How To Prepare When You Only Get One Shot At Persuasion

If you’ve seen Eminem’s movie 8 Mile, you surely remember the scene of an industrial basement packed with hip-hop fans assembled for the battle between rival rappers. Will they cheer you or boo you off the stage? The refrain repeats, "You’ve got one shot." It’s the pivotal moment in which you must persuade them to join your movement or slouch off stage in humiliation.

Much of what is written about persuasion addresses the challenge of building influence over time. But when you have only one shot, you need to prepare differently.

This week I had to prepare for such a "one shot" moment. I had a high-stakes meeting scheduled in a sky-high Wall Street office overlooking the Hudson River and New York City skyline. Luckily, my father had recently given me a thick tome called Persuasion in Society, the first book I’ve seen that backs up a breadth of insights on influence with hard-nosed research. One of the chapters explicitly addresses the unique challenge of making the most of your "one shot." Here are eight tips that helped me prepare for my pitch. They worked wonders, by the way. The meeting went exactly as we had hoped.

1. Be one-sided: The research shows a one-sided argument is more convincing than a balanced one. So don’t be an impartial professor who addresses pros and cons. Instead be passionately convinced of your point of your view and just present that.

2. Leave something unsaid: Though you usually want to be explicit about the conclusions you want people to make, if you are going to speak to intelligent and discriminating audiences it’s better to leave something for them to figure out. People are more convinced by conclusions they derive. So, for example, don’t calculate the market potential of your idea. Instead give them the variables—number of people, percent who would buy, average price they would pay—and let them do the calculation themselves.

3. Enter the "realm" of story: This, the book says, encourages others to "activate story-congruent memories from their own lives." Whether these stories are fictional or factual, the effect is just as powerful. So plot your key stories and practice them.

4. Match your credibility to the extremity of your position: The further you are asking people to stretch from accepted points of view, the more important it is to establish yourself as a highly credible expert. People believe experts. In my case, I added several slides with endorsements and client lists that established me as a strategy expert since what I was asking them to do was make a choice they normally avoid.

5. Consider ego involvement: Anyone you are seeking to persuade has come to the meeting with latitudes of acceptance: things they are willing to accept, are neutral on, and will reject. When people’s egos are involved, when they think "This issue matters to me personally," their latitude of acceptance narrows and their latitudes of neutrality and rejection widen. Put this insight to your advantage by considering how involved people’s egos are and whether your position falls into their latitude of acceptance. In my case, I knew what I was proposing was outside of normal acceptance so I made sure to avoid language that would get them personally involved too early.

6. Avoid fear: The research the book cites contradicts much of what I have come to believe, which is that people are more motivated by avoiding something bad than getting something good. Fear’s impact is "surprisingly small." So don’t depend on it.

7. Identify which (of 5) types of audiences you will address: Will your audience be hostile and disagreeable, critical but conflicted, uninformed, sympathetic, or activated? Don’t waste your energy informing an audience that is already activated and behind you. They just want to know what to do to support you. I felt my audience would be uninformed, not disagreeable or conflicted. So I adjusted my tone accordingly.

8. Choose your deep metaphor: Your word choice will activate a frame, a metaphor, that your audience imagines as they are considering your pitch. Choose a frame that works in your favor. I thought of three frames—a dam breaking, an unstoppable train, and a revolution. I then listed the pros and cons of each metaphor and decided the unstoppable train was the best for this situation. So I peppered in words like "track," "momentum," "journey," and "station" (e.g, "we started the journey five years ago...and realized we are on a fast track").

Of course you want to think about the usual stuff—your storyline, proof points, timing—but adding 30 minutes to think through these eight points may make the subtle, subconscious difference that sets you off on the right direction at your next critical junction.

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[Image: Flickr user - EMR -]

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3 Comments

  • Vitalius Tumonis

    Overall, it's a nice attempt to summarize the complex field. Yet, you must generalize if you want to condense; generalizations are always dangerous.

    Take for example one-sidedness. Research actually shows that it all depends on your audience. If your audience agrees with your basic position, then one-sided messages are more persuasive. But if they disagree, two-sided messages persuade better. In one experiment by Carol Werner (2002), one-sided message was only as half as persuasive as a two-sided message.

    The same applies to the fear - it depends on your audience and the type of your message. For example, fear is very effective when it comes to bad outcome prevention (e.g. cancer prevention). In other cases, fear is ineffective or may even backfire.

    The same thing applies to any element of persuasion: it can be very effective or it can backfire depending on particular circumstances. But if you're willing to experiment, you'll find this field exciting : ) 

  • RG

    Thanks for the refreshing tips. I am reading the book 'Switch' by the Heath brothers and they discuss many real-life examples of using an identity to help people buy into a new viewpoint. The last tip about the use of words themed after a metaphor is very interesting.

  • Loraine Antrim

    When we communicate to persuade or influence, we can present emotion or logic. Logic might work for hte debate team, but a reasonable emotional appeal is a great way to persuade. Most of us look at facts and data, but often it's the emotional appeal that tilts us one way or another. These are great points to consider when building a persuasive appeal, but I'd still grab them in the heart as well as the mind. Loraine Antrim, Core Ideas Communication