The Business of Persuasion

January 3, 2013 Books

Do you want to be a good speaker? Do you want to give memorable closing arguments? Do you want to give exciting public speeches? It can be done, but only through “blood, sweat and tears.” Persuasive speaking is not a god-given talent but a skill that can be mastered just like so many other aspects of trial work. Of course, some have the voice of Billy Graham or James Earl Jones but those are few and far between. Speaking is a skill that can be mastered, but through intense and continued practice. I promise this is true. I know because this is how I learned it.

When I first started at the Public Defender’s Office I avidly read all the trial advocacy texts looking for the key to great speaking. I never found the answer there. I soon came upon the stunning jury speeches of Clarence Darrow. I was mesmerized by his eloquence. It was an eloquence of simple words. Not the complex showing off of a Bill Buckley or Shakespeare. He used words everyone knew.

I sought his secret for years and wrote about it in an earlier post in this blog. I found out that Darrow extensively gave public speeches, political speeches and wrote essays published in the newspapers. This is how he formulated his ideas and style of speaking. Each aspect of his public life provided the practice for his legal skills. All you have to do is compare his public speeches and writing with his fabulous final arguments. Trust me, you will find the roots in there.

So while I recommend to you the same path as Darrow, I am writing this to give you a set of books to start with. Throw out all those trial advocacy books. Don’t listen to lawyer war stories. They are fun but hardly instructive. Instead, I recommend books written for businessmen on the methods of persuasion. Yes you read that correctly  — business books, not legal books. I tell lawyers this all the time. I proselytize it.

So why do these books work? Who knows more about selling than those in the business of selling? Oh you don’t like the selling part. Well get over it; everyone is in selling. They may sell major appliances but we sell ideas. The method of persuasion is the same.

The legal profession is based on precedent and tradition, which can limit advancements. Trial lawyers can learn from marketing because they are both trying to “sell” something. A lawyer’s products are intangible: case themes, his or her view of the facts, and how the themes and facts apply to the law. Trial lawyers have an advantage over businesses with large audiences as they only have to sell to a small group at a time. So, why do trial lawyers continue to use a horse and buggy approach to presenting evidence when state of the art technology is available?

The book Moneyball is about a baseball manager challenging conventional wisdom with data:  the core message of the Moneyball philosophy that Billy Beane tried to champion. “It’s about an intellectual idea which is essentially: ‘If we weren’t already doing it this way, is this how we would do it?’” That’s the question that every lawyer or law firm, no matter how large or how small, needs to ask right now. We are problem solvers just like engineers, physicists. If we are working on a problem that the old tools aren’t capable to solve, then time to try new ones. How can we ignore a generation of immensely varied and empirical research? We are left with a hollow discipline based on tradition not research.

Billy Bean: “Baseball thinking is medieval.” So is ours. Time to dump the accepted wisdom. So stop all those subscriptions to the expensive looseleaf binders and updates. They are not worth the paper they are written on. Read the business persuasion library and you will be far better off. I am starting this series off with my favorite of the business books. I have used its suggestions more than any others. I will follow up with others in the days to come.

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath (2007).

This book clearly presents 6 principles that will change how you communicate. It teaches how to formulate and then communicate ideas that “stick.” Ideas that “are understood and remembered, and have a lasting impact – they change your audience’s opinions or behavior.” Ideas must “stick” to have any visibility and “traction” to have any impact. As Thomas Edison noted: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

“Business managers seem to believe that, once they’ve clocked through a PowerPoint presentation showcasing their conclusions, they’ve successfully communicated their ideas. What they’ve done is share data.” It is sticky ideas that shock, move and convince us. “If you want your ideas to be stickier, you’ve got to break someone’s guessing machine and then fix it.”

The book is proclaims there are six principles of persuasion:

1. Simplicity: Your idea should be stripped down to its core, and your most important concepts must stand out. How do you deliver your message in a brief and compact way? Simplicity is the key and the first step to make a message sticky. It is critical to find the core. According to the authors, “finding the core isn’t synonymous with communicating the core.” Your message needs to be simple and important to make your message remain not just in your mind but in others’ as well.

The ultimate simplicity goal is “a one sentence statement so profound that an individual can spend a lifetime learning to follow it.”

