How to Persuade a Decision Maker

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Apr 09, 2024

By Darlene Price

Persuasion is everywhere in human interactions. From the caring efforts of a mother convincing her feisty five-year-old to eat his vegetables to the overt attempts of advertisers trying to sell us a new car, people and businesses seek to influence others. The situations vary, but eventually there comes a time when you are after just one thing: compliance. You need to direct another person’s behavior toward a specific course of action or a point of view; you want them to do what you want.

This skill is critical in presenting to decision makers. Whether your goal is to sell, inform, motivate, train, entertain, or build goodwill, it’s your ability to persuade an audience that ultimately determines your degree of success or failure. When you finish speaking, you want the decision maker to say “yes” to your point of view.

To be successful at affecting the beliefs and actions of others, you must not only understand what motivates people to act, but also how to use that knowledge to your advantage. As Aristotle wrote, “The fool tells me his reasons; the wise man persuades me with my own.”

What Persuasion Is Not
Persuasion is neither coercion nor intimidation—far from it. People may be forced to do something, but they cannot be forced to believe something. The history books are full of failed marriages forced between two royal families. The same is true of a speaker who tries to marry a message to an audience when there is no emotional commitment. It is a mismatch that ends up in divorce. The minds of audience members pack their bags and leave, and the speaker is still standing up there, rambling on. Audience members must be persuaded in ways that are agreeable to them; they must choose on their own volition to see it your way.

Persuasion is not data dumping, hauling a truckload of information from one place to another, and unloading it on an audience. People get buried under the weight of too much information. Good data is important, but good demeanor is crucial. While facts, figures, statistics, charts, and graphs do lend support to your message, they do not sell your message. Remember, people buy from people they like.

What Persuasion Is
Persuasion is the ability to convince another person to adopt the idea, attitude, or action you are recommending; to make the decision you want that person to make. As Aristotle pointed out, it involves using the listener’s reasoning and understanding, not necessarily your own. The wisest presenters use the logic and reasons that are important to the audience to reach a mutual agreement. While sociologists and psychologists have developed dozens of models and theories to suggest the reasons why people behave in the ways that they do, the simple fact is that they respond based on self-interest. Since audience members are self-interested people, you can bet they are asking themselves one primary question about your presentation: “What’s in it for me?”

The Four Ps of Persuasion
As a general rule, people are motivated to act based on four motivations, or four key payoffs. Think of them as the Four Ps of Persuasion:

  1. Profit.
  2. Pleasure.
  3. Power.
  4. Prestige.

If your product or message enables decision makers to save or make money, if it adds to the bottom line in any way, be sure to stress that benefit to your audience. You will see ears and eyes perk up immediately. Profits are to a business what oil is to an engine, the driving force behind successful operation. In the end, this is the measure of every decision maker. Does your proposal or product help decision makers gain income, earnings, revenue, efficiencies, return on investment, or productivity? Does it reduce costs and expenses? If so, repeatedly reinforce this payoff throughout your presentation or conversation. Profit is a primary motivator for most decision makers.

The other side of the profit coin is loss. Fear of loss is also a motivator. You may want to show decision makers what it will cost them if they don’t adopt your proposal. Or, emphasize how you will help them avoid loss and circumvent overspending.

Is there anything about your proposal, product, or service that can help the decision maker achieve a desired outcome with less effort? Simply put, most decision makers want to “work smarter, not harder.” They want you to help them achieve their goals in the fastest way possible. In your presentation or conversation, be sure to tell your audience members how your product or service will save time and improve their lives. But don’t stop at, “cuts time in half.” How might your listeners use the extra time?

One of the main tasks of corporate decision makers is to shape their environment. This takes intelligent power; the act of successfully controlling resources and mitigating risks to achieve one’s desired outcomes. I have heard many senior leaders use phrases such as:

"Within a year, we’re going to own this market. So get out there and crush the competition.”
“Our goal is to dominate this space and take over as the number one leader in the industry.”

Notice the language of these leaders. Their action verbs all imply power, authority, and supremacy. Your message will be even more persuasive when you appeal to their need to feel powerful. How does your solution help your audience dominate the industry, increase market share, or conquer the competition? How does it increase their strength and authority? Does it help them control resources such as time, money, and people? Does your solution put them in charge and help them mitigate risk? Does it give them command over weak spots, vulnerabilities, or potentially negative outcomes?

In the seventeenth century, scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal once noted that “The charm of fame is so great that we like every object to which it is attached.” Prestige is the level of distinction and prominence at which a person or company is regarded by key stakeholders. It involves one’s reputation and implies status, recognition, and even exclusivity. How does your product or message help decision makers improve their standing among others, or their company’s reputation among customers, prospects, and partners? Will it help listeners outrank their competition? If so, be sure to use the prestige motivator.

Excerpted, with permission of the publisher, from Well Said!: Presentations and Conversations That Get Results by Darlene Price. Published by AMACOM.

About the Author(s)

Darlene_Price_rdax_120x180Darlene Price is the president and founder of Well Said!, Inc., a training and consulting company specializing in high-impact presentations and effective communication. Darlene has presented to thousands of audiences across six continents and coached the chief officers and senior executives in over half the Fortune 100 companies. She lives in Atlanta.