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Good Ideas Don’t Sell Themselves: The Practice of Persuasion

By Susan de la Vergne

Wouldn’t it be nice if good ideas just sold themselves? Life would be so much easier if you didn’t have to work so hard to get people to recognize a great idea when they see one. Especially when it’s your idea.

But that’s not how it goes. Instead, you find yourself having to persuade listeners to implement that much-needed, very-obvious-to-you design improvement, overhaul that ridiculously slow process, or extend a deadline when there really is no other choice.

Three Aspects of Persuasion

What persuades people to adopt an idea? Three things:

  • A sound argument. Is this proposal a good idea, well thought-out, likely to succeed, logical and worthy of consideration?
  • Credibility of the presenter of the argument. Basically, does this guy know what he’s talking about? Is his track record good? Is he professionally qualified? Trustworthy?
  • Emotional appeal. Is it desirable? “Do I want to do this/buy this/own this?”

There are three Greek words – famous words among those who admire the classic Greeks – for these three aspects of persuasion (just in case you thought I made them up, I did not). They’re logos (sound argument), ethos (credibility and character), and pathos (emotional appeal). It was Socrates himself who gave us the notion that persuasion requires all three. Yeah, sure, he lived 2400 years ago, but before you write him off as an ancient guy who probably knew little about engineering, put his three ingredients to the test:

  • If you hear a proposal that’s technically flawed (logos), are you persuaded? You’re not.
  • If you hear a proposal from someone whose expertise and integrity you doubt (ethos), are you persuaded? Again, no.
  • If you hear a proposal from someone who doesn’t give a rip what you think, or from someone who’s just in it for themselves and not for you (pathos), I think it goes without saying that you’re unpersuaded. It’s why we hate sales pitches.

Socrates may not have been around for the last couple of millenia, but he’s still right. You need a sound argument, credibility, and emotional intelligence – that’s what we call it now – to put your idea across.


You Mean It’s Not All Logos?

I always get a good laugh when people who’ve never worked in engineering tell me that they imagine engineering environments to be a sea of unsmiling, left-brained math wizards who never argue about what to do because they easily agree on everything, since engineering is all rational and therefore what’s to argue about?

Really! There are people who think that. There are probably even engineers who wish it were more like that.

An environment like that would be based totally on logos, sound arguments, logical and worthy, that everyone would be able to see the wisdom of without the least dispute.

But if you’ve ever put forward a proposal to management, to colleagues, project teammates, or clients, you know it’s rarely like that. There’s usually some push-back, some discussion, often disagreement, sometimes hurt feelings and hot tempers – no matter how inarguably correct you think your proposed idea/change/improvement is.

Why? Because you got the logos right, but forgot about the ethos and pathos.


The Pathos

If you think decisions should be made solely on technical or intellectual merit, you’ll be disappointed to hear that many decisions (some research even says most!) are made emotionally. And I’m not just talking about which house to buy or what to have for dinner. I’m talking about all kinds of decisions. We’re swayed by a powerful desire to look good and protect ourselves, even in ways we might not admire in others.

What emotional considerations might make people resist your good idea?

  • They wish they’d thought of it.
  • They’re competitive, unwilling to let you take the credit.
  • They want to look good in front of the boss, but instead you look good, so they try to instill doubt in the boss’s mind, hoping that makes you look worse.
  • They don’t really understand what you’re proposing but don’t want to appear confused, so they project doubt instead of endorsing you.
  • They like things the way they are. Whatever change you’re proposing they see as threatening – to their jobs, their expertise, even their reputation.

All of the above are in the pathos category, and when you’re trying to persuade someone to respond favorably to your great idea, it’s helpful to see it from their emotional perspective – especially if their buy-in matters. Is this a change to “the way we do things” that affects them directly? Then don’t be surprised when they resist. Is this a proposed improvement to something that’s already good, and for which they’ve received kudos? Maybe they’ll think you’re trying to one-up them.

Try to anticipate emotional reactions. A good idea is to talk one-on-one with people beforehand, rather than spring a new idea or an unwelcome change at a meeting. In a one-on-one setting, potential resisters are less likely to feel put on the spot, and you’ll get insights into where they’re coming from.

But let’s say you really don’t have time to work your one-on-one persuasion up front. An alternative technique would be to articulate possible reactions as you present your idea. Simply say them aloud, rather than letting them lurk unspoken in the room unstated.

“This process change eliminates a couple of steps, and I can imagine that the people who do those jobs might think we’ve overlooked the importance of their work.”

That calls on your imagination, trying to figure out what might cause resistance. The easiest way to do it is by thinking how you’d react if you were them. As soon as you hit that nail on the head by acknowledging what’s on someone’s mind, you’ve made a friend, or at least an ally, and when it comes to persuasion, allies are good.

Another pathos consideration: when you’re selling your idea, keep your voice down, says speaking coach and author Nick Morgan. Don’t get louder, and don’t let the pitch of your voice go up. Neither one will help you make your case, and both will stress out your listeners and make them want you to stop talking.

In short, keep the other guy in mind. How’s he likely to feel about what you’re proposing? How’s he likely to respond to your manner of presenting it?

The Ethos

There are professions that get away with less than top caliber skills and abilities, but engineering isn’t one of them. One thing that’s characteristic of most engineers is that they’re qualified and capable. It’s a professional discipline where expertise is highly prized. Credibility – which is part of ethos – depends on credentials and qualifications, and in this discipline, that may not be a big issue.

But there’s more to ethos than professional credentials. There’s also character, things like trustworthiness and honesty. We don’t like to hand over authority to someone who’s lacking in those qualities. It’s not a coincidence that the word ethos looks like “ethics.” Ethical behavior is character-based, and it’s an important element of persuasion.

But unlike changing the tone of your voice to be more pleasing, as in the pathos consideration, ethos looks to your track record as not only a professional but also as a human being. If you’re respectful, considerate, and generally good at following through on something when you say you will, then you’re more likely to be persuasive.

There is, of course, also such a thing as manipulation. That’s when you trick someone into adopting your plan and they later figure out that the plan was flawed (logos) and that the manipulator lacked integrity (ethos). Manipulation and persuasion are not the same thing.

When you have all these lined up to the best of your ability – logos, ethos, and pathos – then the best thing you can do, as a persuader, is to listen. Yours is just one point of view. It may be the best informed point of view, since this was, after all, your idea, but the people you’re talking to may have an improvement in mind to your proposal. Or not. But by listening to them, patiently and openly, you’re practicing pathos and ethos, and we know how important those are.

Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals. Find more of her Cogent Communicator columns here.

Susan de la Vergne

Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals.

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