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December 8, 2010

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Communication skills – Winning pitch

Whether it’s getting the workforce to wear PPE, or winning the support of directors for health and safety programmes, influencing and persuading are vital parts of the practitioner’s role. Connell McBride examines how practitioners can improve their argument skills and explores the techniques they can employ to increase the likelihood that their messages will be accepted.

From the minute you leave your home in the morning, until you go to sleep at night, you are exposed to thousands of overt attempts by organisations to persuade you to spend money on their products and services.

Most people understand persuasion in terms of two broad tactics: the carrot and the stick. Take the following example: ‘Adopting strategy A will save the company money, while strategy B will cost the company money. Therefore, we should adopt strategy A.’

This example uses both carrot and stick approaches, but is still limited. Applying one or both tactics will not always persuade a decision-maker to adopt strategy A – for example, a decision-maker may not agree that strategy B will cost them money and may therefore prefer it.

So, the basic notion of persuasion via carrot and stick is insufficient. The person persuading must also harness the audience’s rational thought processes through the use of argument, in order to compel agreement, or rebut criticism. The message needs to be positioned in such a way as to give it the best chance of acceptance.

All arguments requesting action or support of action propose an answer to a question, or problem that is claimed to be better than all other solutions. Knowing the correct answer to the particular problem at hand helps you formulate what it is you want to say and, thus, is the precursor to any successful argument.

Good preparation is vital prior to giving a persuasive talk or presentation, and the difference between a good argument and a poor one can often be traced to this process of preparation.

Everyone approaches preparation in their own way, but the following issues should be addressed: identify your audience; research your topic; shape your material and refine your message; and anticipate what counter-arguments might be presented.

Identify your audience

In order to ensure your message is received and retains the interest of your audience long enough to be accepted, you need to understand the common characteristics of the people you are addressing. Throughout the preparation process, keep in mind exactly who your audience is, why they should be listening to you, what they know about the subject, and how you should present your ideas to them.

Considering your audience early on in this way will allow you to design your talk in such a way as to hold your audience’s attention and make your message more effective.

Research your topic

The aim of research is to ensure that you know everything you need to know about your subject to enable you to achieve your goal. If you are a PhD student preparing to defend your thesis on an aspect of consumer law, you will need to know more about the subject than, say, a consumer who wants to persuade a shop manager to accept the return of defective goods.

Shape your material and refine your message

Once you have gathered all relevant information, you can begin to ascertain the correct answer to the problem you wish to address and shape your material coherently to support your message. You should seek to present a clear and simple message to your audience by refining your argument as much as possible.

In the advertising industry, large agencies use a technique whereby, before they begin the process of designing an advert, they must be able to reduce their creative-strategy brief down to one sentence. This one sentence should then be used to inform all future decisions in relation to the project, so that its aims are kept firmly in focus. Those seeking to persuade can import this technique to see whether they can distil their message into one sentence.
Anticipating counter-arguments

Comedians generally structure their material in a particular way: they start with their best gag, progress through their material, and end with their second funniest joke. The opening gag is designed to create impact while the final line leaves a lasting impression. The reason for this approach is to ensure the audience gets an immediate taste of their skill and leaves with a reminder of their talent.

It is worth applying this technique to argument: hold back a good point on which to end, or deliver it in response to a question from your audience. The rapier-sharp ripostes comedians dish out to hecklers are seldom thought up on the spot but come from experience of the heckles they and their peers have found to be the most common. Similarly, if you know that your proposal is going to receive mixed responses, consider what these might be and prepare to deal with them in advance by way of a carefully-prepared ad lib.

Techniques of acceptance

Prof Robert Cialdini identifies the following six techniques, which help break down resistance to compliance: reciprocation; consistency; social proof; liking; authority; and scarcity.


This operates on the concept of indebtedness. Suppose a stranger comes up to you and asks if you can spare £1. Chances are you will be resistant to the request. Suppose your car will not start and a stranger offers to give you a push and then asks if you can spare £1. In his case, you will be more likely to accept because you feel a sense of debt.


