Chapter 9 Persuasive Communication: Many Good Leaders Do Not Use Convincing-Enough Rhetoric – Leadership Insights


Persuasive Communication

Many Good Leaders Do Not Use Convincing-Enough Rhetoric

Universals of Persuasion

There are times when a leader may have to call up some persuasive skills, for example, to get others on board with a new direction or to align ­associates with new strategy. Despite increasing use of transformational leadership in corporations, many decisions are still taken at higher-­hierarchy levels with department heads, and team leaders then charged with the task of disseminating the information, and should the need arise, convincing associates of the benefits of the change.

For instance, if the management board had introduced a new benefits scheme for its sales force, whereby instead of a purely intrateam, competitive model with the sales person with the best sales figures reaping all the bonus remuneration, the whole team benefitted from targets met, then the manager would be faced with the challenge of trying to persuade the hitherto high-earners of the new scheme’s virtues. Maybe your team has expressed apprehension about entering a particular new market or at the success chances of introducing a new model or product range. Or, maybe some of the team have approached, requesting free language classes and the leader agrees to fund the training program, but requests, in return, that the classes take place either early in the morning or later in the evening—out of the office time. That is, in the workers’ own spare time. In any of these situations, persuasive rhetoric would be helpful for the leader.

We have a tendency as a species to be weary of change, so do not be surprised if you encounter resistance when presenting such new strategic proposals to your team. In such cases, fair, transparent, informative communication is the order of the day, combined with some useful persuasive techniques.

Aristotle introduced us to the power of persuasion a couple of ­millennia ago (Freese 1926), yet its tenets still ring powerfully true today (Figure 9.1). According to Aristotle, there are three essentials pillars to convincing (persuasive) communication:

Logos can be thought of as the argument itself, the details, the foci, logical reasoning, what many today would refer to as the benefits or the USP (Higgins and Walker 2010). But, even the soundest, most objective arguments lack persuasive power if they are not presented in a way that commands respect. If the speaker is not considered authoritative and to have credibility, then what he or she is saying can also be disregarded, irrespective of its logic or truth. Aristotle referred to this as ethos. (See also Authority, next). And, thirdly, Aristotle’s pathos is the feeling, emotion, and style in which the speaker communicates (Demirdöğen 2010).

All in all, Aristotle’s principles of rhetoric can be collated to make a helpful formula for developing persuasive communication.

Audience + Purpose + Genre = Style (how it is presented) + content (what is said)

For example: If a group of students wanted to complain about the canteen food, which method of communication might be more effective?

  1. They write a letter to the person responsible for the catering.
  2. They stage a protest in the canteen.

Probably the latter.

Put another way: consider who you are communicating with, what you aim to achieve, and what the background is, and then decide on what you say and how you want to say it, accordingly.

Developing upon Aristotle’s three pillars, Dr. Robert Cialdini, in his multimillion selling book: Influence, the Power of Persuasion (2006), ­highlights six universal principles of persuasion.

  1. Reciprocity: People are likely to feel more obliged do something for people in return for something that they have done for them in the past.

    In other words, we tend to return favors to those who have already helped us. It is deeply human and can be traced back to the need felt by our ancestors to support each other in tribal groups. For example, one cooks, one hunts, one builds the shelter, and one cares for the young. Proving the power of reciprocity, Regan (1971) found that people were twice as likely to buy tombola tickets from a complete stranger if the stranger had shortly beforehand brought them a drink from the soda machine, and Strohmetz et al. (2002) found that diners tended to tip up to 26 percent more to waiters and waitresses who had left a couple of sweets with a personally addressed smile, with the check. So, before you start making requests and demands of your team, ask yourself: what have I done for them?

  2. Scarcity: People want something more, if there is not much of it.

    In the months after Concorde announced it would be withdrawing its transatlantic service, bookings went through the roof with customers wanting to savor supersonic flight, while they still had the chance (Daily Mail, no date). The persuasive power of scarcity is why teleshopping channels show ever-decreasing purchase time-­period countdowns, online stores highlight in red that there are only X left of the product you are considering buying and airlines stress how few seats are left at your favored price. This principle supports the notion that not only expounding the benefits of any given challenge or project encourages uptake the most. To animate support for a proposal, also show your team member that this may be the last or at least a rare chance.

