Most people would think that if someone has a deeply held view or belief about something, the best way to persuade them is with unassailable logic. Unfortunately that’s not true.
Many people (most of us, sometimes) start out with a belief and then use it as the basis for either accepting or rejecting an argument. This is called apriorism, because they're starting out with the belief first (a priori).
Think about how most people would react to what they perceived to be an attack on their religion, or how environmentalists react to anything from sceptics of global warming.
In fact, experiments have shown that when faced with facts that prove they’re wrong beyond reasonable doubt, may people just argue all the more. We all possess the ability to marshal facts and arguments on the spot against any point of view that disagrees with our beliefs.
(In one study people were split into two groups: those who believed that capital punishment acted as a deterrent to murder, and those who didn’t. They were asked to rank their belief on a scale of 1 to 10. Then each group was given a paper providing strong arguments as to why their belief was wrong.
When they were asked to rank their belief again, a strange thing happened. Instead of the number from 1 to 10 going down, it actually went up for most people. Their beliefs actually strengthened.)
So if you just use logic, the result might be that the other person only digs his heels in deeper. So how can we persuade people to change their beliefs?
With extreme difficulty .... but here are10 approaches that might help.
1. Address the problem openly
Once someone has verbally stated a point of view, it is much more difficult to make her change her mind, even in the face of overwhelming evidence (such as in the capital punishment study mentioned above).
Many people just don’t like backing down, and will maintain their stance even when they know they’re wrong in order to save face. So you don’t want people to actually state their objection/opposing belief.
Once they’ve done so, it’s as if they’ve physically built a wall between you, which you’ll now have to dismantle brick by brick.
But if you know (or even suspect) they have an opposing belief or an objection to your proposal, you can’t just ignore it. So you should bring it into the open and address it.
Example: “I guess there are probably some people here today who think (x,y, z) and I’d like to address that issue directly.”
This reassures people that you understand their concerns, and if they haven’t actually had to make their stance explicit, they can back away from it without losing face.
2. Never tell people they're wrong
NOTHING is more guaranteed to increase resistance than to tell someone they’re wrong. How do you feel if somebody says it to you? It’s human nature to become defensive.
You may as well lean over and stuff cotton wool in their ears, because they will immediately stop listening and either begin to argue or (at the very least) start to thinking of what they’ll say in response.
Instead, tell them they’re right. The words ”I agree” or “you’re right ...” are music to our ears. It’s exactly what we all want to hear.
Obviously, this is to lull them into a false sense of security, because immediately afterwards you are going to tell them why their beliefs need to change. But the words ‘you’re right’ lower their defences as they get ready to listen to you list all the reasons they’re right. So they are listening, and are therefore much more likely to actually hear what you say next.
So say, “You’re right, and what I’d add is that .....” or “I agree, and what I’d add is ...”
Note that I used the word ‘and’ instead of ‘but’. If you say, “I agree, but ....”, their defences will immediately go up and they’ll stop listening. Saying “I agree, and ....” implies that you are going to add to their argument, not oppose it.
For example: “You’re right Jane, and what I’d add is that now customers’ expectations have changed, and we have to change too.”
“I agree that it’s expensive, and that’s because the benefits are so huge.”
“I agree that it’s not cheap, and that’s because the quality is so high.”
“You’re right; it isn’t cheap, and would add that’s despite the payback on the investment beings quick.”
An alternative is to say, “I agree with almost all of that, and what I’d add is ...” This is deliberately vague, because it doesn’t tell them which bits of their argument you agree with and which you oppose, so they switch into ‘listening mode’ to try and find out.
3. The three Fs: ‘Feel/felt/found’
Say, “I understand why you feel that way. In fact, I (or ‘several people I’ve spoken to’) used to feel the same way. Until I (they) found that ......” and then present the opposing evidence.
Nobody likes to admit they’re wrong or that they’ve made a mistake. People like to be able to blame someone else. By using ‘feel/felt/found’ you are in effect saying, “The only reason you believed the wrong thing was that you didn’t have all the available evidence to hand. If you’d had that evidence, you would never have believed that.”
In other words, they aren’t to blame. Whoever didn't give them all the evidence is. You’ve just allowed them to save face.
4. Redefine the problem
This is something politicians do often. When someone has voiced a strong objection, you simply redefine the direction of the conversation (NB: here you do use the word ‘but’).
For example: “The real issue is not how much this is going to cost to develop, but how quickly we’ll save far more. And what I’d add is ....”
