In the mid-1980s I worked for a large IT services company in London. Every so often the company arranged an away-day, a sort of troop-rallying exercise in a good hotel with plenty of food and drink to lubricate the message. We troops would sit through a series of motivating talks, the usual graphs and bullet points, though it was before the days of PowerPoint, so all of these were printed on slides and projected using an epidiascope.
These were the relatively early days of the corporate presentation and I was new to the whole exercise. I almost enjoyed it. I remember the CEO’s presentation as especially impressive. There was a picture of the Queen at one point, and a dog, but I can’t now remember why. He brought a touch of irony to the proceedings that made his talk stand out from the rest. As I recall, he ended by asking all the salesmen in the room to stand up. A few rather self-consciously struggled to their feet (salesmen drank more at lunchtime that we consultants did).
‘What about the rest of you?’ the CEO asked, ‘Why aren’t you all standing?’
It’s a tired trick, but not so tired that I haven’t tried it myself from time to time. Yes, of course, in a sense we’re all ‘salesmen’ even if our job title doesn’t include the word. We must all present our company in a favourable light and keep our ears pricked for potential opportunities. Some consultants aren’t cut out for this, and however good they are at their job, they’re almost ashamed that money should be demanded in return for what they do. But some are good, or very good. Indeed, in my organisation some of the very best salesmen (even those with the word ‘sales’ in their job title) have formerly been consultants.
Selling projects is one thing, and not all of us are suited to the argy-bargy of negotiation, but selling ideas is another. If we’re advising our clients, and if we firmly believe in our advice, then at the very least we must persuade, and there’s an art to that too.
The most important point about persuasion may sound counterintuitive. It is that, as in almost all situations, it’s better to listen than to speak. You won’t win by wearing people down with words. And , after all, you already know what your opinion is (I would hope) and why you hold it. But you may not know in advance what your client’s opinion may be, how he has understood your reasoning, what his objections may be and what motivates them. He may disagree as to the facts, he may disagree as to your reasoning, or he may raise issues that you haven’t considered (certainly judgements as to the pragmatism of your advice may differ, since the client’s knowledge of his organisation is likely to exceed yours). Finally, he may object irrationally, for all kinds of emotional reasons.
So you must listen very carefully to understand the motives behind your client’s objections. Of course, you should already be aware of some of them, especially if they’re based on disagreement as to the facts. If you’re not aware of these, then your project hasn’t been managed well. By the time you come to make your case you should be aware of opposing views, findings and interpretations.
Listening is essential if you’re going to persuade. You can’t just disagree, and mount a direct assault on your client’s opinion. You mustn’t be aggressive but you mustn’t be defensive either. You must always behave and persuade in a way that allows for compromise and even defeat. You can be enthusiastic about your opinion, but not emotional. You mustn’t seem so wedded to your view that compromise or defeat will seem like a personal affront or contempt for your professional skills. Whatever you do or say, you must not put your professional relationship with your client at risk. As with all negotiations you must have a number of compromise positions prepared in advance.
I have always hated training courses that aim to teach you a thing or two about human behaviour. They’re often based on a few bogus ideas from behavioural psychology. I studied psychology at university and developed, during those three years, a lifelong aversion to the subject. But on one ‘interpersonal skills’ course I attended in the early 1990s I learned something useful. The subject was ‘how to be assertive’. If you want to assert your own point of view, to persuade others of its merits, and to prevail, we were taught, you must strenuously demonstrate that you understand your opponent’s (or client’s) point of view. You begin your argument by showing that you have listened to and understand your opponent’s point of view. You might even flatter.
‘It’s interesting that you see it that way,’ you might begin. ‘I can understand that from your point of view, with all your experience it would seem obvious that it should be done that way rather than the way I’m recommending. Indeed, I’ve seen similar circumstances where that is exactly the right course of action, and where what you’re recommending has worked. It often makes sense. BUT……..’
And then you go on to explain why the circumstances, or the logic are different in this case. It doesn’t always work, but often it does. And even if it doesn’t, you’ve demonstrated an understanding of the client’s point of view, perhaps even to the point that you may be persuaded of it. Whatever happens, you’re more likely to reach a compromise without endangering your relationship.
Arguments and ideas are lost if your client thinks you don’t understand his position, or if you seem too emotionally attached to your own, or if he thinks you’re concealing some deeper agenda, or if you’re arrogant, or if he suspects you think he’s stupid. You’ve got to be reasonable and likeable at all times.
When you’re persuading, always take account of what will work for your particular audience. Get the level of detail, and the level of informality right, and always understand the motivation of your audience.
Persuasion is most effective when it quiet and reasonable and acknowledges alternative points of view.