  3. Authority: People tend to follow instructions from persons they feel hold a position of authority.

    Imagine that, while out in town for a walk, a person dressed in jeans and a sweater forbade you from entering a particular street, for no discernable reason. How would you feel? Now, picture the same situation, but the person blocking your way is wearing a security guard uniform or even a firefighter’s hat. Would you react or feel differently? When we perceive the person talking to us to have authority, our respect for their suggestions and adherence to their instructions increases manifold.

    This has been shown to work in business. Cialdini (2012) mentions a real estate company that was able to increase the percentage of customer appointments by 20 percent and increase the percentage of contracts signed by 15 percent just by slightly changing the telephonist’s patter. Instead of simply putting the caller through to the right specialist directly, switchboard operators were instructed to give a short, praiseworthy, glowing resumé of each real estate expert before they connected the caller. Callers exhibited greater respect for the real estate reps, not based on any KPIs (key performance indicators), USPs (unique selling propositions), or data that they had collected themselves, but merely based on apparent authority and expertise in people they had been told about. In a similar experiment, physios who hung diploma certificates on the wall were able to upsell their treatments considerably better than counterparts whose patients had not been informed of their qualifications, and so, authority. Perceived authority begins with rather banal manifestations such as a suitable outward appearance, punctuality, or honed social skills, but can be reinforced by a manager’s reputation for professionalism and productivity. Perceived authority can be abused (Milgram 1963), but in many cases, can help persuasion. Do you have authority in the eyes of your team?

  4. Commitment: People like to be consistent in their decision making.

    Freedman and Fraser (1966) found that homeowners were far more likely to let supposed household product representatives into their house to inspect their detergents if the reps had already previously called on the phone to conduct a short survey on household products. In a similar experiment, Taylor and Booth-Butterfield (1993) found that, once house callers had won a metaphoric foot-in-the-door by convincing families to stick drive carefully stickers in their windows, they were twice as likely to agree to have a large, wooden drive carefully sign hammered into their front lawn. As a leader, try to keep your actions consistent and create fora where your team can express themselves regularly and routinely. When delegating tasks, keep the long game in mind.

  5. Liking: People prefer to say yes to those whom they like.

    Also known as the halo effect (Rosenzweig 2014), this principle suggests that, if we build up a relationship with our peers whereby they respect us and enjoy our company, they are far more likely to want to go the extra mile or jump through rings for us or indeed with us. Think about it. Would you prefer to help your dear friend repairing his or her garden fence or spend time helping that guy or girl down the road, whom you cannot stand, with his or her gardening? I am not suggesting that you develop false, pseudo-friendly relationships with people whom you do not like, but, if you have a reputation for being a polite, generous, hard-working, approachable executive, then you stand a far better likelihood of consensus and willingness from others to support. Studies have, repeatedly, bolstered this claim. One example, cited by Cialdini (2012) compared groups of MBA students in negotiations. One group was asked to employ a time-is-money approach to their talks, which came to agreements 55 percent of the time. The other group, who had been encouraged to get to know their negotiation partners before getting down to business came to agreement in 90 percent of cases. Nice guys do not always finish last!

  6. Consensus: People observe decisions, made by others and tend to follow their lead.

    In hotel bathrooms, you often find a card or sticker prodding you to pick up wet towels, and that in doing so, you will help to save the environment from polluting detergents. Both tidiness and environmental protection are, undoubtedly, commendable deeds, but research has shown that only about a third of hotel guests actually adhere to the USP-based suggestions on the bathroom notices. However, in one study, the rhetoric on the cards in hotel bathrooms was changed. The potential ecological advantages of hanging up towels was not mentioned. In its place, the announcement simply noted that the majority of people do not leave their towels on the floor. Strikingly, nearly twice as many guests choose to hang up their towels, just because others apparently did so. ­Conformity with peers is a strong human driver, as was shown by the infamous experiments by Dr. Asch (1951, 1952, 1956) (and since, by multiple replica studies, Bond and Smith 1996) and its implications should galvanize you to reflect on the culture that


Imagine a colleague is about to go into an important meeting and is unsure as to whether he is dressed appropriately for the setting. He approaches you and asks you to give him some feedback on how he looks, what might your feedback sound like?


I like the shirt. The color suits you. You have got a tie on. The tie is red. Red is a sign of power. That waistcoat makes you look a bit like a waiter. I see you are wearing cufflinks. The cufflinks are a nice touch. If I am honest, I do not like the shoes you are wearing much and they do not go with the socks you have got on at all. Green and pink socks! Leather belt. Overall you look casual and smart, though.

