The Fallacy of Rational Argument - Influencing Mistake

By Colin Gautrey - Originally posted on

Time and time again we meet people in our workshops that have spent lots of time and energy building their business case. They have stacked up the numbers and convinced themselves that it works. The numbers speak for themselves — it’s a no-brainer. But somehow they just don’t quite cut it. There is nothing wrong with getting the numbers right, but expecting them to do all the work is often a recipe for problems.

Cecilia Falbe and her colleagues studied this and found that reliance on rational persuasion, at best, achieves compliance rather than commitment. To get commitment, or rather enthusiastic buy-in, you need to combine the numbers with what they called an inspirational appeal. These appeals talk directly to the target’s emotions. They resonate with their values and get them excited. The combination approach according to Falbe, and also in our experience, makes for a highly effective strategy when influencing people.

It seems that numbers are not very exciting. Only when the numbers connect to the emotions do things get interesting.

So, how good are you at combining the two? A mistake many people make quite naturally is to create their inspirational appeal based on what excites them rather than their stakeholder. This is natural, but ineffective because it makes the assumption that other people are excited by the same things, which clearly isn’t true (apart from groups formed by their common interests perhaps).

In reality, it can be surprisingly easy once you know what excites your target. Even the weakest attempt at inspiring someone can get the job done, mainly because sometimes all people need is a little help to connect these together in their minds. Once they see that connection, they will actually inspire themselves — remember, motivation comes from within. So you do not necessarily need to go on acting or public speaking courses; you just need to become a detective to figure out why they should be excited about your numbers.

The most reliable method for finding out is to ask them. Not in a crass way like, “Tell me what excites you.” Instead, set up a meeting to learn more about their issues, problems and concerns so you can provide a better level of service to them. This is likely to work at several levels…

  • People are generally pleased to be consulted.
  • They are always interested in how to get more for less.
  • If they have suspicion that you have value to contribute, they will be more than happy to tell you how.Of course, once you get there and start using a few open questions, watch closely for the signs of excitement. What points do they make with the most conviction? When do their eyes light up? What do they spend the majority of the time talking about? Go in equipped with a set of questions you can use appropriately, like...
  • What are you main concerns at the moment?
  • What is worth celebrating round here?
  • Where do you think we are going wrong as a company?
  • What do you think is working well here?
  • Why do you think we are succeeding?

    If you've managed to set the right context and tone for the meeting, there will be ample opportunity for you to learn more about the individual and what moves them.

    Alternatively, you may want to tap into your network to learn what others know about the individual you are targeting. This is quite a good thing to do in any case, because they may have a different take to your view, or interpret things in different ways. It may even help them to become more successful with that individual too because you are working together to understand a person who is presumably quite a powerful person in the organisation.

    Once you distil all of these inputs down, you can start to draw conclusions about their priorities, and then begin the task of linking these thoughts to your idea with an inspirational appeal backed by numbers.