I recently came across an article published on HBR Blog Network called “The Practical Art of Persuasion”. I would have fast-read it, and of course retain very little from it, if I didn’t happen to have a meeting with someone that day where I planned to discuss a proposal of mine. The idea presented in that blog is simple and easy to follow: if you want to convince someone that your proposal has merit, you have to know the purpose, who you are dealing with and a good solid list of arguments in its favour.
I love diagrams, so as I was doing a mental check list, I drew a tree-like mind map to help me go through the list (see the diagram below). Whenever I hand draw I seem to concentrate much better. What looked like a bland exercise of preparation, it turned out to be something quite interesting. Preparation for a meeting is often a classic case of routine taking over substance: educated routine assumptions sedate the creative ideas that looked so good initially morphing them into must-do boring work. Bye, bye imagination, bye, bye excitement!
Persuasion is a pest. It sounds OK until you try to do it in practice. It is airy, virtual, abstract, emotional and artistic, meaning it cannot be controlled. Some say, only people who are born with it can be persuasive. This may be true, or not, others might want to argue about it. I did not read this hoping to become more persuasive, but because I was curious.
My accidental exercise revealed something very useful. If you challenge each question on the right of the persuasion tree and identify the areas where you think you have a problem of clarity, you end up with a little system that can help you eliminate blind spots caused by automatic thinking routine. I don’t know if you become a better persuader with this list, but certainly you can be better prepared for a meeting where you want to discuss a proposal.
If you just go through the list on the right, step by step, highlight the uncertain areas and simply ask questions on the left side you get to discover points that you missed earlier. You have to allow yourself to slow down and think a bit deeper when you get to answer the questions on the left; otherwise you don’t get value out of it and end up just doing another automated routine
For instance, the question on the left: “Think about who else is in the audience. Are they important decision makers or influencers?” When I thought a bit more about this, I realised that I missed an important part of the audience, a group of people who are affected by the proposal at a later stage. My focus was entirely on the people with immediate visibility who have absolute authority. The problem is that the chances of success of my proposal would be higher if I gave consideration to the secondary group because while they don’t have authority, they still have influence, which could have an impact on the perceived value of my proposal.
In the hindsight, this is common sense. However, in the middle of a hurried preparation, the check list could prevent you from seeing the common sense in the hindsight and not in the foresight. It works for me.