Your colleague thanks you for the feedback and goes about his ­business. But, was that feedback?

I like the shirt, the color suits you, red is a sign of power, waistcoat makes you look like a waiter, cufflinks are a nice touch, I do not like the shoes, they do not go with the sock, casual, smart—all of these are not examples of feedback. They are opinions. Subjective, disputable, individual.

Green and pink socks, leather belt, tie on, tie is red, you are wearing cufflinks are also not examples of feedback. They are descriptive, objective, factual bits of information. There is no wiggle room here, no opinion.

The sentiment is not uncommon in the business world, but it is not feedback. Feedback is “goal-referenced; tangible and transparent; actionable; user-friendly specific and personalized; timely; ongoing; and consistent” (Wiggins 2012). The preceding comment on the colleague’s dress and appearance is not feedback. It contains some of Wiggins’ explication, but lacks a key ingredient. There is nothing in the preceding comment that helps the feedback receiver, moving forward. What Wiggins refers to as actionable is the essential ingredient in the perfect feedback cocktail. Without it, feedback is unusable, unhelpful, and cannot aid the recipient reflect and develop. A not-delicious cocktail.

Good feedback is invaluable to professional associates. Feedback is probably the most effectual communication tool at our disposal to develop our people and so help them to deliver best performance. Indeed, a large body of research into the way we learn has shown that providing feedback advances learning far better than teaching does (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking 2000; Hattie 2008; Marzano, Pickering, and ­Pollock 2001). However, despite its well-reported value, in my experience, feedback is one of the most neglected and poorly applied leadership techniques. Scores of executives I work with report a lack of feedback culture in their organizations or a culture of only giving negative, vindictive feedback. As Carole Robin from Stanford University notes (cited in Petersen 2013), feedback should be received and given gratefully and seen by both parties as a gift, an opportunity for improvement. It is certainly not a disciplinary tool nor should it be used as a deterrent.

Building on a model outlined by Hahnke (2017), my colleagues, Dr. Hans Werner Hagemann and Dr. Paul Schürmann, have developed a simple, concise formula for young leaders to deliver powerful, accurate, fair, and most importantly, developmental feedback.

The EECC Feedback Model (Hagemann 2018; Schürmann 2018)

Example: Explain the behavior that you observed. Try to describe only objective facts at this stage.

Effect: What effect did this behavior have on you? How did it make you feel? Be personal. Be subjective at this step to help the feedback receiver understand the reaction to their action.

Change: A suggestion as to how the feedback receiver can do things differently in the future. This is the key transformational step in effective feedback.


Continue: A plea for the individual to forge ahead with their behavior and show more of it in the future.

Critical EECC feedback might sound like this:

I noticed that you arrived late for the client meeting, yesterday (example).

In my opinion, it left an unprofessional impression on our team, in front of the customers (effect).

I suggest you set yourself a reminder in the future, to ensure that you are on time. If you realize that you will not be punctual at the next meeting, please let us know beforehand (change).

Of course, EECC feedback works very powerfully, in much the same way, when given on positive accomplishments:

I saw the presentation you gave to the delegates on Thursday (example).

I loved the way you delivered it. It came across, for me, as punchy and entertaining (effect).

Keep up the good work. Use that entertaining style in your other presentations (continue).

A Few Final Tips on Giving Feedback

Practice. Developing your rhetoric in EECC feedback discourses might take some time, and your associates deserve to hear transformational feedback which is real world (example), lets them know what kind of impact their work has (effect), and helps develop them (change or continue). Good feedback is rarely spontaneous. Plan your words before you share them.


When giving EECC feedback, if you can, start sentences with I or me instead of we, everyone, they, or one (Gordon 2008). The feedback is coming from you, and it should be very clear to the receiver that the effect has been made on you and not to imply that it has impacted anyone else. It is not for you to assume whom else their work might have affected. If others would also like to give feedback, then they are welcome to do so. This is your feedback, deliver it in I-message form.


Think about how you felt when your teacher told you off in front of the class or how you blushed, when your parents accused you of showing off in front of your visiting friends. Feedback should, where possible, be given privately. Consider any audience that might be in earshot, and what effect your feedback session might have on them or on the feedback receiver.


