Last Updated Dec 18, 2009 5:01 PM EST
Professor G. Richard Shell, University of Pennsylvania
Maybe, as Richard Shell says, persuasion is an art, not a
science. But if it ever becomes the latter, he'll be its Isaac
Newton. The Wharton professor of law and business ethics has devoted his career
to dissecting and cataloging the elements that help people in business get
their colleagues to see things their way. Three times a year, he and a
colleague spend 10 grueling 14-hour days locked in a seminar with 35 of the
world's most adept negotiators, analyzing what makes them so
persuasive, and trying to help them become even better. This negotiating boot
camp is the Executive Negotiation Workshop at the Wharton School; recent
students include the FBI's chief hostage negotiator and a university
president preparing for a knockdown, drag-out battle to restructure a major
collegiate athletic conference.
The son of a Marine general (which may account for his
seminar’s boot-camp aspects), Shell is the author of two books on
convincing people to do what you want. He succeeded in persuading MoneyWatch.com
Editor in Chief Eric Schurenberg to discuss his most recent one, The Art of
There have been a lot of books about persuading, from Getting to Yes to Getting Your Way. What makes the Art of Woo different?
From our negotiation work at Wharton, we discovered that
over 50 percent of people who come to negotiation courses are really trying to
solve problems internally, within organizations. So the book is directed
specifically at how to be effective at persuading people within a complex
I was struck at the book’s emphasis on character as one of the
keys to being persuasive. Now, there are lots of people with very little
character who can be very persuasive. Why do you think character is key?
My co-author, Mario Moussa, and I made that point out of a
certain sense of responsibility. Persuasion tools are sort of like nuclear
power: They can be used for good or for evil. And we wanted to make sure that
we wrote a book that would help people use them for good. But you’re
right ... some of the world’s master persuaders are con artists.
And being credible obviously is important to winning people over.
The trick, unfortunately, is that the con artist also is
an expert at credibility. Bernie Madoff had a 20-year run, and he was a crook.
What do most people do wrong when they set out to win people over?
The principle mistake is to assume the other person shares
your internal frame of reference. So, rather than considering the audience and
their point of view, you really just go after them — you sell —
in the classic hard sell. Most effective persuaders are balanced between their
passion for their own ideas and an awareness of how the person on the other
side is most likely to be able to hear what they’re saying.
I’m going to name a few prominent people, and I’d like
you to give them a review of how effective they are at the art of woo. Let’s
start with President Obama.
Well, that one’s easy. President Obama is a woo
master. His ability to show passion and commitment but at the same time to
craft a message that the audience will be particularly likely to hear —
that balance factor — is just exquisite. Of course, he has a lot of
people helping him, but I think he was a born persuader. From his
autobiography, it’s clear to me that he came by this skill the hard
way. In his youth, he really had to go through a lot of self-examination of his
own identity. And that, I think, made him acutely aware of the social
environments that he’s in. It enabled him to strike this balance in a
particularly effective and consistent way.
OK, good. Now, here’s a person who’s probably not a
born persuader but is thrust into a position of having to persuade: Ben
There are two extremes in persuasion. There are people who
are too focused on their audience, kind of Slick Willie types. And then there
are people who are totally unaware of their audience, and they are kind of
curmudgeons. Ben Bernanke is a little closer to the curmudgeon side, but in a
way that’s the perfect persuasion style to be adopting in his
particular political role. People want to hear what he’s thinking,
and they don’t want to see him crafting a message for different
audiences. They want to hear the voice of authority, and I think he’s
been pretty effective in using that voice.
We have a type of person we profile in the book called the
“Driver.” The Driver is a combination of extreme
extroversion and extreme self-orientation, and I think Jim Cramer is about as
far towards a Driver as you can get. Very, very loud and very, very
self-oriented. You know exactly where he’s coming from and what he’s
saying, but you have to do all the adjusting.
Do you have a character called the Terminator? How would you review
You know, Schwarzenegger is a very interesting case, because he was trained as an actor. Like Ronald
Reagan, I think he has a certain capacity to be audience-oriented. But he was
an actor for a particular type of role, which was a Terminator type of role, a
very obvious, self-oriented role, and I think he’s stuck with that.
So, he’s more on the Bernanke side, but with a little more
craftiness. But, of course, there’s a limit to persuasion skills.
When you’re in a bankrupt economy and your state has no tax revenues,
it really doesn’t matter how persuasive you are, you’ve
just got a big problem.
You’ve talked a lot about how to persuade people. What’s
your advice on how to resist persuasion?
The best antidote to persuasion is a skeptical attitude.
People who get persuaded [to do things they regret] tend to get caught up in
ideas that appeal to their self-interest or hold out the promise of a simple
solution to a big problem. The best antidote to that is critical thinking. Or a
You define half a dozen different styles of persuasion in the book. Is one
more effective than the other?
Whatever your style is, it can be effective. It all
depends on the fit with the person across the table and the circumstances. I
think it’s harder for someone audience-oriented — the Slick
Willie type — to become more authentic than it is for someone who
leans toward authenticity — the curmudgeon type — to become
Social awareness is drummed into us from an early age. We’re
taught to fit in with the crowd, to not rock the boat. It’s very
deeply ingrained. [As a result], playing to the audience, when extreme, is a
hard habit to break. By comparison, it’s relatively easy to say to
someone who’s not so sensitive to an audience, “You know,
you ought to tailor your approach to the audience a bit more. Talk to the
salespeople this way and the engineers that way.” Such a person may
never be smooth, but he or she can make the effort. People generally give you
credit if they can see you’re making an effort.
You make the point that it’s important to know which kind of
persuader you are.
That’s one of the key questions. Who are you?
Who’s the other person? What does the situation call for? You have to
know yourself so you can allow for the distortions in your own lens. If you’ve
ever been in an interview and said something that just caused a wall to come
down over the other person’s face, it’s because you’ve
contradicted one of their core beliefs or said something against their
Whether you sell the idea in the end depends on a lot of
things, including whether the idea is any good. But a lot of the art of
persuading is in removing barriers that you can’t see —
unless you know to look for them — that keep your idea from ever
really being heard.
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