Being Persuasive Without Authority

I’m sure you must have faced a stubborn client, a stubborn board member, a stubborn boss, or a stubborn customer at some point in life —one who is as headstrong as you are, and more adamant than you think you can ever be.

How do you persuade such as person, especially when there’s a power hierarchy? This person is above you, and doesn’t have to listen to you. She has total authority over you, and can completely ignore your arguments without even giving you a proper reason. How do you get yourself heard in such a situation?

If you’ve ever faced rejection, you must know by now that just being rational, and simply putting your point out there doesn’t really work. And if you are the junior most person (or the most humble/meek one) in the room, fuggedaboudit!

You might be wondering if it’s better to become physically articulate, and raise your voice to get your point across the table. If that works, good for you! But if you are like me, and aren’t comfortable doing that, there might be another way.

Consider this scenario: The e-commerce company you work for is planning to launch a drip email campaign to engage new users in an effort to increase activation. (A user gets ‘activated’ when she orders an item after signing up.) You are the new Jr. Marketing Manager who is in charge of detailing out the campaign. You report to the Sr. Marketing Manager, i.e., the person actually in charge of the campaign.

You’ve done your research, and have chosen to take an unorthodox approach. You believe drip campaigns (i.e., a communication strategy that sends a pre-written set of emails to customers over time) are usually based on assumptions, and don’t account for actual user behaviour. You intend to change that, and try something different. Following is what you propose your boss and your colleagues in a meeting:

“Instead of taking the usual course, one which is full of assumptions, I propose we do it differently. I believe we should study the behaviour of our current active users, and find out the path they had followed until activation. If we do a round of interviews, we’ll also come to know where most of them were stuck, and what all doubts they had. We can design our campaign around this knowledge.”

Your boss is young and vibrant (or, old and archaic), and despite having the best of intentions, she isn’t convinced about your approach. The others in the room are doubtful as well.

You are after all new, and without experience. They have good reasons to have doubts. They are far more experienced, and have stronger opinions (and better presence of mind) to counter you. There is no way you can convince them, even if your approach is indeed better.

These conversations usually follow the same course of action. You face a barrage of justifications and counter arguments—why your plan is highly likely to fail, why it is cumbersome to implement, how once upon a time they had tried something unorthodox and it was disastrous, why this one particular strategy somebody read somewhere might be a better fit than yours, etc. Rather than persuading, you are now busy defending. You have to win the first bit so that the rest would become easy. Don’t underestimate the power of halo effect.

If you ask me, I face this problem all time. I subconsciously believe that since my approach is so obvious to me, it would be obvious to others as well. I don’t usually take the effort to convey my research.

The above pitch has the same problem. It simply tells it doesn’t articulate, hence it fails to persuade. It also doesn’t leverage any cognitive biases that would make it impactful.

Authority bias is the tendency to attribute greater accuracy to the opinion of an authority figure and be more influenced by that opinion.

In another post, I had talked about why it makes you do stupid things, and how you should avoid it. In this post, I’ll teach you how to exploit it to win arguments.

To spruce up the pitch on the email campaign, you would have to bring in an external ‘authoritative’ reference that backs your argument—especially one which has no dog in the fight. It would heavily strengthen your position.

Fun Fact: This is exactly what research papers do. It is of common knowledge that loads of references to existing research heavily increases the likelihood of getting published. Having published 2 papers within a month (after getting rejected more than 5 times) I’ve got first hand experience about this.

What you have to understand is that although people say they want innovation, the more familiar your idea is, the more likely it is to be implemented. Familiarity always trumps newness. If you quote Seth Godin, John Caples, or David Ogilvy (or any other celebrity in marketing), it would be kind of hard for somebody to defy them. And if you happen to know that your boss is a fan of somebody in particular, then bingo!

By referencing a quote from person I don’t mean anything abstract like, “Think out of the box.” These can be interpreted in multiple ways and won’t help your case at all. What you need is a concrete example. For example, Buffer, the social media scheduling app’s pitch deck used Zuckerberg’s Law: “The amount a user shares today is twice the amount they shared a year ago,” to raise $3.5Mn.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a popular persona. Referencing a blog post or a research journal of a successful company in a different market would also work.

People generally determine what is correct by finding out what others think is correct—especially when they are in doubt. Apart from validation from an authoritative source, your references would give social proof as well. Social proof makes you think, “If it has worked for somebody else, it is very likely to work for me as well.”

If you start your pitch with, “I read a post from <a successful company> where they mentioned this really interesting approach they had taken….,” or “I connected with a friend who used to work with <a successful company> and he mentioned something very interesting that we can try…,” your pitch automatically becomes a lot better. It gives both proof of authority (of a successful company) along with social proof. (Yes, you do have to find credible sources. It requires hard work to have an opinion.)

And if you want to go an extra step, try quoting multiple sources of validation. More examples are always better than a single example. Information from multiple sources is generally perceived to be from different perspectives and independent pools of knowledge, and thus more worthy of consideration. All founders implement this strategy in their pitches. You should too.

Every person has a belief system. Your boss is too experienced in life to establish a new belief system now. No one is that open-minded —although we all like to believe we are. You have to turn that belief system upon itself to get your point across. (Personally, I usually don’t defy anything that Don Norman says. It’s against my belief system.)

It’s easy when you have authority. But if you don’t have any, you’ll just have to use somebody else’s authority to work in your favour. The benefit of authority bias is that people give into it very easily. Unlike social proof, or multiple source effect, only one powerful reference is enough.

A word or caution: Don’t use this method in open discussions and brainstorming sessions. When discussing ideas, your aim is to think openly and find the truth—not to convince your point of view.

But I do believe you might face very badly managed brainstorming sessions where your bosses, or your investors, or your professors aren’t open to your ideas. If you can’t walk out of it, this strategy would be pretty handy.

Just remember to present your opinion in a clear and concise manner. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb has said in The Black Swan, “Humans will believe anything you say provided you do not exhibit the smallest shadow of diffidence; like animals, they can detect the smallest crack in your confidence before you express it.” It might take some practice to master confidence, especially if you are suffering from imposter syndrome.

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