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Persuasive Arm Twisting

“We have found that the most effective persuaders use language in a particular way. They supplement numerical data with examples, stories, metaphors, and analogies to make their positions come alive. That use of language paints a vivid word picture and, in doing so, lends a compelling and tangible quality to the persuader’s point of view.” — Jay Conger

It would be easy to focus on the details of Conger’s observation and miss the more interesting message. His emphasis on examples, stories, metaphors, and analogies indeed paints a vivid word picture and thus draws attention away from the compelling and tangible quality of the persuader’s point which is to persuade, compellingly. The goal is to make people adopt a certain position, belief, or course of action. Sure, you are twisting somebody’s arm. Were that not the plan, they wouldn’t need persuaded. William Bernbach had this take on persuasive arm twisting, “The truth isn’t the truth until people believe you, and they can’t believe you if they don’t know what your saying, and they can’t know what you’ve saying if they don’t listen to you, and they won’t listen to you if you’re not interesting, and you won’t be interesting until you say things imaginatively, originally, freshly.” No one is going to buy your snake oil, no matter how fine it is, no matter how good it is at curing everything, until you show them the truth, until they are persuaded.

There is an old Chinese Proverb that says, “The tongue can paint what the eye can’t see;” and no less an authority than St Thomas Aquinas advised, to convert somebody go and take them by the hand and guide them.” Even Epicurus had a little guidance on pitching snake oil, although he likely smiled as he disguised it as philosophy, “Human nature is not to be coerced but persuaded and we shall persuade her by satisfying the necessary desires if they are not going to be injurious but, if they are going to injure, by relentlessly banning them.” The actual pitch might have gone like this, “My friends, this genuine snake oil satisfies your most important and necessary desires to relentlessly ban potentially injurious demons from your lives, nigh, from the world as you know it.” Now do you need some of that or what?

Benjamin Franklin identified the cardinal element in persuasion, “Would you persuade, speak of interest, not of reason.” Marcus T Cicero went Franklin one better, “Nothing is so unbelievable that oratory cannot make it acceptable;” and Joseph Conrad agreed, “He who wants to persuade should put his trust not in the right argument, but in the right word. The power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense.”

There are just a few additional techniques you will need to round out your bag of persuasive tricks. Dale Carnegie suggested adding, “There is only one way to get anybody to do anything. And that is by making the other person want to do it.” How do you do that? Know that, according to Eric Hoffer, “The real persuaders are our appetites, our fears and above all our vanity. The skillful propagandist stirs and coaches these internal persuaders.” Lord Chesterfield offered this tidbit, “He makes people pleased with him by making them first pleased with themselves;” but Ralph Waldo Emerson gave this caution, “That which we do not believe, we cannot adequately say; even though we may repeat the words ever so often.” It might be tempting to conclude that only those who passionately believe can passionately persuade; but there is still a lingering caveat. Don’t ever underestimate the power of the dedicated snake oil huckster to persuade.

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