Woo Factor: Persuasion and Power

How do you convince people to buy into your latest idea? “The Art of Woo” author and Wharton School professor Richard Shell shares his insights and explains why President Barack Obama is such an excellent “woo-master.”

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 organization.

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 Bernanke.

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.
Jim Cramer.

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 Governor Schwarzenegger?

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 good spouse.
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 more audience-oriented.

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 interests.

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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