The art of persuasion: convincing others your ideas work

The art of persuasion: convincing others your ideas work

Monday, 04 March 2019

If you’ve ever failed to convince someone that your way is right – be it through a formal presentation, sales pitch or a 1-2-1 with your investor – you’ll know that US actress Jenny Mollen was on to something when she said: “I think the power of persuasion would be the greatest superpower of all time.”

What makes one person more persuasive than another can be difficult to define. Is it the passion behind their argument? Clever use of storytelling to illustrate their point? Relentless arguing of their case? Slick PowerPoint? Thorough preparation? Likeability, charm or charisma?

The good news is that persuasion is a practical and learnable skill – there’s even a course in it at Harvard Business School – and with the right thinking, you can influence the way others feel and motivate them to action.



“There is a difference between you and the audience that you’d like to resolve in a specific way,” Harvard Business School lecturer on the art of persuasion, William Ellet, spells out the problem facing the persuader.

Creative use of media – whether it’s a rousing email, powerful Tweet or thought-provoking slide deck – can pile on the impact. But none of that will matter, says Ellet, if you don’t know whose opinion you’re really trying to change or who you’re trying to motivate.

He advises asking yourself the following questions of your audience:

  • Who are they? Are there differences among them relevant to persuasion?
  • What’s my relationship to them? (e.g. Do I have any power over them I can use?)
  • What do they think and feel about my purpose?

Once you’ve a clear understanding of your audience, you can start thinking about what content will resonate most powerfully.

Are they analytical thinkers who’ll respond best to evidence based on numbers and facts? Are they creative thinkers inspired by innovation or abstract thought? If your audience is a mixed bag, you will need to think about how you’ll hook in each segment.



“Persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions,” wrote Aristotle, who said that the art of persuasion boils down to three pillars:

  • ‘logos’ or logic (appealing to your audience with facts and data – see above)
  • ‘pathos’ or emotions (the way in which the persuader appeals to his or her audience through feelings)
  • ‘ethos’ or credibility (whereby the speaker impresses with his or her expertise in a particular field – see below).

If you’ve already deduced that the person you want to persuade will be impressed by a set of compelling numbers, that’s one third of the battle won.

While it would be nice to believe your content speaks for itself, study upon study by cognitive scientists and behavioural economics shows that this often isn’t the case.

In weighing up the emotions around a situation, ask yourself which feelings, stirred up in the individuals you’ve already analysed, will aid a decision in your favour, and which might have the opposite effect.

Numerous factors will play into your assessment – if your audience are completely ignorant of your cause, shocking them into awareness might be a smart tactic. If there are anxieties around a particular business situation, treading carefully, with a robust plan will inevitably work better.



What’s your compelling reason for why others should buy into your idea?

In the 1970s a Harvard psychologist discovered that saying the word “because” when asking for something, increases your persuasive power from 60% to 93%.

You know whose opinion you want to alter and which practical and emotional elements could bring about the desired results. The third of Aristotle’s pillars – ethos – is perhaps the hardest to incorporate into your path to persuasion.

It requires you to ask a difficult question: how does your audience view you? If feedback hasn’t been forthcoming you might have to do some digging to establish what perceptions currently exist, and where there might be wiggle room for you to impact opinions. 

You might uncover the fact that your audience questions whether you’re the best person to lead the project you’re angling to run. In which case, ensuring that you are thoroughly prepared will go a long way to alleviating doubts about your credibility.

If questions are raised as to your methodology, talking through your thinking (and highlighting your backup plans) could be the answer. If you’ve been less than successful in a similar venture, you might want to humbly demonstrate the learnings you’ve taken on board and how you’ll ensure success next time round.

It’s important to be authentic – the person whose approval you’re trying to gain will see through any fakery in your attempt to win them over.



One of the best-known speeches in US politics – Lincoln’s Gettysburg address made during the American Civil War – is today held up as one of the most persuasive oratories in history.

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

In this first sentence alone, Lincoln employs many devices of persuasion. Short of beginning with ‘Once upon a time’, this opener clearly demonstrates to the audience that a story is coming – storytelling being of the age-old ways in which human beings engage others. In referring back to the US constitution, Lincoln begins his address from a standpoint on which the entire audience would agree – emphasised by the ‘our’.

“Stories delight, enchant, touch, teach, recall, inspire, motivate, challenge. Want to make a point or raise an issue? Tell a story.”

Janet Litherland, Author

As you move towards generating the content that will win over your audience, think about your rhetoric. Tell stories to draw them in and illustrate your points.


Show them how what you want to do will impact them positively. Talk about benefits in terms of the team or business rather than to you as an individual.

Think back to ideas you’ve been convinced of – perhaps through a TED talk, a deck or an argument put forward in a magazine article or book.

Dig it out and analyse the tools employed by its creator that made you buy into their picture. The more awareness you have of persuasion, the more tools in your toolbox.












Our Partners:

Sponsored by Specsavers