How to convince anyone of anything

[This topic was requested with a slightly different title:  How to make a convincing argument.]

The word argument itself makes people think of lawyers or divorce proceedings, which are poor connotations if you’re hoping to charm someone into agreeing with you. It’s worth shifting to the more positive word: convince. The goal is to persuade, to make them want to agree with you and feel happy, smart, or right, when they do. This has higher odds of success than trying to pin them into a mental submission hold, using logic to corner them into admitting stupidity. If you use your smarts to wrap someone’s mind into a pretzel, don’t be surprised if when you leave it will return to the shape they had before. And resent you for twisting them up too.

You should know that all of us are bad at convincing others and at being convinced by others. We’re even bad at acting on ideas we’ve agreed with for years. Read about  Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, Socrates… some of our greatest minds, perhaps our greatest people, tried to convince their followers of  simple ideas (e.g. do not kill, love thy neighbor, the golden rule), ideas which were ignored and perverted by many of their followers in less than a generation. If this crowd of notables couldn’t pull it off with the name of god, the threat of damnation, or the gift enlightenment behind them, the odds for us can’t be great. Set your expectations accordingly.

No matter how persuasive you are most people will not hear you. Most people will not change. But why do you need anyone to change? It’s a question most compulsive arguers never ask. Perhaps all you need is to be heard, or feel smart, which can be done in other ways. The goal of sharpening of your own mind through the process, a goal you can’t fail at no matter how others respond, can be achieved without convincing anyone of anything. This might lead you into the pleasure of actual conversation.

If you must, a secret for pitching, persuading, selling or inspiring is to focus on the individual person you’re talking to. There is no magic recipe for convincing large numbers of people of something all at the same time.  That’s very hard to do. But if your goal is to convince one person of something,  you can listen to their interests and beliefs, using that knowledge as a foothold for the ideas you want them to consider. If you are talking to 5 people, identify the most influential or interested person in that room. That’s where you should start. A classic mistake is obsessing about the pitch or the argument, while ignoring the landscape of who is present in the room, their moods and their goals.

Instead, work the opposite way. Shut up and listen. Take time to understand the people or person you are trying to convince. Understand their goals, their core beliefs, their preferred kind of thinking (data driven, story driven, principle driven, goal driven) – what views do they already have and why?

It’s hard to convince anyone of anything if your mind isn’t just as open as you are demanding theirs to be. The best outcome of all might just be that in listening and learning you discover good questions you need to consider about your own beliefs and positions.

But most people find this boring. They can’t get their egos excited about thinking, much less listening. And then they attack blindly with generic arguments and fail. And then they blame the people they know nothing about, but want so much from, for their own failure. But if you can be generous of mind, and patient in effort, you will understand them. And once you understand them you might find the common ground where opportunity lives.

Also see:

30 Responses to “How to convince anyone of anything”

  1. Drew @ Cook Like Your Grandmother

    I’m pretty sure you agree with what I’m about to say, you just didn’t spell out the last step: After figuring out how the other person thinks, you’re not just trying to find the best style of argument. You’re actually trying to show them what’s in it for them.

    If you want someone to change an opinion, you have to show them why it’s better — for them — to believe your idea than to continue believing their idea. How does your idea make them happier, richer, safer, more popular? If you can’t come up with an answer, then your idea isn’t better for them.

    And of course, “My idea is true and theirs isn’t,” is not a good answer.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Drew: Absolutely.

      You also made me think of the counter situation. You do need to realize sometimes they will convince you. If you are listening to what they are saying, some of the time they’ll be right in not agreeing with you.

      No one wants to be convinced by The Terminator. There has to be some room for the conversation to progress and evolve. There are times when, despite how much time you’ve spent preparing and believing in an idea, the wise thing is to recognize it’s no longer the best idea on the table and it’s time to move on.

      It takes a lot of integrity to admit you’re wrong, or more precisely, that the time isn’t right for your good idea. But when you do give in for the right reasons, you earn credibility that will help you the next time you pitch an idea.

      1. Anum Nasir

        You guys just pointed put exactly what i was thinking of reading the article.
        I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks this way! :)

  2. abby, the hacker chick blog

    Great points, thank you!

    Now for the really tricky part – figuring out a person’s true goals, core beliefs and ways of thinking ;-)

    Any tips on that? :)

  3. JohnO

    How quickly do you, or ought I to, move from knowing just how much I disagree with their core underlying beliefs to this: “Or it might convince me they are unconvincable, and my time is best spent elsewhere.”

    That is what I cannot grasp yet, or I’m rationalizing not doing what I ought to.

  4. Paula Thrasher

    I like the idea of trying to understand kinds of thinking in four dimensions (data driven, story driven, principle driven, goal driven). I’ve always tried to read people as either logical or emotional thinkers (very myers-briggs). That’s over-simplified though, I think as you say there is more to how people come to conclusions.