Try and get your feedback in as soon after the event as possible. Consider: Remember that presentation you gave nine months ago? Well, it was absolutely unacceptable. Buck up your ideas in future. Admittedly, the example is a bit extreme, but the timing of your feedback is hugely important in working toward transformational communication.

Active Listening

I have lost count of the amount of senior managers whom I have spoken to, who have chosen to name listening as their most valued leadership technique. We often organize so-called fireside chats, where junior managers have the opportunity to question senior executives on their career path and on their learnings from and philosophy on leadership. Invariably, sooner or later, the ubiquitous question comes up.

What would you say is the most important skill for a successful leader?

Nine times out of 10, the response is: listen. There is little argument that listening is a vital link in the communication chain (Bostrom and Bryant 1980), and yet, we spend time, money, and energy training our speaking and writing skills in workshops and online courses while we seldom develop our listening skills.

According to Dick Lee and Delmar Hatesohl from the University of Missouri (1993), we spend 70 to 80 percent of our waking hours communicating with only 45 percent of that time spent listening. Most of us communicate at around 125 words per minute, but we have the cognitive ability to listen to and understand anything up to 400 words per minute, and yet, sadly, we neglect this mental advantage of ours all too often.

As sociologist Les Back (2007) stated, ours is a culture of speaking not of listening. More and more, people feel the need to express themselves, share their opinions, make their presence known, and drop knowledge. In social media, reality TV shows, sports events, political rallies, the staff canteen, bars and cafés, meetings, open letters in the press … we all seem to have something to say. But, how often do we genuinely stop to listen? According to sales guru Mark Wayshack (2014), listening “is entirely necessary in order to effectively understand what your prospects want, what they need and what they are looking to accomplish.” He goes on to add that “You will sell far more effectively by doing most of the listening and only a little bit of the talking.” While we are not focusing on sales in this book, I invite you to reflect on the notion that all of what we are doing as leaders involves persuasion and the selling of ideas and visions. (See Figure 9.1).

Figure 9.1 The three Aristotlean pillars of rhetoric

Listening should be your number one communication skill. Hone it. Wayshack (2014) recommends we spend 80 percent of our communication time listening and only the remaining 20 percent talking. Take a moment and recall how much of your leadership dialogue time, in the recent past, entailed you listening and how much involved others listening to you. Does your ratio come close to 8020? Sadly, we do not only listen too little. We do not listen well-enough either. Research into listening has shown us that we forget around 50 percent of the information just minutes after we have heard it, and a further 50 percent just 48 hours afterward. In other words, we commonly forget 75 percent of what we hear, no matter how it is delivered (Lee and Hatesohl 1993) (Figure 9.2). What adds insult to injury is that science has shown that our listening and retention skills get worse with age (Nichols 1957).

Figure 9.2 Percentage of information we forget within 48 hours of hearing it

Without looking, can you recall all the statistics from the last paragraph? Can you name the scholars whose work gave us the data? What were those numbers again? Were you concentrating? Just a bit of fun, of course. But, it can be amazing and surprising how poor our information retention rate is.

What makes us such bad listeners? Ralph G. Nichols, the godfather of modern listening research, touted 10 typical listening bad habits in his talks and papers (cited in Lee and Hatesohl 1993), which we often slip into:

  1. Call the subject matter uninteresting

    We go to a meeting or conference, noting the agenda items, having already convinced ourselves that what we are going to hear will be boring. As a result, what you hear (or do not hear) becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  2. Criticize the delivery or appearance of the speaker

    We often judge people (see Chapter 12, labeling) on their appearance, or personality traits, and let our assumptions about their character haze our ability to listen to what they have to say.

  3. Become too stimulated

    We hear a speaker mention one point with which we disagree, and we then focus so intensely on that one point that we fail to capture following information.

  4. Listen only for facts

    Some of us listen only for isolated data, and so miss the main points or themes of a speech.

  5. Try to outline everything that is being said

    The opposite from bad habit 4. Some of us tend to try to organize and systematize in our minds, in real time, everything that we are hearing instead of trying to listen for gist.

  6. Fake attention

    Oh, this one bugs me. The fake listener appears to be giving you his full attention, his eyes are on you, but his thoughts are elsewhere. The classic fake-attention-giveaway is the aha-royalty, who aha (agree) with what you are saying too often and often at illogical points.

  7. Tolerate or create distractions

    Audience members who whisper or fiddle with their devices in meetings. It always makes me chuckle when my students at the university secretly tap on the cell phones, hidden under the desk. It is obvious to everybody what they are doing, but they raise their heads, post text message, with a smug look of accomplishment reminiscent of a spy who has just successfully tricked his mark.

