Highlights from Reading Arlene Dickinson’s _Persuasion: A New Approach to Changing Minds_ (HarperCollins:2011)

I have long been interested in the Psychology of Marketing and was interested to read the treatment of that topic in last fall’s release, Arlene Dickinson’s Persuasion: A New Approach to Changing Minds (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2011). Canadian readers may recognize Dickinson as the sole female “dragon” of  CBC’s popular reality show, “Dragon’s Den,” a show in which new cash-strapped entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a panel of veteran (and wealthy) business developers, who may offer them financial backing and mentorship.

In a fusion of business book, biography and self-help guide, Dickinson first tells her “rags-to-riches” story. She was a broke divorcée at age 31, with only a high school education, no experience and four children to care for. In just one year, she became a partner of Calgary’s start-up “Venture,” which soon became one of the country’s most successful, independently-owned, marketing firms. And, 10 years later, she was the highly successful CEO of the company.

Dickinson’s central thesis is that business should occur by connecting emotionally with others, which demands “authenticity” (honesty with oneself, “so that you can make your character clear to others”) “honesty” (“telling the truth to others–and knowing that sometimes truth-tellers don’t get the job . . .  but they do hang on to their reputations,” which is more important) and “reciprocity” (your “strategic ability and your understanding of the need to construct every proposition so that it has something in it . . . also for the other party” [74]). These are essential building blocks in all that one does. These demand that you work hard, develop good listening skills and the hone the ability to tell stories to demonstrate to your prospect that you have “more insight than the competition,” and that “your way is the right way.” These are the ingredients for what she terms “principled persuasion,” as the topic and name of the book itself.

More specifically, Dickinson explains that “persuasion” demands that you build a psychological connection between a company and the consumer, in which you have to be “true to your own values and honest with the other party and you’d better make sure there’s something in it for both of you [i.e. reciprocity])” (5).

“To be a good persuader . . . you need . . . to be self-aware, willing to be honest even when telling the truth is difficult, and committed to reciprocity [the “win-win”] in all your relationships” (4).

In any good relationship that is based on an emotional connection, there is always “something in it for everyone” (7). “Persuaders want partners, not followers,” she writes (7). That reciprocity allows a business relationship to include understanding and the feeling of being understood and to offer mutual trust and respect, so that you can be reassured that your vulnerability will not be exploited. In one of her many, nearly epigrammatic comments, she says that “[w]hen it comes to persuasion, an emotional connection is worth 100 business cards from acquaintances who don’t feel attached to you” (11).

The most crucial building block for “principled” or “ethical” persuasion, according to Dickinson, is excellent listening skills. She says that it’s essential to quieten one’s own inner monologue (that tends to fret over your performance) to LISTEN to what your client says and to try to understand them. This involves taking an interest in what they have to say and allowing for silence, some of the time. You cannot persuade someone of the usefulness of a product or service if you do not know what their challenges, needs and interests are.

Dickinson says that if you listen, you can understand what’s “driving” other people, and can figure out “how to make their goals compatible with yours . . .  that’s persuasion” (153).

Listening for emotion will enable you to persuade your client that you have something to offer them. Try replying empathically (e.g. “ ‘That sounds really difficult. I can’t even imagine how you’re copying day-to-day’ ” [166]).

Another component of ethical persuasion is to pay attention to your own instincts, which she says should kick-in, if you are offered an unprincipled pitch. Tell-tale signs that an offer or “pitch” is dishonest are if you feel that it is unsafe to speak up, if you feel possibly “guilty,” “panicky with greed” or “fearful” in a way that’s hard to identify: “Gut instincts are frequently very reliable guides . . .  in business,” she writes (20). Dickinson provides examples of how intimidation, coercion and con-jobs can usurp the place of principled persuasion, and lay siege to even successful and experienced business people.

Feeling that you cannot speak up, that you don’t understand what you’re being asked to endorse and that you “don’t even need to know” are “coercion” (22), not principled persuasion. Ethical persuaders “want you to ask questions . . . . to be sure everyone is on the same page regarding goals and outcomes” (22).

And she maintains that the persuasive methods are as important as the outcome, citing several hair-raising propositions that she turned down, and which were offered to her by unscrupulous players, quick to bend the rules or try to beat the system.

Dickinson is especially vivid in her arguments that “[h]aving less power doesn’t mean you are of lesser worth and don’t have anything to offer.  It’s crucial to remember this when the stakes are high and another person has the ability to grant what you desire” (79).  If you focus on what you bring to the table, instead of on the power imbalance, one form of power you will continue to have is “the power to persuade” (79).

Here are a few more gems from Dickinson’s book:

–Don’t reply defensively and quickly to probing or trick questions (147).

–Don’t reply defensively to intrusive questions (148). Silence can ensure that “your boundaries are respected” (148).

–Don’t fill silence with mindless chatter. And when you make an offer or a point of discussion, keep in mind that elaborating may make you seem only too prepared to negotiate (152).

–When you have to say “no”: say it quickly and unequivocally (but without insult). Giving details only encourages the other party to debate you (36).

–Regarding that vicious circle of others’ demands that you do pro bono work, try replying: “If you believe I offer value, then I should be compensated for my time” (30). The issue is not whether one needs the money, but that your work has value and should be valued (30).

–If you do offer a discount to friends and family, when you offer it, state it upfront and ask the recipient to be discreet about this gift (i.e. not spread the word to others, who might then demand the same deal).

–Strong business principles are “essentially the same today as they were a century ago: it takes effort and strong values to build a solid company, and it doesn’t happen in a day.”

–Seek ways to build your confidence, since “Many people who hold themselves to the highest ethical standards, and who wholeheartedly embrace the concepts of authenticity, honesty and reciprocity in their dealings with others, nevertheless lack self-awareness and self-confidence. That’s why they aren’t very persuasive” (86).

–The value of confidence is that it is “quiet self-belief,” and, so with it, you don’t  have to beg for attention: “Conceit is bragging about yourself; confidence means you believe you can get the job done” (Unitas in Dickinson, 152).

–Don’t seek affirmation in your business dealings (152).

–Avoid flattery—it can undermine your deal (184).

–Do’s and Don’ts of Cold Calling—especially if you have no experience with it (199-201).

–“Who you are—your values, your core beliefs, and how you implement them in the business world—is a much more satisfying measure of self-worth than how much money you make or where you stand on the corporate ladder. And it’s also the only measure that will make you feel good enough to try your hand at just about anything” (119).

Has this piqued your curiosity? In a world where yet another business book seems to appear with the morning newspaper, Dickinson’s Persuasion  is a refreshingly sensible and humane read, and a welcome addition to arguments about the Psychology of Marketing.   I recommend this volume to you highly.

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