I think that all business is fundamentally about persuasion. This persuasion may involve getting people to follow your instructions, work in accordance with your procedures, procure your services or buy your goods.
The subject of persuasion came to my attention again recently when I was re-watching the television series Breaking Bad. It tells the story of Walter White, a middle-aged chemistry teacher, who after being diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer forms a partnership with a former student Jesse Pinkman to manufacture and distribute crystal methamphetamine. Walter’s intention is to generate money to pay for treatment and create financial stability for his pregnant wife and disabled son.
Breaking Bad is widely regarded as one of the best television programmes ever made. In the 8th Episode of Season 5, there is a fantastic scene showing Walter and Jesse trying to bring the production of their signature blue crystal meth to an international level. The soundtrack to this sequence is the 1968 song Crystal Blue Persuasion by Tommy James and the Shondells – a groovy, mellow song influenced by a crystal lake in the Bible’s Book of Revelation. The music and moving images work brilliantly together.
Jesse Pinkman and Walter White taking a break from crystal meth production
When it comes to persuasion, I believe there are three options are available:
An example of rhetorical persuasion would be a presentation that builds an argument out of facts – this chart, these numbers, this quote from authority…
Rhetorical presentations are incredibly common. However, the big issue with this persuasive method is that whilst you are presenting your evidence, the audience is silently arguing with you because they have their own facts and authorities, and they know you have left out everything negative.
This approach often comes across as biased, unauthentic or plainly untruthful.
With coercive persuasion, people attempt to bully, bribe, seduce, threaten or manipulate people. This may create short-term commitment, but in the long-term it often generates resentment, fear, mistrust and conflict.
I have seen this approach used numerous times with bonus schemes on construction projects – and on each occasion it has caused problems.
With story-based persuasion, you wrap facts in emotion.
Imagine that a client is looking for a principal contractor to deliver a very important piece of work. The typical contractor presentations that I see use rhetorical techniques to state something like “We are a big company that always delivers, and we are easily capable of delivering this £100 million job in 56 weeks”
I think a more truthful and engaging technique is for the contractor to create a story interwoven with facts. The story will be about the client and contractor forming a team that will try to achieve something against significant opposing forces such as time, space, financial, logistical and resource constraints. Crucially, the story must admit that the negative exists – that mistakes have been made on previous projects and that there are very real risks associated with the delivery of this new development.
This approach mimics the true dynamics of life that every audience member will recognise from their own experience – life is a mixture of good and bad, smooth and rough, success and failure.
So - You have three persuasive techniques to choose from.
I think story is the best, but have I persuaded you?