By: Daniel Ferber | Business  | 

The Art of Persuasion in Business

Aesop once famously stated that “Persuasion is more effectual than force”. The Necessary Art Of Persuasion, a Harvard Business Review article written by Jay Conger sheds light on Aesop’s stress on the power of persuasion and why it is the most vital component in conveying an idea. First, he breaks down persuasion into the following four elements: establishing credibility, framing goals in a way that relates to an audience, reinforcing ideas using compelling evidence, and connecting emotionally to an audience. He then states that these elements become effectively persuasive only when all four are incorporated in an idea, argument, or work. The book Rework by Jason Fried and David Hannson is a great example of how these elements of persuasion can be used to measure a work’s degree of success.

Fried and Hannson wrote Rework to utilize their past experiences in starting an internet company as a frame of reference to delineate the methodologies in achieving a “better, faster, and easier way to succeed in business”. It is a book attempting to reshape the traditional views of starting a business. The core idea is that in order to start a business you need less than you think. Hannson and Fried unpack this through explaining why plans can be harmful, how productivity isn’t a result of working long hours, and why hiring and seeking investors should be an absolute last resort. They title their chapters as such, “screw big corporate marketing”, “Don’t let long hours and meetings prevail, they actually hurt productivity”, and “Go to Sleep”. These titles are followed by 1-5 paragraphs of unpacking before moving on to the next, usually, unrelated chapter.

The first element of persuasion that Jay Conger mentions is establishing credibility. Conger states that credibility stems from individual expertise and it results in having trust in an individual’s perspective. In Hannson and Fried’s preface to their book they very clearly establish their credibility with their opening words, “We have something to say about building, running, and growing a business. This book isn’t built on academic theories; it’s built on our experience.” They then go on to discuss the success of their business through two recessions, one burst bubble, and multiple business model shifts. Through establishing their credibility, they enable the reader to approach their story and advice with trust.  

Once their credibility was proven, the next step that Hannson and Fried had to take was to shift their focus towards framing their goals in a manner that relates to their audience. Jay Conger illuminates what this element of persuasion entails through the following example: the fastest way for a parent to convince a child to come to the grocery story with them is to point out that there will be lollipops by the cash register. While not enticed by the supermarket, the child was persuaded by a focus on the benefits rather than the errand itself.

Fried and Hannson successfully frame their ideas in a manner that resonates with the reader. For example, they state- “Forget long hours and meetings, they hurt productivity”. They then discuss in three paragraphs why this is beneficial for one in the process of starting their own business. Just like a parent persuading their child to come to the grocery store because there are candies there, Fried and Hannson persuade the reader to buy into their ideas by pointing out several benefits of their ideas. They know that their readers want to succeed in business, and through conveying the advantages of “forgetting long hours”, the readers can easily resonate.

While Friend and Hannson successfully incorporate the first two elements into Rework, they fail in integrating the third and fourth together.  Beginning with the third element; reinforcing their positions with compelling evidence and vivid language, Conger described this element as quantitative evidence supplemented with metaphors and analogies to make their credibility and position come into fruition. However, Rework’s format makes this nearly impossible. Each chapter consists of a topic followed by approximately three paragraphs stating the advantages, while lacking empirical data and stories. For example, one topic stated, “Meetings are toxic”. This was followed by the logic of “Meetings procreate, one meeting leads to another meeting leads to another. When you think about it, the true cost of meetings is staggering”. The chapter ends there and moves onto the next. While this notion may be true, the position is shallow in that it isn’t backed by quantitative data and supplemented by vivid language. Rework lacks this depth in each and every chapter, which causes even its truthful statements to be unpersuasive.

The manner in which Hannson and Fried formatted the book also makes it nearly impossible for them to emotionally connect to their audience. Subsequent to their introduction, they fail to tie their hardships, successes, and on a macro-scale, their journeys, into their business principles. With a focus on Hannson and Fried’s experiences, Rework’s principles could have further engaged the reader through an emotional attachment to their overarching story. With only three paragraphs a chapter before moving on to an unrelated topic, there is a failure in conveying a sense of emotion within the book, which causes a disconnect between the author and reader. There is no theme, no engaging stories, and no spotlight on Hannson and Fried, all of which should be vital in persuading the reader to put their principles into practice.

Through the lens of the HBR article, in order to successfully persuade an idea, all four elements of persuasion must be vibrantly on display. While Fried and Hannson successfully established their credibility and identified common ground with their audience, they were unsuccessful in reinforcing their position using vivid language and compelling evidence and connecting emotionally with their audience. The degree in which they failed to incorporate those elements, led Rework to be, on a macro-scale, an unsuccessful and unpersuasive work.