Persuasion: the teeter-totter of business communication

Persuasive Teeter-Totter

As a kid on the playground, one of my favorite attractions was the teeter-totter. Maybe you called it a seesaw.

A teeter-totter is a dangerous apparatus, not to be shared with anyone but a friend you can trust to keep the thing in balance. I still recall the pain and humiliation of thudding to the ground when a mean second-grader slid off the low end when I was up top. Damn, that hurt. Her name was Bridget, and I’ve never forgiven her.

But with a well-chosen partner, teetering and tottering is a fun collaboration. You just have to get started.

Now, my playground is the world of business communication. And I’ve found a different teeter-totter to love.

Delivering a persuasive message is like starting to teeter-totter.

Let’s say you want to convince me to do something. Maybe you’re selling a product or service, offering an investment opportunity, or asking for a change in circumstances. You approach me and start talking.

HEAR + SEE: this is how a persuasive conversation begins.

Right away, my ears are involved. I HEAR not just the words you say, but also your tone, pace, volume, rhythm … and … get this … your pauses. Obviously, this is true for spoken messages; but I “hear” written ones, too. When I read your message, my brain-ears hear a voice. If I know you, the voice is yours. If not, I hear my own. Or maybe substitute the voice of Morgan Freeman, just for fun.

The moment I hear, I also begin to SEE. If you and I are face to face (or face to screen), I notice how you look. If you’ve given me materials to look at, I may scan the whole thing or fixate on a single detail. I’ll quickly assess: is this easy to see, or am I compelled to squint or look away? Again, this “seeing” doesn’t have to be physiological. My brain-eyes see, too. Even if you come to me by podcast—an invisible speaker with no visual aids in sight—my mind makes pictures and conjures scenes.

These hearing and seeing responses are tightly intertwined. The moment you start talking (whether out loud or on a page or screen), I start creating mental images. The moment you show me an image—a picture, tangible object, or some other see-able element—my mind starts pairing that visual with something verbal.

This is how a persuasive conversation begins. You bring verbal and visual information to the teeter-totter so I can hear and see.

FEEL: my emotions are your tipping point.

Once I’ve tuned in and turned on these two senses, a third response kicks in. I start to FEEL. This can happen in an instant. Though I try to be a fair-minded audience who reserves judgment until I’ve heard you out, first impressions form fast.

You sound rushed? I feel nervous.
You sound optimistic? I feel happy.
You show me a downturn? I feel disappointed.
You show me cookies? I feel hungry!

If at first you don’t stoke the right feeling, moving me to a receptive emotion can be a heavy lift. And that’s important, because when it comes to your persuasive message, my feelings are your tipping point.

Will I lean into your message or turn away?

Move my feelings in the right direction, and I’ll hear you out. Often, this means you want to stir positive emotions like hope, curiosity, or excitement. But negative emotions—like guilt, sadness, or outrage—can motivate interest as well. Case in point: those gut-wrenching ads for the ASPCA and the stuff of nasty political campaigns. Annoying? Yes. Effective? Also yes.

At any rate, if you push the right emotional buttons, and I stick with you and your message, I will come to KNOW what you are saying.

If your points are clear and complete and relevant to me, I’ll begin to decide if I agree or disagree. I may also have some questions. In fact, you’d better hope I have some questions.

Knowing will set my mental wheels in motion, and I will begin to IMAGINE.

IMAGINE: this is where the magic happens.

If you’re trying to persuade me, and you’ve moved and informed me just so, my mind will begin to build on your premise.

If you’re selling me a sofa, I’ll imagine it in my living room.
If you’re asking me to invest in your fund, I’ll imagine my early retirement.
If you’re asking for my vote, I’ll imagine my life in the changed world you promise.

This imagining nudges me toward action. And that, friends, is how we get things done.

Remember my moment of pain when Bridget dumped my end of the teeter-totter? In that instance, I was powerless. As a persuasive communicator, you are powerful. You can craft and manage your message to get positive results. Just think of your audience and give them what they need to join you in a conversation of trust.

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