Book review – Persuasion: The art of influencing people by James Borg

I have read many books on persuasion and influence. My favourites are those by Dr Robert Cialdini  – and I recently made a short (10 minute) video covering his six principles of persuasion.  This is a book review – “Persuasion: the art of influencing people” by James Borg.

It is 260 pages long and was first published in 2004 (revised in 2007). It contains a foreword by Sir John Harvey-Jones MBE. The premise is that persuasiveness can be learned and mastered so that we can bring people around to our way of thinking. The author’s experiences in advertising, sales, marketing, journalism, work psychology and coaching are underpinned by applied behaviour and social psychology research.

Early on there’s a nice quote from Leonardo da Vinci: “The average person looks without seeing, listens without hearing, touches without feeling, eats without tasting, moves without physical awareness, inhales without awareness of odour or fragrance and talks without thinking”. It’s funny how we think of these as the result of the modern digital age.
Here’s an overview of the key themes in each chapter.

The power of persuasion

It starts with Aristotle’s idea to use empathy and sincerity to shift attitudes focusing on: ethos (character and reputation), pathos (emotional appeal) and logos (logical appeal). Empathy allows you to listen with your heart as well as your head – and put yourself on the same wavelength as the other person. The author covers other aspects of emotional intelligence.

Be a good listener

The author argues that the most important aspect of communication is listening. It helps you understand the other person’s thoughts, feelings and actions. He cites the Paul Rankin study which found that, in a typical day, the average person spends: 45% listening, 30% speaking, 16% reading and 9% writing.

As listening is a sign of affirmation, it promotes self-esteem. People are drawn to good listeners. You need to remove distractions in your own head and interruptions from the environment to listen well.

He cites the well-known statistic that we talk at between 120 and 150 words per minute yet think at the rate of 600-800 words per minute. He advises to avoid finishing people’s sentences, interrupting, talking over, one-upping and offering advice too soon. The value of paraphrasing features.
(I’ve produced a short video on active listening

Attention please

The focus is on concentrating – and how “running our own tapes” in our head depletes the attention we give to others. There’s a brief look at things that get in the way of paying attention and an exploration of the attention curve. Another well-known statistic is mentioned here – people only take in about 40% of what they hear.

Ways to win more attention include: seating changes, avoiding breaks, maintaining eye contact and providing signposts to what you are saying.

Mind your body language

What you say is often very different from what you think or feel. The author refers to Ekman and Friesen’s distinction between an “informative act” which results in certain interpretations on the part of the receiver and a “communicative act” where the encoder intentionally attempts to send a specific message to the receiver.

The oft-quoted figure that around 40-45% of the meaning comes from the verbal part of our message (including the way the words are said – paralanguage) and 55-60% for visual body language.

The author points to three main purposes of body language – instead of speech, to reinforce speech and to display or betray a person’s mood.
There is also an analysis of the role of body language in first impressions and perception. He quotes de Bono and others saying that 90% of errors in thinking are due to errors in perception: “If you can change your perception, you can change your emotion and this leads to new ideas and insights”. That’s a nod to the huge and growing area of positive psychology.

There’s mention of “masking” as people take on different roles in the workplace. I liked his observation that “you cannot not communicate”.
There’s a section on why “non-verbal” is important. Clues to real feelings (although there’s a reminder to look at clusters of gestures rather than in isolation), emotional leakage, paralanguage (volume, rate, tone, pitch, inflection) and “tells” that indicate underlying feelings (inter-channel discrepancies). There are more statistics quoted – Dr Albert Mehrabian – impact of a message classified as 55% visual, 38% vocal and 7% verbal – so 93% of the impact of your message is non-verbal.

He advocates using empathy to pick up signs from body language – especially facial expressions (he lists six universal emotions: sadness, surprise, disgust, anger, happiness and fear). There’s the observation that humans physically mimic the actions of others in certain situations to convey understanding. He mentions the power of a smile in generating positive feelings and positive outcomes.

Then there is a review of eye contact and gestures (emblems, illustrators, regulators, adaptors and affect displays). The importance of congruence and avoiding negative body language signals (crossed arms, crossed legs, slouching, hands behind your head, chair gripping, perching on chairs and tapping) is highlighted. Spatial relations are described as: intimate (18 inches), personal (18-30 inches), social (4 to 12 feet) and public (over 12 feet).

Memory magic

The basics of memory are covered – things will be remembered if a) it draws attention b) becomes encoded in the brain and stored and c) is retrieved at some later time in sensory, short term or long-term memory. The use of association and mnemonics to improve retention is explored.

The older statistic for short term memory capacity is quoted – seven items (plus or minus two). Repetition and rehearsal are suggested aids. Long term memory needs to link to information already retained (elaborative rehearsal) and relate to information you already know – forming associations. This relates to semantic coding (in terms of the meaning) and visual images. The author doesn’t address the importance of emotion in memory.

He provides hints about remembering names as it is important for creating rapport. He mentions that we are better at recognising rather than recalling. There’s an analysis of introductions – and suggests asking people to repeat their name. He advises to simply take more interest in what is important to the other person. There’s material on remembering numbers too and harnessing your attention curve.

