When our son, Elliot, was 17 he decided that he needed to get a Guinness logo tattooed on his ankle. I wasn’t adamantly opposed but I did think that he might tire of wearing a commercial logo before too long. (If he had wanted a Mom Forever tattoo, I might have felt differently).
So how to convince him? I wanted to change his mind, though not his values. Nor did I want to provoke a stormy response that would simply make the situation worse – and actually make him more likely to follow through on his plans.
Ultimately, we had a conversation that went something like this:
Elliot: So, Dad, I’m thinking I should get a Guinness tattoo. It’s a really cool logo. What do you think?
Me: I don’t know. Do you think you’ll like Guinness for the rest of your life?
Elliot: Sure. It’s great. Why wouldn’t I?
Me: Well, you know, tastes change. I mean I thought about getting a tattoo when I was your age… and, looking back on it… I’m kind of glad I didn’t.
Elliot (shocked look): Really? You were going to get a tattoo?! What were you going to get?
Me: I wanted to get a dotted line tattooed around my neck. Right above the line, I’d get the words, “Cut On Dotted Line” tattooed in.
Elliot: (more shock, disgust): Dad, that’s gross.
Me: Oh, come on. Don’t you think it would be cool if I had that tattoo. I could show it to your friends. I bet they’d like it.
Elliot: They always thought you were weird. Now they’d think your gross. It’s yuck factor 12.
Me: Really? So, you don’t want to go to the tattoo parlor together?
Our conversation seemed to help Elliot change his mind. As far as I know, he hasn’t gotten any tattoos, not even Mom Forever. Why? Here are some thoughts:
It’s about trust, not tattoos – I don’t think that Elliot cared that much about the tattoo itself. He was actually running a Mom/Dad test. He wanted to know if we trusted him to make the decision on his own. We did trust him and didn’t take the decision out of his hands. That’s a big deal when you’re 17. It can also be a big deal for people in your company. They want to know that you trust them. Sometimes they’ll put it to a test. As much as possible, let them make the choice. Just counsel them on how to make it wisely.
It’s about judo — we didn’t try to stop Elliot, we merely tried to change his direction. That’s a useful guideline in most organizations.
It’s about imagining the future – like most teens, Elliot was focused on the present and near future. He couldn’t imagine 30 years into the future – except by looking at me. If he thought I would look gross with a tattoo, he could imagine that he would, too. The same is true of many companies. We make decisions based on near-term projections. It’s hard to imagine the farther future. But there are ways to do it. Ask your team to imagine what the world will look like in 30 years. You could start by reminding them how much it’s changed since 1985.
It’s about sharing – did I really think about getting a Cut On Dotted Line tattoo? Of course, I did. But my father sat me down and talked a little wisdom into my head. I just passed it on.
What are you going to pass on?
Persuasive speakers often appeal to your self-interest. But which is more persuasive: appealing to your short-term or your long-term self-interest?
I’ve always guessed that the most persuasive arguments appeal to your short-term interests. I want results now … and I assume that most other people do, too. It just seems like common sense. But I haven’t had much empirical evidence to back up my position until I noticed an article on fitness and exercise by Jane Brody in today’s New York Times. (You can find it here).
The article purports to be about exercise but it’s really about persuasion. How do you persuade people to take up exercise and stick with it? Traditionally we have “pitched” exercise either as a long-term benefit (“you’ll live longer”) or as a punishment (“you’re overweight; you have to work out”). As Brody points out, such messages are often sufficient to get people off the couch but rarely sufficient to keep them exercising long term.
Brody sums up the the need to focus on short-term benefits with a quote from Michelle Segar of the Univeristy of Michigan: “Immediate rewards are more motivating than distant ones. Feeling happy and less stressed is more motivating than not getting heart disease or cancer, maybe, some day in the future.”
So how does this affect your persuasive techniques? We’ve all experienced the difficulty of persuading people based on long-term interests. Perhaps you’ve tried to convince your children to study or save for the future. Or argued the politics of long-term environmental dangers. Or debated the future of programs like Social Security or Medicare. You’ll be more persuasive if you can focus your arguments on short-term benefits (and emotions) rather than long-term abstractions.
This may mean that you’ll leaven your argument with feelings and emotions more than facts and data. For instance, if you’re trying to persuade your children to save for the future, you might argue that, “If you save a little each day, your future will be secure.” That’s factual, future-oriented, and long-term. It’s also very abstract and fuzzy, especially to a young person. So you might try a different tack: “You’ll worry less and feel better if you know that your future is secure.” It’s more emotional and more immediate. It’s also more persuasive.