about some of the most powerful people in the world. Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett, to name a few.
What do these people have in common? Intelligence? Yes, but there are plenty of intelligent people who don’t have power and who aren’t successful. Our universities are filled with them. No, intelligence is not it.
What these three people share is the ability to speak well and persuasively.
Oprah Winfrey is a master speaker. Her secret to becoming the world’s most powerful woman (and there is no doubt that she is) is that she found a way to make millions of people believe she cares about them.
Bill Gates became one of the most successful entrepreneurs not by being a computer genius (he isn’t) but by knowing how to convince a select group of people that he could deliver a system that could change the world.
And Warren Buffett? His persuasion skills have been a huge part of his success. He’s been a much sought-after speaker for decades.
“Speaking well is… the number one reason for career advancement,” Virginia Avery asserts in The Power of Your Speech. “Every time you meet with a client or make a presentation, your image is affected — for better or worse.”
Woodrow Wilson, Avery points out, began his career as a reserved political science professor with a stilted speaking style.
When he decided to go into politics, he set about becoming a skillful orator. And when he delivered his inaugural address as the 28th president of the United States, it was said that “not since Lincoln has there been a president so wonderfully gifted in the art of expression.”
Peggy Noonan, in On Speaking Well, beautifully illustrates Lincoln’s prowess as a speaker with this story:
“When the famed orator Edward Everett spoke before Lincoln at Gettysburg, he went on for more than two hours and pulled out all the stops with poetry and pleading and stentorian phrases. Then Lincoln got up and offered a masterpiece of compression, two or three minutes on the meaning of war and the meaning of the day… With great grace [Everett] wrote Lincoln, ‘I shall be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.’”
Persuasive speaking skills helped most of America’s most influential presidents “get their most cherished programs through Congress and leave their stamp on the future,” wrote Michael Kazin in The Washington Post. Every modern president “who left office with his popularity intact” — from Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan — was a masterful speaker.
“If all my talents and powers were to be taken from me by some inscrutable Providence and I had my choice of keeping but one,” Daniel Webster once said, “I would unhesitatingly ask to be allowed to keep the power of speaking, for through it I would quickly recover all the rest.”
For Webster, the skill of speaking was the gateway to all other skills and tools for success.
So… have I convinced you that being able to communicate persuasively is a critically important success skill?
Then my next question to you is this: What are you doing about becoming a more persuasive speaker?
What steps are you taking right now? Are you reading books on speaking? Are you taking courses? Are you thinking carefully about how you communicate with your spouse, your family, your clients, your colleagues, your boss?
How would they rate you as a persuasive speaker? If the answer is anything other than “great,” you have work to do!
And don’t tell me you “don’t have enough time.” Stephen Covey poked holes in that argument in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
In the rush to get everything done that we are given to do every day, said Covey, we tend to take care of the urgent tasks first and push off the non-urgent ones.
Yet, it is the important-but-not-urgent tasks — like those that help you improve your speaking skills — that will make the greatest long-term difference in your life. So you have to make them a priority. And once you make them a priority, they will get done.
It is impossible to overestimate the value of speaking well. Whether you are negotiating a lease on a car, presenting an idea at a business meeting, or having a conversation with a powerful person you’ve just been introduced to — what you say and how you say it matters.
So, let’s begin your mastery of speaking with the simple four-part strategy I talked about at the beginning of this essay. As I said, you can put this strategy to work immediately. And you will notice the difference as soon as you start.
Persuasive speaking has four parts: knowing what you want, understanding what the other person wants, understanding the possible objections, and then presenting your case as simply as possible.
#1 Get Your Ducks in a Row
Let’s say you’ve been invited to take part in a business meeting… or perhaps you’re gearing up to have an important conversation with a family member. Spend some time beforehand thinking about the topic you will be discussing. Figure out how you can benefit from it. Set a specific, measurable goal for yourself. Then, figure out how you can achieve that goal.
This may seem like an unnecessary step. You might be thinking, “I don’t need to think about what I want. I am always aware of it.”
In fact, most people don’t know what they want. They have some general impressions of what being successful means. But they don’t analyse those impressions. They don’t break them down. They don’t understand how to achieve them strategically.
#2 Be Selfless in Your Appeal to Selfishness
Contrary to what some self-improvement gurus will tell you, you won’t get what you want in life simply by asking for it.
Everybody is ultimately motivated by self-interest. Achieving your specific goals, therefore, is a matter of figuring out how you can satisfy the desires of others.
If, for example, your goal for that business meeting you’ve been invited to is to be nominated to head up an upcoming project, plan for it by making a mental list of how your nomination will help each person attending the meeting. Figure out how, in leading the project, you can provide that.
Most important, think about how you can direct the project so that it will achieve growth and profitability for the company. Spend some time formulating the phrases you will use to drive that point home.
