By PETER COOK
We communicate every day for a variety of purposes, such as giving information, socialising and so on. Communicating to influence in business and commerce requires special skills if we are to succeed.
What separates influence from manipulation is the degree to which it is in the interest of both the sender and the receiver. A one-sided approach is manipulation whereas a two-sided approach is influence. Most success in long term business relationships arises from influence, rather than manipulation.
Influential communications can be reduced to four elements:
1. The message
Successful communicators use very clear, potent messages to engage and unite people around a goal or a project. Fuzzy messages drive fuzzy actions and fuzzy outcomes, and if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.
Research on communications also has wide implications for those of us who aim to influence with integrity. Consider these insights carefully:
- Firstly, let us consider the issue of one-sided versus two-sided messages. One-sided messages work best when the receivers already agree with the argument, or when they are unlikely to hear counter arguments. This may explain why people read newspapers that already accord with their views.
Two-sided messages tend to be more effective when the receivers initially disagree with the argument, where they are well educated, or when they are likely to hear counter arguments from others. The ramifications of this innocent-sounding sound bite are massive in terms of thinking about your choice of persuasive communications.
When communicating to persuade, it is generally better to draw a conclusion in the message rather than letting others attempt to infer it themselves. By not drawing a conclusion, we invite the possibility that a different one may be drawn. Or, that no conclusion will be drawn from the passive supply of information.
Repetition of a message can increase persuasiveness if used cleverly. However, over-repetition can wear out a message as well.
Rather than presenting features, it is better to present benefits, as some people do not translate features into benefits. A good way of forcing yourself to do this is to ask yourself the question, “What does this mean for the person I’m talking to?”
2. The messenger
Successful communicators use a messenger or messengers that will be heard. I’ve tried many experiments where I’ve taken the visuals and audio away from the person delivering the message and found considerable differences in the receptivity of messages. This is especially so when the messenger is controversial in some way.
It is particularly important to balance your innate passion for your subject with the need to persuade others of its value. Remember the point about two-sided arguments being more persuasive than one-sided ones in many circumstances? This balancing act is especially important when people believe that the messenger has something to gain from the outcome.
If you find it impossible to be dispassionate and balanced about your obsession, find someone who can represent your interests in an appropriate way to your audience.
Honesty and trustworthiness are also vitally important to be an effective communicator. Therefore, the messenger’s influence is weakened when the audience perceives that the messenger has something to gain from the communication. This is another reason to present both sides of an issue when people think you may be biased.
People are also more easily persuaded by people they perceive to be similar to themselves, which is why it is important to find something in common with your subjects to give you some basis for conversation.
All of this information on communications and influence can be used with congruence and flair, or as an instrument of manipulation. Successful leaders and change agents know the difference and influence with integrity.
3. The channel
Successful communicators choose the best channels or media for the job at hand, not just the most convenient ones. When we communicate, we often have a range of goals in mind, from informing, to persuading, confronting, facilitating, etc.
Impersonal channels can be counter-productive when giving ‘hard to hear’ messages and this explains why people often fall out on social media channels when trying to deliver more complex and emotional messages.
The relative poverty of social media as a channel for communicating nuanced messages is counterbalanced by people’s shortage of time to do anything more effective. We are now in the age where deaths are announced on Facebook rather than in person, sometimes for reasons of efficiency, but also with some downsides in terms of humanity.
The multiplicity of communication channels has also increased enormously in the last 20 years – from text to instant messaging across multiple platforms, video conferencing, and so on – yet our fundamental skills of communicating have not changed.
Sometimes, the most efficient channels are not the most effective. Personal channels such as one-to-one dialogues are expensive in terms of time but they may be very effective. Impersonal channels are much more efficient but may be quite ineffective.
The successful communicator reaches for the best tool for the job rather than the one most readily available.
Check out: The Four Lenses of Communication
4. The receiver
Successful communicators ensure that those they are communicating with – the receivers – are awake, alert and receptive. Sometimes this is the most important work you can do, to prepare people to hear what you have to say.
Timing can be a crucial determinant of success. Ideas that are hard to hear may need some ‘warm-up’ to get the receiver in the mood to receive. A skilled communicator will use several staged attempts to build up interest and the desire to hear what is to be said.
Timing and location are also crucial if you are to reach your intended receiver and have the desired outcome. The successful influencer chooses the right time and the right place to change someone’s mind.
If you know your receivers and are wishing to communicate to influence, it is also worth considering some general personality traits that can help or hinder your cause.
- People who have low self-esteem tend to be more persuadable than someone with high self-esteem. This explains why people in distress will often take any advice even if it is inconsistent with their needs.
- Authoritarian personalities who are concerned about power and status are more influenced by messages from authority figures whereas non-authoritarian types are more susceptible to messages from anonymous sources.
- Those high in anxiety are hard to persuade. If you face an anxious person in a difficult communications encounter, your first job is to remove their anxiety.
- People who are high in rich imagery, fantasies, and dreams tend to be more empathetic towards others and are more persuadable. In plain language this explains why salespeople often like being sold to!
- People of high general intelligence are more influenced by messages based on impressive logical arguments and are less likely to be influenced by messages with false, illogical, or irrelevant arguments.
They may be especially sensitive to short messages that appear to be unsubstantiated in our world of bite-sized information, such as 280-character tweets on Twitter. There are important implications for short vs long messages here.
If you don’t know the people you are attempting to influence, it means that you have not done enough research. Go back one step to find out more before beginning.
- To communicate in order to persuade: Have a clear, potent message; use the right messenger; use the correct communications channel; and ensure the receivers are awake, alert and receptive. Flexibility is key.
- Ensuring your subject is ready to receive is the most important work you can do. If they are not listening, all your work is wasted. This includes researching your targets so that you are right first time. Sometimes we only get one chance to get it right.
- Studies of persuasive communications and personality teach us that there are certain things we can do to increase our influence in any situation. It is always good to be able to see things from your audience’s viewpoint, even if you don’t agree with them.
Peter leads Human Dynamics. He is passionate in the areas of science, business and music, and is the author of eight books, acclaimed by Tom Peters and Professor Charles Handy.