(Here’s an article from 2009 I wrote on how to remember names)

Make words work for you – the power of psycholinguistics

Psycholinguistics is the study of verbal behaviour – how images and ideas are translated into words. There’s a need to sense, interpret and feel by both the sender/encoder and receiver/decoder of any message. Take care in the choice of words that will have the best chance of achieving the desired outcome and avoid negative associations.

Assumptions and accusatory words may lead to defensiveness and annoyance so you are urged to ask open questions. He cautions against the use of “Why?” as it can imply criticism. There’s value in replacing “You” statements with “I” statements.

There’s a section on being persuasive with open communications – and to avoid using the definite (“he’s the worst”), exaggeration and directive/forcing words (e.g. must, ought, should). Be aware of any likely associations (positive and negative) people may have with words or examples you use and consider the different ways people may interpret what you say.

Telephone telephony

He explores your “telephone self”. And says to resist substituting emails for telephone calls. (I wrote previously on the use of telephones in relationship building) as you can’t convey non-verbal communication or paralanguage as well or read another person’s non-verbal reactions.

Ideas to cultivate a good telephone manner include your choice of words and tone of voice. And to smile while talking on the phone as this is conveyed down the line. To get people to do things after a call, we need to sell ourselves – showing respect and empathy for the person you are calling, taking care with your tone and being careful in your approach to gatekeepers (there’s a short video on gatekeepers and other members of the decision making unit). Boost people’s self-esteem by paying attention to what they say.
There’s interesting material on how we get people to help us in Heidi Grant’s book on “Reinforcements”

He urges you to understand that when you telephone you are interrupting and so to show respect, to acknowledge that the person is busy and put them at ease by saying “I’ll be brief”. There are pointers on how to go about gaining agreement to a meeting. Tone of voice is one of the ways to pick up if the person on the other end of the phone is with someone else, in a meeting or otherwise distracted – with advice to agree a better time to talk if so.

There’s guidance on how to introduce yourself on the phone – to say your name and organisation slowly so that it can be taken in and your identity firmly established. He says it is easy to reject a voice – but harder to reject a person. Giving people control over choice of meeting times. There are several scenarios to show the various ideas in action.

Negotiating for mutual benefit

There are just 35 pages on this important topic – and 16 of these are scenario conversations. He observes that we spend a lot of time negotiating informally: “in our interpersonal dealings, we are arch negotiators”. He quotes the maxim “You don’t get what you deserve in life, you get what you negotiate”.

Where there are continuing relationships, we need to reach agreement in ways that promote mutual benefit – the win:win outcome of which there are both co-operative and competitive elements.

In a section on the psychology of a negotiation he mentions that in the past people focused on a position where this becomes more important that the overall goal – so a win:lose occurs. He suggests instead acknowledging the interests of the other person while stating your interests and allowing people to save face. He says to negotiate on interests and needs rather than positions – set the people issues aside – so the power and ego struggle is eliminated. He urges us to find solutions rather than problems.

He moves rapidly into dealing with conflict and reviews the different negotiating styles of competition, accommodation, compromise, avoidance and collaboration and stresses that the tactics used will depend on the situation.

There’s a short section on negotiating tips – to indicate clearly what you want, to really listen, to allow people to express how they feel and to explore options. He touches on the environment and seating – the where and when of negotiation. And comments on the value of round tables and regular recaps and summaries and to check the role and views of all the attendees at negotiations.  He touches on making concessions and having a game plan.

For a review of the Leader’s Guide to Negotiation by Simon Horton 

Difficult people (and their behaviour)

He doesn’t look in depth at the causes and perception of difficult behaviour but touches on a few common situations. Like unfulfilled expectations leading to disappointment, boundaries and masking. He then reviews different types of difficult people and how to deal with each – procrastinator, explosive, rigid, self-important, untrustworthy, antagonist, dampener and the extrovert.
I have written many articles on dealing with “difficult” behaviour. See, for example:

The personality spectrum

Here the focus is on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator models (MBTI) – see this article for a description of this and other common personality models.  Then he offers ways to deal with various “types” of people such as: get on with it, aggressive, meticulous, friendly and amicable.
I produced a short video on personality models.

Overall view of the book

The book covers a lot of material on different aspects of persuasion – albeit much of it rather briefly. Mind you, it’s good to have so many key ideas in one place. The conversational style and simplicity will be valued by many. It’s a great introduction to the topic with solid information on basic persuasion skills and techniques.  Sometimes the repetition makes it feel a bit laboured and padded but it’s good reinforcement of the key points.

It’s all valuable knowledge and advice – but hard at times to see how to pull it all together into specific situations. Although there are numerous shaded boxes illustrating specific points in scenarios which are helpful, some readers may find it hard to connect to the situations.

Contents of Persuasion: The art of influencing people by James Borg 

  1. The power of persuasion
  2. Being a good listener
  3. Attention please
  4. Mind your body language
  5. Memory magic
  6. Make words work for you – the power of psycholinguistics
  7. Telephone telepathy
  8. Negotiating for mutual benefit
  9. “Difficult” people (and their behaviour)
  10. The personality spectrum

Other articles on persuasion and influence