The book provides excellent examples of “Commander’s Intent” used by the military to simplify operational instructions for battlefield units confronted with the fact that “No plan survives contact with the enemy;” paring down the ’92 Clinton campaign message to “It’s the economy stupid;” following the generally applicable rule in journalism of not “burying the lead”; the “a bird in the hand” metaphor and its multinational variations; Hollywood high-concept pitches such as Alien being “Jaws in Space,” the use of “generative analogies” such as “staff as cast members” at Disneyland.

2. Unexpectedness: the idea should disrupt your audience’s preconceived notions. This disruption forces people to stop, think, and remember. “We can’t demand attention. We must attract it” says the authors. In order to grab people’s attention, your message is made attractive with unexpectedness. Breaking a pattern is one way. I like films such as Memento which startle the audience with reversing the time sequence. An example from the book is the old emergency siren was too monotonic to stimulate our sensory systems and failed to attract our attention. As the siren gets audibly improved, people hear much brighter and more stimulating sound and become more aware. The lesson is to catch people’s attention, break the ordinary pattern. According to the authors: “Our brain is designed to be keenly aware of changes.”

3. Concreteness: avoid statistics, and instead use real-world analogies and stories to help people understand complex ideas. Humans can imagine in visual, audible, or any other sensory pathways. When we use all our sensory systems to visualize ideas or messages, then the ideas get much more concrete. As an example, the authors provide in this chapter, “a bathtub full of ice” in the Kidney Theft legend is an example of abstract moral truths that makes it concrete. “The more hooks in your idea, the better.”

I particularly like the chapter on concreteness. The authors explain how vivid concrete images help to drive the audience’s memory. The human brain is hard-wired to retain concrete images. Language is abstract but life is not. It is hard to grasp an abstract idea. If you can examine it with your senses it is concrete.

4. Credibility: if people don’t trust you, they won’t listen to you and may even become openly hostile, and they will actively dispute your message. When you are a scientist, you are persuaded by the things that are scientifically proven or that are referred to in many other studies or to the words or the theories that the well-known scientist has established. Credibility makes people believe your ideas. We present results, charts, statistics, pictures and other data to make people believe. “But concrete details don’t just lend credibility to the authorities who provide them; they lend credibility to the idea itself.”

5. Emotional: Information makes people think, but emotion makes them act. Appeal to emotional needs, sometimes even way up on Maslow’s hierarchy. What’s in it for you? It is a good example of the power of association. Sometimes, we need to grab people’s emotion. It does not mean tear jerking, dramatic, or romantic. It means that your idea must pull out people’s care and attachment to it. However, we don’t always have to create this emotional attachment. “In fact, many ideas use a sort of piggybacking strategy, associating themselves with emotions that already exist.” People can make decisions based on two models: the consequence model and the identity model. The consequence model can be rational self-interest, while the identity model is that people identify such situations like what type of situation is this?

6. Stories: telling a story makes people pay closer attention, and feel more connected to what you are saying. The author uses the Jared Subway commercials as an example. It is the story of the college student from the Subway campaign who lost hundreds of pounds eating Subway sandwiches. The story inspires people and connects them to real life. The book itself uses stories to help readers understand in each chapter, stories allow people to understand how your idea can affect or change their mind.
Stories get people to act. stories are told and re-told because they contain wisdom. They are the best teaching tools. They illustrate how people solve problems. We talk shop because we learn from others’ experiences. They are part entertainment, part instruction. Stories put pictures in our heads.

One of their interesting notations is that 63% remember stories while 5% remember statistics.

Here are some good passages:

The Curse of knowledge: Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind. (pg. 20)

If you say three things, you don’t say anything. (pg. 33)

Simple = Core + Compact. (pg. 45)

Statistics aren’t inherently helpful; it’s the scale and context that make them so. (pg. 146)

If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will. – Mother Teresa. (pg. 165)

Why does mental stimulation work? It works because we can’t imagine events or sequences without evoking the same modules of the brain that are evoked in a real physical activity. . . .  Notice that these visualizations focus on the events themselves – the process, rather than the outcomes. No one has ever been cured of a phobia by imagining how happy they’ll be when it’s gone. (pg. 212)