June 3, 2009

The Structure of Persuasion

“It ain’t what you say; it’s the way that you say it.”

At least, according to the words of an old song, that’s the story. Is it true? Not entirely. A sales presentation or proposal devoid of content isn’t going to do very well, no matter how brilliantly it’s put together.

But in one respect, that line is true. There is a way to say—or write—that will create maximum impact on the audience. And it has nothing to do with using fancy words or pretty pictures. Instead, it’s a matter of using the right structure. By using the structural pattern of persuasion, you will get the customer’s head nodding a lot quicker.

That’s our subject this time: Saying the right things in the right order to get the right response.

Tom Sant

The Structure of Persuasion

In the world of business, people write for one of three reasons—to inform, to evaluate, or to persuade. For each of these purposes there is a structural pattern which will produce the best results. Think of the structural patterns as templates for delivering content in the right order. Use the wrong pattern and you will get the wrong results. It’s like trying to drive a nail with a screwdriver—you might eventually get the job done, but it’s going to be a lot harder than it has to be.

The first and most common reason people write is to inform. They’re writing to share factual content with somebody else who needs it. The ideals of informative writing are clarity and conciseness, and to achieve those goals we should start by getting right to the point and stating the key fact that the reader will find most important. For most people, writing to inform is the easiest writing task and the one they feel most confident in handling.

The second reason business people write is to evaluate something or somebody. A performance appraisal, a competitive analysis, an appraisal of an asset—in all of these cases, simply presenting the facts is not enough. What we want to know is what you think, because we assume that you are a person of experience and training who has dealt with similar issues before. (Or we recognize that you are in a position of authority so that your opinion matters, even if it’s not terribly well informed.) To write an effective evaluation, we need to define our subject—what (or who) we are evaluating—and the criteria on which we are basing our evaluation. Then we need to present our observations and evidence. Finally we need to offer our opinion. If we follow that structural pattern, our opinion will sound logical and our evaluation will be easy to follow.

The third reason people write is to persuade. Persuasion means we are attempting to influence what somebody else thinks or feels or does. We’re trying to change our audience in some small way—to get them to support our policy, to care about an issue as we do, or to sign a contract and give us their business. Effective persuasion requires more than simply delivering a bunch of facts, and our opinion alone isn’t going to persuade a customer to buy from us. Instead, we have to structure our message so that we deliver the content in a way that produces the change in our audience’s thinking or beliefs or action that we want to produce.

There’s nothing sneaky or deceptive about the process of persuasion. Sometimes people confuse persuasion with manipulation or deception. They think it involves “tricking” the reader into doing something. Maybe negative attitudes toward advertising and political campaigns have led them to regard persuasion with suspicion. In my experience, technically oriented professionals—the same people who are most comfortable writing informatively—are very suspicious of persuasion.

In reality, persuasion is a straightforward process of identifying the reader’s needs, issues, or concerns, acknowledging their importance in terms of meaningful outcomes, then positioning your solutions in the context of the customer’s needs and outcomes, and finally presenting evidence that you can deliver the solution. That’s it.

I used to call this pattern the persuasive paradigm, but lots of my clients began calling it the NOSE pattern because the four elements of persuasive structure create the acronym NOSE. Let’s take a look at each element of persuasive structure in more depth:

NEEDS: Focusing on the customer’s needs or problems or business pains wins their attention. They’ll probably be surprised that a vendor has actually listened to them. They’ll also be less anxious to move forward.

OUTCOMES: Every business has lots of problems, most of which will be ignored. Why? Because management doesn’t see enough of a payback from solving them. You don’t want your recommendations to fall into the category of ideas that “just aren’t worth it,” so spell out clearly the outcomes or the impact on the organization that solving the problem or meeting the needs will deliver. Focusing on the customer’s pains will grab attention, but focusing on the potential gains will create motivation.

SOLUTION: Recommend specifically what you think the decision maker and his or her organization should do. Link your recommendation back to the client’s needs and desired outcomes. And actually use the words, “We recommend…” If you sound like you believe in your solution, the decision maker can feel a little more confident believing in it, too.

EVIDENCE: What makes you the right choice? How do I know you can deliver the solution you’re recommending on time and on budget? Have you thought through everything? Your goal in providing evidence is to differentiate yourself and demonstrate your competence. You might include product information, cost details, management plans, project plans, training options, documentation, delivery schedules, resumes, case studies, references, testimonials, awards your organization has won, whatever. Avoid throwing evidence in just because it’s available. If it's not clearly relevant to the deal and of interest to the decision maker, leave it out. For example, most of your prospects just won’t care about your company history beyond seeing that you’re reasonably experienced and solvent.

And that’s it. Putting your content together in terms of these four steps will produce a persuasively structured message. The important thing to remember is that persuasion doesn’t have to be a mystery. In fact, the key to effective persuasion is as obvious as the NOSE on your face. Visit santcorp.com to learn how you can automatically create persuasive proposals using Sant Suite.