Leading Through The Power Of Persuasion

Sweeping people up into an idea is a wonderful experience, and the best leaders use six tools to do that effectively. Charlotte Beers, former CEO of Ogilvy & Mather, reveals compelling ways to get people on board and enthused about your ideas–even if the odds are stacked against you.

Leading Through The Power Of Persuasion

Taking part in the adventure of persuading others, sweeping them up into an idea, an unexpected action or an unproven vision, is a wonderful experience. The ability to create excitement all around you is what leadership is about. Listen to the sound of leadership; it is you being eloquent, powerful, convincing, compelling, and forceful. It is not for the faint of heart, but the outcome is inevitable if you care enough to ignite a spark, which will grow into a flame.


Leading through persuasion is a form of communicating that must be learned. In fact, it has to be learned, for if you can’t persuade or convince others, you cannot lead. It helps to focus on the response you hope to evoke rather than just what you want to say as a way to counter your own reluctance to ask others to change. Of course, laying out the response you want is a central part of good communication, but in the goal of leading others, you are also always after one very specific response: “I never thought of it that way.”

To elicit an “I never thought of it that way” response, you must be prepared to express your own excitement, your keenness, the leaps you’ve made from logic to an imaginative new proposition, the size of which is yet unknown.

What new tools can you use to persuade others, to change people’s minds? Imaginary flights, hyperbolic language, music, drum rolls? Well, maybe. But there are higher forms of communicating you are can master.


You are not trying to sway people against their will but to offer them a chance to see things anew. To create change, to invent a new future, you have to be vulnerable, to show passion and belief in an unproven idea, and to risk failure by pursuing it. You, the initiator, have to find a delivery style that allows you to communicate your conviction in a compelling, inescapable way.

Tools That Help You Lead
When your goal is to have more impact, when the force of your presentation will alter things, you have to deliver your message with such a high degree of fervor that it overwhelms your audience’s resistance. You may need to deflect skepticism, shake away reluctance to embrace a new idea, or break through indifference. In order of ascending artistry, here’s a list of tools that I’ve seen leaders use to carry the flame:

  • Threats or consequences
  • Passion, pathos
  • Humor, wit
  • Imperfection
  • Surprise
  • Wonder

Here is how each can be used to persuade:
Threats or Consequences
Inertia or complacency can be converted into action by force, threat, or intimidation. This is why every enterprise has a bully or two. As a manager in a team, the agreed goals are usually incentive enough to get things going. But if someone falls behind or a faction resists, then you need to find a way of stepping out of the team and taking the lead. You may find this shocking, but a common technique for taking the lead is to be threatening; to ramp up the urgency of what’s at stake so the laggards get in line. Many men rather admire a terrorizing boss because they see the boss’s bullying as proof of his belief and fervor, which they respect. They probably feel like they’ve just switched from their football coach to their business coach.


But, you need to develop your own unique way of exercising your certain authority. Once you’ve mastered speaking clearly about serious consequences, you won’t have to bluff or threaten to be a supplicant to convince others you mean business.

Passion, Pathos
A story from the heart told well can change the response of everyone listening. It’s persuasive because it is genuine.

Soldiers are not known for using pathos or evocative language, but consider how Colin Powell turned a hostile, cynical audience into a deeply appreciative one. In 2003, as our secretary of state, he spoke at Davos, Switzerland, to the World Economic Forum in a crowd that included a lot of people who were suspicious about the United States. He was greeted with respect and modest applause after his remarks, but the pending U.S. invasion of Iraq and our war in Afghanistan were controversial. There were heated discussions by the many religious, business, and political leaders assembled, and Secretary Powell was asked why the United States relied on hard power (military) versus soft power (diplomatic programs and dialogue). He paused to consider the question and then spoke from the heart, with the authenticity of a soldier stepping out of his role as a statesman.


“I have been a soldier for 35 years,” he began. “It was not soft power that freed Europe in World War II. For the last hundred years, when the U.S. has sent our young men and women forth to fight in other countries, many lives have been lost. Not once did we ask for treasure or land. We asked only for the ground to bury them in.”

A venture capitalist friend of mine was there. He reported, “It was as though all the hard edges in the room and the tight faces softened–you could feel the change.”

Speaking with passion born of your own authentic experience and belief is always persuasive.


Humor and Wit
You don’t always have to heavy up on earnestness just to prove you care. You can use humor or a surprise to reveal a fresh perspective.

Humor is the most disarming ingredient for leavening the seriousness of work. I urge you to consider any avenue to humor that you can handle. Creative enterprises of any sort put a huge premium on humor because humor’s cousins, irreverence and outrageousness, are great goads to opening up “I never thought of it that way” responses. Humor is similar to the way creative departments in ad agencies use music. Anything that is too emotional to say, a deeply felt promise, a personal revelation, can always be sung. When it’s put to music, it can be heard. Humor is a carrier like that.

Perfection, in the form of a flawless stream of words delivered with cool composure, is never as persuasive as realness. An impassioned but imperfect speech, which shows you care too much to hide flaws, is far more compelling.


Every chance you get, introduce the unexpected, an element of surprise. A refreshing slap of surprise runs through many of the successful ways there are to persuade others toward change and to cause an audience to respond more openly. Think of all the possible responses you can receive from your endless interactions with people, which unfortunately include lack of attention, distraction, and cynicism. These can be interrupted by a jolt, a surprise.

You can break down a mountain of indifference by learning how to communicate in a breakthrough way. The ability to say what you mean in its leanest form dramatically improves your chances of luring distracted audiences from ambient noise and the hypnotic draw of their messages and e-mails. But there are even bigger rewards if you can evoke wonder.

It’s an unusual response, more of an occasional feat than an everyday exercise. The kind of wonder I’m talking about contains an element of surprise, too. It is an important talent to be able to surprise people into wonder, as they often spend their whole working day trying to dodge unpleasant surprises. A good surprise is a welcome break.


Here’s a way to practice being drop-dead persuasive. Set as your goal (for a meeting, phone call, or presentation) that you will instill wonder to such a degree that your listeners respond, “Hey, I never thought of it that way.”

Do you hear the wonder in this reaction? In revealing to your audiences what you feel strongly about in a lean memorable way, you are asking for nothing less than a transformation of their thinking or behavior. Transformations inspire wonder.

For the people in my who have learned to present themselves on a bigger canvas, the response they received when they returned to work fiercer and braver, was one of wonder. “What happened to Jen?” or “Joe is on fire,” bosses report back.


With every step you take to be clear about your own place at work and in every opportunity you seize to claim that place, you can become clear and communicate memorably and become more of a leader. Such clarity is surprising and often impressive. Speaking passionately from the very center of who you are is compelling, forceful, persuasive: that’s what leadership sounds like.

–Charlotte Beers is the former chairman and CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide; from 2001-2003, she was the Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, reporting to Secretary of State Colin Powell. This piece is adapted from her recent book, I’d Rather Be in Charge.

[Image: Flickr user Kristina]