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How persuasive are you?

Most of us aren't nearly as skilled at influencing others as we think we are, says one expert. Take a quiz to find out how you rate.

By Anne Fisher, senior writer
August 15, 2008: 5:49 AM EDT


(Fortune) -- They're often at the top of companies, or in sales -- those lucky people who seem to be born persuasive, with a seemingly magical ability that makes others listen to them, trust them, and act on what they say.

But, "regardless of actual job title, we all persuade for a living," says Kurt Mortensen, founder of a consulting firm called the Persuasion Institute (

He has a point: Whether you're a salesperson, a team leader trying to coax a group to work in a smarter way, an employee asking for a raise, or simply someone with great ideas to share with co-workers or higher-ups, the one skill essential to success is persuasiveness.

Mortensen, who spent 15 years studying all the available research on how to influence others, came up with his own system, detailed in his latest book, Persuasion IQ: The 10 Skills You Need to Get Exactly What You Want (Amacom Books, $21.95). I recently spoke with Mortensen about his ideas. Some excerpts from our conversation:

Q. Why did you spend 15 years studying persuasiveness?

A. Frankly, I was mad. I had spent $50,000 on an MBA and picked up some great core skills - marketing, finance, and so on - but none of it seemed to be helping me get ahead in my career. I soon found out that the technical knowledge B-schools were teaching [when he got his degree in 1993] account for only about 15% of anyone's business success. The other 85% comes from so-called people skills, of which the ability to persuade is the most important. So I set out to learn as much as I could about it.

Q. What was the most striking thing you learned?

A. It turns out that there are more than 100 methods of getting someone else to trust you and agree with you, but most of us only use the same three or four techniques we learned when we were children. These include whining until you get your way; or bullying, especially if you're a boss; or bribery, which is saying, "I'll do that for you if you do this for me." In the grown-up business world, those methods are often not very useful. Most people really need to learn some new techniques. Using the techniques we learned as kids may get us short-term compliance, but why settle for that when you could have long-term influence?

Q. Can you give us an example of an effective grown-up persuasion technique?

A. Yes. Let's take, for instance, how we handle objections, whether from a customer or some other audience, such as a boss we're asking for a raise. Early on in life, we learn to perceive objections as opposition, so we get defensive. An unskilled persuader, often without realizing it, will show tension, uneasiness, or irritation when someone raises an objection, usually because the objection or concern stirs up the persuader's own insecurities: "Aren't I doing a good enough job explaining this? Didn't I go over that already?" This way of thinking will only make matters worse.

By contrast, great persuaders who have learned new persuasion skills know how to welcome objections. Instead of seeing them as opposition, these persuaders see objections as a natural, and valuable, part of the process. They use their audience's concerns as a way to open a dialogue, a chance to exchange ideas and discover new areas of common ground. Truly great persuaders may cut to the chase by addressing an objection before it's even been voiced, just to get that communications ball rolling.

Q. What kind of consulting work do you do? What do your corporate clients want?

A. Companies bring me in to address problems with customer service, or with managers who are having trouble motivating people. Or there are situations where employees are lying to managers, saying they'll do things they never intended to do. Or sometimes it's a question of salespeople who can't win customers' trust. You know, there was a big study at Harvard a few years ago that showed that when people get fired, 66% of the time it's because of "people issues," not a lack of technical proficiency. It's the inability to figure out what others really want or need and address that. And I do see lots of those problems in the companies where I consult.

Q. In the book you mention "the Wobegon effect." Want to tell us a bit about that?

A. In Garrison Keillor's fictional town Lake Wobegon, all the children are above average -- and when I ask a roomful of businesspeople to rate their own people skills, 90% say they're above average. We rate ourselves very high on thinking people like us, people trust us, we're great at getting along with other people, and so on. That's the Wobegon effect. What I'm saying is that really successful people are open to the idea that they may have strengths and weaknesses in their people skills, and the weaknesses may be holding them back.

Q. A big part of persuasion is establishing trust. How do you do that?

A. One interesting aspect of it is credibility. When someone meets you for the first time, if you reveal a weakness, you are likely to win that person's trust. That's because people are looking for a weakness, and they will assign one to you, so you might as well control the process. Also, we've all been taught never to let a weakness show, so it's disarming to come right out and state one. I don't mean a huge weakness, like you're an axe murderer. I mean, for example, let's say you're a one-person business and your competition is a huge company. You might say, "Look, I know we're small, but that means we can focus on your particular needs better than the big guys" -- or whatever you can find to say that will turn that weakness into a strength. First acknowledge it, bring it out into the open, and then turn it in your favor.

Q. What's the biggest mistake most people make in trying to persuade others?

A. Well, it depends on the person, but one very common error is to over-persuade. I think we've all been on the receiving end of this, where someone is giving you 101 reasons why you should agree with them or do what they want you to do, and you were already convinced 10 minutes ago and now you just want them to go away. The irony is that, if you really listen, a person will tell you everything you need to know to persuade them. But most people are so busy thinking about what they're going to say next that they miss all those signals. Persuasion is first and foremost a matter of paying attention. It's not inherent - it's a skill you can learn.

Readers, what do you say? Have you been able to win over a reluctant boss (or client, or co-worker) to your point of view? How did you do it? What hasn't worked? What persuasion techniques do you find effective - or not - when people use them on you? Post your thoughts on the Ask Annie blog. To top of page

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