Operating on the individual’s unconscious desire to be seen to be rational and consistent, this principle is particularly strong where someone has made a strong commitment to behaviour in the past. Imagine you were cold-called and asked to make a donation to a group that is resisting the building of a power station in another area. You might be disinclined to contribute, but if you had signed a petition in support of this group the week before you were called and the caller reminded you of this, it is more likely you would be sympathetic to their request.

Similarly, a safety practitioner looking to win the backing of directors for a new safety initiative could remind their bosses of previous commitments to past safety schemes. In this regard, the bigger commitment, in terms of budget spend and man hours in the past, the more directors would be expected to focus on the positive outcomes of such past commitments, and thus be more willing to endorse similar projects.

Social proof

The principle of social proof works on the basis that we look to see what others are doing as a shortcut to evaluating the myriad options available to us in a given situation. Persuasion according to social proof works by highlighting to the individual how others have already adopted the behaviour you wish them to adopt. The technique is at work when you are in the fast lane on the motorway when traffic has all but ground to a halt. Ahead, you see everyone else in the fast lane trying to merge into the slower lane, and, because others are doing so, you will most likely follow suit.

This principle can be applied in a variety of ways by the health and safety practitioner – for example, by compiling a dossier of the best-practice safety initiatives that other companies or competitors have applied, and how this has benefited them.


Being likeable is an automatic fast-track route to persuasion. Factors at work in explaining why people like other people include: physical attractiveness – we instinctively like that which we find attractive; similarity – we like people who have the same interests as us, who share similar experiences to us, and who come from the same background as us; affability – we like people who are nice and who pay us compliments, and we like people who help us out and who are obliging to us. In this way, politicians can use their association with music or film stars to increase public acceptance of their message.


The power of authority to exert engineered compliance is immense. Being in a position of authority, or aligning ourselves with an authority figure, makes our message more persuasive. We are conditioned from infancy that mother knows best, to do as the teacher says, to do as we’re told, to execute orders, the customer is always right, to bow or curtsy to royalty – the list is endless. This technique also works on the basis of our perception of authority – for example, if you are giving a presentation you will be more persuasive to your audience if you are dressed in a suit, have expensive shiny shoes, and deliver a smart presentation.


Finally, the principle of scarcity operates on the inherent desire each of us has to get our share of limited resources. Did you know, for example, that the quantity of diamonds released into the market each year is carefully regulated both to maintain the value of individual diamonds and to sustain the perception that diamonds are scarce, valuable commodities.

Closer to the high street, we are all familiar with messages like ‘sale ends Friday’, which create a scarcity of time. Imagine you are presented with an opportunity to purchase an item at a set price; you can choose to go home and think it over, or compare prices of similar items on the Internet. However, if the item is offered as part of a sale that ends that evening, you are more likely to make an impulsive purchase.

In the safety world, one application of this principle could arise in the bid to try to persuade workers to wear certain PPE, such as safety spectacles and footwear. A trend over recent years has seen many manufacturers try to make PPE more akin to the style and fashion found in clothing items on the high street. Should a limited number of these ‘high street’ PPE become available among the existing PPE, practitioners should observe the ‘high-street’ PPE becoming a sought-after commodity among the workforce.


Armed with this knowledge, let’s consider again the carrot-and-stick approach. We can position our message to improve the chances of it being accepted by, for example, taking the decision-maker out to lunch (reciprocity); align a carrot-based strategy with a previous popular strategy in which much investment of time and effort was delivered (consistency and social proof); outline how support for a strategy includes that of high-ranking and popular company officials (authority and liking); and impress any urgency to action (scarcity of time).

Taking all this into account, if you were subsequently to deliver a carefully-prepared argument in favour of a specific strategy, and deal with any counter-arguments that the decision-maker may have, the greater chance you will have of winning support and acceptance for your strategy.

By careful preparation of your arguments and application of the above techniques, you will find your messages being close to irresistible.

Connell McBride is a solicitor for the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.

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