By putting the company first, you will enlist the respect and support of just about everyone. You will establish yourself as a natural leader. And then, when you explain how the project will benefit each person individually, you will see how quickly they line up to support you.
#3 Hire a Devil’s Advocate
After figuring out how you can achieve your goal by providing benefits to others, make a list of the objections you might encounter.
Good copywriters do this when they write a promotional package. Good public speakers do this before giving a speech. You should do it, too, before making any informal presentation.
Of course, it’s not enough to list potential objections. You must craft concise arguments that will overcome those objections. You must show your listeners that you are sympathetic to their concerns and that you have a plan to deal with them.
Break the objections down into their component parts. Analyse those parts. Discover their weaknesses or find ways to minimise them.
Base your thinking on research if you have time to do it. But also think about your past experience. Remember that your ultimate objective is to find solutions that are good not just for you but for the people you’re speaking to.
#4 Stick to Square One
After you have taken these first three steps, you will be very excited to present your case. But then, you will start coming up with all sorts of extra ideas. All sorts of secondary benefits and arguments that might be useful if you were writing a long paper, but which will only hamper your effectiveness if you include them in your oral presentation.
So, before you make your pitch, make a conscious decision NOT to mention these secondary considerations. Just focus on the main idea and the primary benefits. And state them as clearly and compellingly as you can.
The Rule of One
One of the biggest lessons you can learn about the art of persuasion is also one of the most difficult to apply. It’s this: One compelling idea is better than a hundred good ideas.
The people you are writing or talking to don’t want to hear everything you have to say about the subject at hand… no matter how relevant it may seem to you. By staying narrowly focused on your main idea, you will hold their attention and convince them to take the action you intend.
Of course, not every argument can be reduced to a single emotionally compelling idea. Some topics require two, three, or even several ideas linked together in some persuasive way.
But if your object is persuasion, you’d be wise to present each idea separately. That allows your reader or listener to understand and accept the first idea before you introduce them to the second.
The point, then, is not that every book, speech, or essay should present one and only one idea — but that the optimum pattern for persuasive expression is the Rule of One.
Ready, Fire, Aim
Most of us, most of the time, speak impulsively. We are stimulated by some event or remark and utter the first thing that pops into our heads. We don’t stop to consider the effect our statement will have on those to whom we are speaking. Neither do we consider how our words will affect us. Yet, they surely do.
“Words are all we have,” Samuel Beckett said. And this is often true.
You can’t force your colleagues to listen to your ideas. You can’t force your boss to give you a raise or a promotion. You can’t force your spouse to agree with everything you say. But if you follow these four simple steps before you speak, you will be amazed at the persuasive power you will have.
On that note, I want to personally invite you to join my Wealth Builders Club, where I share my most important wealth building ideas so that you might change your path and discover the secrets to true financial freedom.
You’ll even receive a FREE copy of the e-book Ready, Fire, Aim. Click here for details about how you can join.
For those wanting more on the topic of persuasion, this book (which I wrote with Will Newman) is worth a look:
Persuasion: The Subtle Art of Getting What You Want.
At the start of my editing career, I thought communication’s highest purpose was the expression of truth. Truth was absolute and undeniable… or so I thought.
Over the years, as I worked as a writer and editor for a wide range of publications, I began to see that in almost every non-violent environment — personal, commercial, political, social — power went to those that had the better argument.
And so I read essays on rhetoric, studied books on effective writing, took courses in speech making, always looking for the essential components of persuasion. By the mid 1990s, I had accumulated hundreds of rules about persuasive writing.
However, two ideas were resilient and seemed to apply to every persuasive challenge.
One is the Rule of One, which I touch on in “The Rule of One” box above.
The other is the emotionally compelling idea. This insight was inspired by Aristotle, who noted that the beating heart of a work of fiction is the plot. For me, the equivalent in nonfiction writing — its beating heart — was the emotionally compelling idea.
In practice, these two concepts are related, because the Rule of One is about the emotionally compelling idea.
This formed the basis of my unified formula for persuasive writing, which I worked on over many years. I began teaching it to dozens of my clients and then, a few years ago with the help of a colleague, I helped turn the formula into a book.
Persuasion: The Subtle Art of Getting What You Want is about the art of persuasion in general, not just as it applies to writing.
It is not a self-help book (but it should be helpful, as it will help you accomplish pretty much everything you want). It is not a get-rich book either (but it can certainly help you make money, as that’s perhaps the easiest of all things you can do with a mastery of persuasion).
Today’s Word: suspiration (noun)
Suspiration (sus-puh-RAY-shun) is a long, deep breath or sigh. Example, as used by Fiona Macleod in The Washer of the Ford, her 1896 collection of Celtic legends: “At times, it is true, like a deep sigh, the suspiration of the open sea rose and fell among the islands.”
“Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.”
– Ernest Hemingway