    Even the same person can make some decisions rationally and logically and others emotionally. Still, all to easy to assume that everyone thinks about the world the way we do.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Paula: You’re right, all this stuff is oversimplified. Don’t get me started on Myers-Briggs :)

      But the spirit is right. Best thing I can do if I want to pitch someone is to watch someone else pitch them first. Or ask people who have pitched to them what they’d do differently and why. If we’re talking about ideas in the workplace, there are always ways to study who you’re pitching to before you do it.

  5. Drew @ Cook Like Your Grandmother

    If the direct marketing crowd is right, everyone is sold emotionally first. Logic is just how they justify their decision to themselves.

    So it’s first, make them want what you’re selling. (Your idea.) Then give them the excuse they need to tell themselves they’re being rational.

  6. Cesar


    Scott, I think there’s a small typo in your post. Where it says:

  7. Zuly Gonzalez

    Good post, very insightful! Your main idea revolves around understanding the person enough to know what he or she cares about, but unfortunately we don

    1. Scott Berkun

      Michael: I’m surprised no one has written a book yet called “MOM: management lessons from mothers”.

  8. Rubio

    What if the person you’re trying to convince has opposite goals compared to yours? Consider this hypothetical (honest, it’s hypothetical) scenario. Your goal is to create good quality products. Your boss, the person you have to convince to let you hire more people as quality is suffering, cares about the bottom line. He is satisfied with mediocrity at a low price. He says, “I don’t care what you ship as long as you get it out there”. (Sadly, that’s actually been said to me, word for word.) If he can show a good bottom line, even if it’s created through low costs and passable sales, his boss is happy which makes him happy.

    Drew makes a very good point, what’s in it for them. I should be able to argue that investing on quality, even though more costly, will ultimately produce a better bottom line. However, this comes, in his eyes, with a considerable risk, and I have to make the risk go away. This is one of the main reasons people defend stupid ideas, because they’re safe. How do you convince someone that taking a risk is a safer choice?

    1. Scott Berkun

      Rubio: Persuasion becomes finding a way to argue for what you want in language and terms that makes sense to them.

      If low costs is the only goal, then I’d try to find a way to explain how higher quality products do lower costs over the long term (support costs, return costs, etc.).

      I might even abandon my own preferred vocabulary in favor of theirs. Instead of trying to sell high quality as a goal, I’d run with the goal of lower costs, and enumerate several ways to do that, including higher quality products.

      The other way to go is to consider how important the reputation of the person making the pitch is. Perhaps your boss only listens to his right hand man, Fred. Well, don’t pitch to the boss then. Pitch to Fred. And if he agrees ask him to help you pitch the idea to the boss. Sometimes no pitch from you can ever work – it has to be a pitch from someone else.

  9. Steve

    I think I probably fall into your “unconvinceable” category. I can’t stand salespeople. I hate feeling as though I’m being manipulated into buying something or thinking a certain way. As soon as I detect attempted manipulation, I mentally dig my heels in and resist whatever it is the manipulator is pushing, even if it is something I want to have or believe. If you try to pull information out of my head about my goals and beliefs, I’ll resist even harder, because that information belongs to me, not to you.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Steve: There is a meta approach of pitching without doing it in the form of a sales pitch.

      Sales pitches are often about the salesman, or the sale.

      If instead I ask you what your biggest problems or goals are, ask some questions to understand them, and then go off and do some research, coming back later with good ideas for solving your problems, the vibe is not that of a pitch anymore. It’s about honestly trying to give you what you you’re trying to get. Even though there is an idea I’d like you to support, the context and the quality of the ideas are such that it doesn’t feel like I’m forcing you into something. It feels instead like I’m working on your behalf, which in fact, I am.

      Frankly it’s really hard to flat out pitch someone who has no interest in being pitched to. The way to convince them or something is to take the long road of actually understanding them well enough that your idea is born out of solving their problems/goals, rather than trying to cram your idea down their throat.

    2. Jonathann Kori

      Hmmmm….. a bit on the offensive there, pal. I know these things, and i say im not sure about believing you. Its just that you seem to think that by asserting yourself, you are making it clear that you are not a target. Lower level lying. Something i believe i learned when i was five. And just about how old are you now, hmmmm…?

  10. Mike Nitabach

    The most important thing I try to instill in my trainees when mentoring them in how to give a good seminar presentation is that their number one goal is to make their audience feel smart.

  11. Jonathann Kori

    Im thinking of a great idea….. lets say a verbal bully has decided you are the lucky winner… the way to easily fix that? Nada problemo, amigo. First, DONT MAKE EYE CONTACT!!!!! If you do, they will acknoledge the fact that you noticed them so you cant ignore them as they already know that you know that they want to talk to you. Second, find some of your friends. If you are a friendly girl/guy, that should be easy.(ps this is staged at school, probably middle school) surround yourself with your friends and if the bully comes over, discreetly tell them to follow you and agree with you when that bully guy/girl comes. If you have all the followers, you have the power in that verbal battle. Luckily, the bully will be unthroned.

  12. Nicomedes Kajungu

    I would like to learn more about how i can influence people.

  13. sourav

    all you need to convince someone is to first observe the target then think the exact way how he/she thinks what can be their reaction to your approach. thats all if you can be like the target u win their trust.

  14. rose

    how to you convince some one to kill there step mother?



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