Persuasion as a Process

Why One-shot Efforts at Persuasion Often Fail

Have you ever found yourself in a situation in which you needed to persuade others, yet your attempts to do so fell flat? How familiar do the following situations sound?

  • You come to a board meeting well prepared. Your numbers are solid, your logic sound, your presentation well rehearsed and skillfully delivered. The board decides to explore other options.
  • Your department just suffered from a major disappointment. A well-conceived product failed to make traction after a botched marketing campaign. You need your team to start working on a new idea you have. You remind them how much fun you all had working on your last product together and how this new idea could bring that fervor back to your department. They roll their eyes. The idea is shelved.
  • You have just been handed a great opportunity. If you can convince your manager to support your project, you are up for a promotion. In order to gain his support, you invite him to consult on the project. He politely declines. You do not get your promotion.

What’s the deal? Research by Yukl and Tracey (1992) indicate that the influence techniques you used are among the most effective. They found that rational persuasion (i.e. using well-reasoned arguments), inspirational appeal (i.e. appealing to others’ values, ideals, and aspirations), and consultation (i.e. including the target in the proposed project to gain buy-in) are effective when trying to influence one’s peers, subordinates, and boss. Additionally, ingratiation (i.e. flattery), personal appeals (i.e. appealing to feelings of loyalty and friendships) and exchange tactics (i.e. exchanging favors) are effective in gaining commitment from one’s peers and subordinates.

It was your understanding that using each of these techniques would allow you to successfully influence others. Yet, in each one of the situations listed above, these attempts failed. Why? Probably because you didn’t engage in what Conger (1998) calls the process of persuasion. Conger asserts that successful persuasion is a four-step process in which one must 1) establish credibility, 2) frame for common ground, 3) provide evidence, and 4) connect emotionally. Although each one of the techniques you tried has merit, as stand alone approaches they may do little to gain the support of others if you have not engaged in the proper influence process. So let’s look at Conger’s process of persuasion and explore how these stand-alone influence techniques can be embedded in each step.

Step 1: Establish Credibility

In this step, you must help your audience answer the question, “Why should we trust you?” Others base their trust on observations of an influencer’s relationships (i.e. Your displayed concern for the well-being and success of others) and expertise (i.e. The level of knowledge and skill you are perceived to possess in this area) (Conger, 1998). If the you are lacking in either of these areas, you can use influence techniques to bolster them. For instance, you can engage in consultation by asking others to contribute their ideas to your proposal. This will provide you with a broader knowledge base and allow your subordinates to buy in to the proposal directly. You may also develop a coalition of individuals who share your views and already have relationships with your target audience. These coalition members, in turn, can use personal appeals, rational persuasion, and inspirational appeals to influence the target audience.

Step 2: Frame for common Ground

This next step involves describing the proposed plan in ways that highlight its advantages for the target audience. This requires the influencer to have a strong understanding of the needs and wants of their audience. This is another instance in which consultation can be used to your advantage. By including others in the creation of the proposal, you will be provided with more insight about the desires of your target audience. Once understood, these desires can be used to ensure your rational appeal will be effective by directly addressing the interests of your audience.

Step 3: Provide Evidence

This third step requires you to utilize elements of both rational persuasion and inspirational appeal. The underlying logic and supporting evidence for the proposal must be clearly articulated (rational persuasion) but facts alone are not enough to persuade. Conger says that the persuader must use vivid imagery and metaphors to help the audience visualize the implications of the plan, while demonstrating that the proposal is aligned with the audience’s values (inspirational appeal).

Step 4: Connect Emotionally

Connecting emotionally with your audience requires you to convey emotional commitment to your ideas while matching the emotional tone of your audience. By making an inspirational appeal, you can arouse enthusiasm by promoting your audience’s values, ideals, and aspirations. You can also use subtle forms of ingratiation to increase your audience’s positive emotions, or make a personal appeal, if appropriate, to arouse feelings of loyalty and obligation.

Let’s review:

Conger argues that one-shot persuasion efforts do not work because the persuader has not done the adequate legwork to understand and connect with their audience. However, throughout the process described above, there are multiple micro-influence opportunities. In each of these smaller opportunities, the persuader can do well to employ the individual techniques that research has shown to be most effective. Managing persuasion campaigns from both angles can help assure that ineffective approaches do not bury good ideas.


Conger, J. A. (1998). The necessary art of persuasion. Harvard Business Review, 76, 84-97.

Yukl, G., & Tracey, J. B. (1992). Consequences of influence tactics used with subordinates,   peers, and the boss. Journal of Applied Psychology, 77(4), 525.