“The real issue is not how long this will take, but the public relations impact.”
5. Use an authority figure
People will react differently to a statement depending on who it is.
So if you know that the person you are trying to persuade holds somebody in high esteem, use a quote from them to support your argument. This could be a historical figure, a famous politician or a sporting hero.
By doing this, you’re putting your argument into their ‘hero’s’ mouth, and the person opposing you will find it harder to disagree, because in doing so they will be saying that their hero was wrong.
For example, “Einstein once said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Well, I agree with him It’s time to try something new.”
"Bono once said, 'My heroes are the ones who survived doing it wrong, who made mistakes, but recovered from them.' And I agree with him. I know what we tried didn't work but the important thing is that we learned from it."
"Michael Jordan once said, 'I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.' And I agree with him. I know what we tried didn't work but the important thing is that we learned from it."
"Bill Shankley (for non-British readers, he was the legendary manager of Liverpool football club in the 1970s) once said, 'Aim for the sky and you'll hit the ceiling; aim for the ceiling and you'll stay on the floor.' "
"Wayne Gretzky (a famous Canadian ice hockey player, thought by many to be the greatest of all time) once said 'A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great one plays where the puck is going to be.' That's what we're proposing. We're want to anticipate the changes in the market and act before they happen."
Simple but effective.
6. Talk pain not pleasure
People take action either to avoid pain or to obtain pleasure. Of the two, the former is far more powerful.
So instead of concentrating on the benefits of whatever it is you want them to agree to, stress the negative effects of not taking action. Fear can motivate people in a way few other things can.
In sales terms, if you want someone to buy, they have to have a want, a problem or a need. A need is more powerful than a problem, and a problem is more powerful than a want.
The best way to create a need is to raise the prospect of the fear/pain before you start to talk about how your product/service/proposals will help. If you can get the audience thinking, “You’re right; this is a real problem. We need to do something about it,” just think how easy it is to then say, “Well I’ve got a proposal here that I think will help/prevent/solve this.”
A ‘want’ is something that would be nice to happen, but it’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t. A ‘need’ is something that you must do. Create a need and It’s like pushing on an open door.
7. People believe what they say more than what you say
If your presentation is the type where the audience interacts with you instead of keeping questions until the end, a good technique is to ask questions so that they themselves talk about the ‘need/problem/pain’.
“So how much do you estimate this costs you per annum?
“So what do you think the effect would be on public opinion if this ever happened?”
“What would the effect on sales be if this projected decline in customer service levels continued?”
“How do you feel about that?”
If you get them talking about the pain, it’s far more effective than you talking about it.
8. Quantity vs. Quality
When the audience are not experts on the subject under discussion, it can be more effective to use lots of points rather than one high quality piece of evidence. This is why people still buy lottery tickets despite the chances of their winning being infinitesimal (Who was it said that ‘a lottery is a tax on people who are bad at maths’?).
While statistical analysis can prove that the chances of winning are very slim, the fact that people see a winner on TV or read about them in the newspaper every week far outweighs this.
Likewise, statistics can demonstrably prove that flying is the safest form of travel, but the fact that people hear about every single plane crash in the newspapers or on TV ‘proves’ otherwise.
Plus, different pieces of evidence will work with different people. One person might respond well to market research, while an anecdote will be more effective with another. Unless you know the best type to use with the person you’re trying to persuade, throw them all in; the more the merrier!
9. Paint pictures
We’ve all heard the saying, ‘A picture paints a thousand words.’ And it’s true. So use words which create images.
President Obama is a master at this. Instead of simply saying, “We need to invest in education,” he created a compelling visual image by saying, “We believe that when she goes to school for the first time, it should be in a place where the rats don't outnumber the computers.” Which of the two is more memorable?
Another way is to ask the audience to imagine something. In order to do so they’ll have to picture it in their minds.
This can be a negative picture, as in when you are trying to create a need/problem/pain: “Just imagine for a moment what the effect on sales would be if this were to ever happen.”
Or it could be a positive one: “Just for a moment, imagine the benefits of ........”
Other words or phrases you could use are:
What if ...? Think about ... How about ... Suppose .... Consider ...
10. Make it easy for them to say ‘Yes’
When you’re trying to persuade an audience to do something, don’t just leave it up to them to decide how to implement it. Always give them a suggested course of action. By doing so you’re making it easy for them to say ‘yes’