  8. Evade the difficult

    We tend to pick out the easily comprehensible parts of discourse and filter out the complex things.

  9. Submit to emotional words

    We are suckers for emotive words. Republican, Democrat, northern, southern, black, white are examples of words that can often paint certain emotional pictures in the minds of listeners. Such language can be powerful, but it can also hinder information retention.

  10. Waste thought power

    Nichol’s final bad listening habit is also his pet hate. He laments us wasting our talent for listening (400 words per minute) in favor of our speaking speed (125) words per minute. He has a point.

As Schilling (2012) puts it: “Genuine, listening has become a rare gift—the gift of time. It helps build relationships, solve problems, ensure understanding, resolve conflicts, and improve accuracy. At work, effective listening means fewer errors and less wasted time.” That must be our goal at work, as leaders: to waste as little time as possible (re)dealing with misunderstandings, and instead use that time to be productive with the team.

The solution is active listening. Active listening originates from Carl Rogers and Richard Farson in 1957 and is the art of channeling focus and energy toward your interlocutor, in order to glean and retain as much information as possible, to aid the conversation flow, and to give your speaker the feeling, that he or she is being heard (which can bring about change in people) (Bodie et al. 2015). But, before we get down to the techniques, it is important to appreciate that they will not work, if you do not buy into the fundamental attitudes that underpin active listening. Our listening behavior will be “empty and sterile, and our associates will be quick to recognize this” (Rogers and Farson 1957). Put another way: this is not a method where you can fake it to make it. You first need to want to listen and understand before you can listen and understand.

Widely used in counseling, coaching, and therapy (Sharpe and Cowie 1998), active listening is an invaluable tool for the leadership toolbox, follow these active listening tips from Rogers and Farson to improve your transformational, leadership communication:

Listen for total meaning: What speakers say often comprises two components (known as speech acts): what they say actually (illocutionary act) and what they in fact want to convey (perlocutionary act) (Searle 1985). Do not be scared by the linguistics terminology here, what is important is that you differentiate between words and meaning. If your colleague says to you,

It is hot in here.

Her illocutionary act is to describe the temperature, but her perlocutionary act is possibly to share with you that she is uncomfortable in some way, that she would like you to open a window or take the meeting outside, and so on. What she says and means differ.

Respond to feelings: If a junior associate reports to you,

I have finished filing all the project documents.

You could confidently ascertain that he is ready for the next project. However, if the same associate had said,

I am so done with that godforsaken filing nonsense.

It is probably fair to say that he or she is not entirely emotionally connected with the task. You may want to think twice in future about assigning him or her such work.

In such active listening settings, try these communicative tricks. Reflecting: pick out the key messages and paraphrase them in your own, clear words back for your speaker. Summarizing: sum up the main points, including feelings that you are reading (Geldard and Geldard 1998).

Note All Cues

As we will take a deeper look at in the next chapter, not all communication is verbal, so keep an eye out for other communication channels used by your speaker. How is he or she inflecting his or her speech, what is the facial expression as he or she talks, how is he or she sitting or standing, that is, what nonverbal cues are being sent? Eye movement, breathing, hand gestures, fiddles, and other physical cues also all help to convey the complete speech act. Transformational, active listening involves (as strongly suggested in its name) that you, the listener, get active. The leader who waves his associate in, exclaiming, Come in. I am listening, without once looking up from his computer screen is not actively listening. Get active. Lean into the discussion, listen and look out for all cues, paraphrase and comment (do not repeat like a parrot or aha ad nauseum) and endeavor to understand, not just to hear. Your associates deserve your attention, and you might just learn something.

Chapter Leadership Challenge

The three Ps: practice, practice, practice.

Try and find as many opportunities as possible to train your communication skills. Ask everyone you know, if you may offer them some feedback and use the EECC format. If you are worried about a backlash at first, feel free to start with giving positive EECC feedback before moving on to more challenging critical feedback. The more you practice the format, the more natural it will become until you will instinctively give EECC feedback whenever asked.

The same goes for active listening. Start with friends or family. Ask someone to tell their story and just listen. Do not focus on your performance, focus on what you hear, feel, notice, and glean from the talk. Give your speaking partner EECC feedback on what they told you and on how they came across as they delivered their speech.