On July 4, 1863, Robert E. Lee was leading a Confederate army in retreat from Gettysburg when they were trapped against the rain-swollen Potomac River. The Union army, commanded by General George Meade, pursued the rebels. Abraham Lincoln ordered Meade to attack immediately. Instead, Meade dithered, the weather cleared, the river shrank, and Lee and his army escaped. Lincoln was furious and penned this letter to Meade:
I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within our easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely. If you could not safely attack Lee last Monday, how can you possibly do so south of the river, when you can take with you very few— no more than two-thirds of the force you then had in hand? It would be unreasonable to expect and I do not expect that you can now effect much. Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.
Interestingly, Lincoln never sent the letter — it was found among his papers after his death. Lincoln generally praised his colleagues for their positive accomplishments and said little or nothing about their failures. Apparently, he wrote letters like the one to Meade to relieve his own frustrations — and perhaps to leave a record for history — rather than to humiliate his colleagues and create public acrimony.
As Douglas Wilson, a Lincoln scholar, pointed out in a recent article (click here), Lincoln was great communicator but not necessarily in the way we think. Some tidbits on how he worked:
Lincoln has always been one of my favorite presidents and I certainly enjoyed the recent movie from Steven Spielberg. Lincoln communicated effectively and was an expert at shaping public opinion. As the movie showed, he was also adept at cutting deals and rolling logs to achieve his greater goals. Not bad for a kid from the prairies.
According to the Greeks, a persuasive presentation consists of three major elements:
I’ve always wondered, how do you quickly establish that you’re a trustworthy person? It’s not easy to project trustworthiness to an audience. Credibility is certainly a key ingredient — but that just begs the question, how do you project credibility?
Then I re-read Jay Conger’s article (click here) and discovered that credibility comes from two sources: experience and relationships.
I intuitively understood the experience part. Whenever I speak to an audience, I briefly introduce the relevant details of my experience. I try not to overdo it as I don’t want to come across as arrogant or academic. I find that a little self-deprecation can help. This is typically a variant on, “I know a lot about the topic because I’ve made a lot of mistakes….” Ultimately, however, I want the audience to know that I have been successful. To do this, I often find it helpful to have someone else introduce me. They can brag about me in ways that I can’t.
Conger points out that credibility also includes open-mindedness. Persuasive people are often perceived as good listeners as well as good speakers. They can incorporate what their audience has to say and adjust their positions. This is the relationship aspect of credibility. People who are honest, even-keeled, and who “generously share credit” are perceived as more credible and trustworthy.
But what if your audience doesn’t know that you are honest, even-keeled, and appreciative? What if you’re speaking to the audience for the first time? I find it’s very useful to interview members of the audience before I give a presentation. Then I can discuss my experiences and what I’ve learned. I’m more credible simply because I listened before speaking.
I also like to speak to the audience’s customers before a presentation. Because I’m an outsider, I can ask “dumb” questions of customers. This often produces interesting, even unique, insights that I can pass on to the audience. That demonstrates that I’m open to interesting sources of information and that I have some interesting perspectives to share. That makes me more credible and more persuasive.
Before you approach an audience, think about how you’ll build your credibility and trustworthiness. If you establish that you’re trustworthy early in the presentation, you may well succeed. If you can’t establish your credibility, the rest of your presentation is just wasted time.
How is winning an argument different from winning a baseball game? In baseball, you have a winner and a loser. In an argument, you need more than just good communication skills — if you’re smart — you can have two winners. It all depends on how you play the game after you’ve “won”. Being a good winner this time will make you even more persuasive next time. Learn more in the video.
Let’s say you’re having an argument and your opponent has stated his position clearly. You’d like to persuade him to change his position. But you’re working against the consistency principle — once your opponent has stated a position, inertia keeps him from changing it. Your argument needs to be clear and compelling but it also needs to provide a way for your opponent to change positions gracefully. While it may be tempting, making your opponent feel small or cornered is usually unsuccessful. Remember, you’re interested in persuading, not humiliating. Similarly, making your argument overly abstract doesn’t do much good. You need to get personal and stay positive. Learn more in the video.
This tip has a lot to do with the consistency principle — and how to overcome it. You can find more on the consistency principle here.