5 Proven Steps to Master the Art of Persuasion

Carmine Gallo, Harvard professor and author of Five Stars: The Communication Secrets to Get from Good to Great, shares his tips on how to be a master of persuasion.

Carmine Gallo
4-minute read

Warren Buffett has one framed degree in his office that he proudly shows off to visitors. It’s not a college or business school degree. It’s the certificate he received after completing a public-speaking course. When  students or young professionals ask Buffett for the one skill they should develop above all others, Buffett always names communication skills as the key ingredient in a successful career. Buffett goes on step further, saying that effective communication skills will raise a person’s value in the workplace by 50 percent, instantly.

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When leaders talk about communication skills, they are referring to the art of persuasion—the marriage of words and ideas to change minds. In a world where globalization, automation and artificial intelligence combine to disrupt every career and every field, the ability to sell your ideas will help you land a dream job, sell products, inspire employees, motivate customers and lead companies forward.

Here are five proven tactics to develop the skill of persuasion to win people over.

1). Stick to a 3-Act Structure

Successful Hollywood movies follow a carefully crafted 3-act story structure. The same formula works for winning presentations, too.

Act 1: The set-up. We first learn about the hero’s world before the adventure starts.

Act 2: The conflict. Villains and hurdles are introduced to block the hero’s ultimate quest.

Act 3: Resolution. The hero conquers the villain, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Now imagine you’re giving a business presentation to a potential client. In the first part of the presentation (Act 1), you might describe the current climate in which your client is doing business. This shows that you’ve done your homework and you understand the client’s world. In the second part of the presentation (Act 2), you can introduce a problem the client faces. Better yet, unveil a potential hurdle—or villain—the client hasn’t even thought of yet. Finally (Act 3), you can explain how your product or service will help the client vanquish the villain and prosper happily ever after.

You’ll notice how the 3-act structure forces you to think in terms of narrative. Your competitor’s presentation will be focused on their product’s features while your presentation will start with the customer’s frame of reference. That’s how you’ll stand out.

Persuasive communicators follow a proven formula.

2). Create visually appealing presentations

It’s likely that your competitor will create a presentation full of text, bullet points, charts, graphs and tables. If your presentation has more photos, images and videos, you’ll stand out. It’s well-established in the neuroscience literature that text and bullet points on a slide are the least effective way of delivering information. Pictures are more memorable than words. Watch public presentations from leaders at Apple, Google, and Microsoft. You’ll notice that rarely use slide after slide of bullet points. Bullet points don’t make emotional connections with an audience; pictures do.

Persuasive presenters use more pictures than words on their slides.

3). Replace long words with short ones

If you want to build your credibility and reach new audiences that are unfamiliar with your technology, product or service, use short words. Psychologists like Nobel prize-winner Daniel Kahneman says speakers who use short, simple words are seen as more competent than those who speak in jargon and long, convoluted sentences. Look back in history—it’s the short phrases, speeches and sentences that we remember. Students recite Lincoln’s 272-word Gettysburg Address; they don’t recite the two-hour speech Edward Everett delivered before Lincoln spoke. Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy were also great editors—replacing long sentences with short phrases.

Persuasive leaders have the courage to speak simply.

4). Unleash your inner storyteller

All great persuaders are great storytellers. Stories inform, educate, and inspire. If you watch popular TED Talks, you may have noticed that most speakers begin with a story. If you haven’t, you’ll notice now. The TED conference strongly urges its speakers to tell stories that support their theme or argument. There are several types of stories you can tell. You can tell personal of struggle and triumph. You can tell the stories of real customers or clients. You can tell the stories of your company’s founding or important events in the company’s history. Above all, don’t give another presentation without stories. Delivering facts and figures is crucial, but persuasion cannot occur in the absence of emotion. And story is the best vehicle on which to transfer emotion from one person to another.

Persuasive leaders are great storytellers.

5). Conquer the fear that holds you back

I began this article with a story about Warren Buffett. What I didn’t tell you is that Buffett dropped out of his first course on public speaking because he was too afraid to speak in public! Social anthropologists say the fear of speaking up is deeply ingrainedengrained in our brain’s wiring because our ancestors needed to be accepted by their tribes—those who weren’t were banished from the cave and left on their own. We still crave acceptance. You may have had this experience—9 out of 10 people gave your presentation high marks, but one person was lukewarm. If your brain is functioning normally, you’ll be more upset about the one critic instead of the nine supporters. Our need for social acceptance is strong. The secret to gaining confidence in front of groups is to accept nerves as natural and take every opportunity to practice which will help alleviate your anxiety.

Great persuaders don’t overcome the fear of public-speaking; they manage it.

Persuasion is no longer a soft skill. Persuasion is fundamental to having a successful career. You can have a great idea, but if you can’t convince people of your idea, you’ll stay where you are. Great persuaders are irreplaceable.  

Carmine Gallo is a Harvard instructor, keynote speaker, and the author of Five Stars: The Communication Secrets to Get from Good to Great (St. Martin’s Press).

About the Author

Carmine Gallo The Public Speaker

Carmine Gallo is a former news anchor and correspondent for CNN and CBS, a contributor for Forbes.com, and author of several bestselling and award-winning books including The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs and The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs. Gallo has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Success Magazine, and on CNBC. He graduated with honors from UCLA and has a Master’s Degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern.