Saturday, August 27, 2011

Why Technical Professionals Aren't Persuasive

We all have to sell something. Some of us have responsibilities for selling our firm's services. Others must convince clients, regulators, and communities to approve our solutions. Still others must secure buy-in from colleagues for our ideas or initiatives. Despite our industry's aversion to the "s-word," we are all sellers in some sense.

Thus your persuasive skills are critically important to your success. Yet when it comes to persuasion, it seems that most engineers, architects, and scientists are particularly challenged. Why? Some will suggest personality. It's true that the majority in our profession are introverted. But various studies disprove the notion that personality type has much to do with sales ability. Could it be the fact that many in our ranks lack strong communication skills? That certainly is a factor.

But perhaps the primary reason we struggle with persuasion is that we've been taught, deliberately or by osmosis, to communicate in a manner that is fundamentally nonpersuasive. That's why we produce proposals that read like technical reports. Or write letters to individual decision makers that, other than the salutation, seem to ignore the existence of people. Or make sales presentations that sound more like a doctoral dissertation defense.

Before I explain this tendency further, let's consider how persuasion works. There are two dimensions to persuasion, one that comes natural for technical professionals and the other we tend to ignore:

  • Position is intellectual agreement on the facts or merits of a particular option or course of action. We get this. Ours is a fact-based profession, and we often produce reams of data to support our position. We may get our audience to agree with us intellectually, but that in itself is not persuasion...
  • Conviction is the motivation to act upon one's intellectual position. This dimension evokes the emotions, and that's a realm many of us are uncomfortable with. But if you want to persuade others, you need to engage them emotionally. And this is where the communication conventions of our industry often trip us up.
Bottom line: People--even technical professionals--ultimately make decisions because it feels right. Some may weigh the facts and objective evaluations more heavily, but persuasion is at its core driven by emotion. It's personal, subjective, human...the very characteristics we've been taught to eliminate from our communication.

Let's contrast the conventions of technical communication with the elements of persuasive communication, and the conflict becomes evident:

  • Technical communication is supposed to be objective and impersonal. "Just the facts, ma'am." But persuasive communication must connect at the personal level. The points of differentiation in decision making are typically subjective in nature (don't fall for the myth that the client's selection process is really objective!).
  • Technical communication is designed to evoke an intellectual response. Persuasion, on the other hand, is powered primarily by an emotional response. It's felt, not just reasoned.
  • Technical communication stresses the features of a design, solution, or qualification. Persuasive communication emphasizes the direct benefits to the audience. Indeed, our solutions address very human needs. But you'd be hard pressed to see this connection in most of our communications.
  • Technical communication is information-driven. The more data and facts, we think, the better. But persuasion usually turns on only a few points of differentiation. In our drive to present all the facts, we often obscure the decision points that really matter to our audience.
Alas, the style of communication that pervades our profession--and is continually reinforced--avoids personal language, keeps opinions to ourselves, provides more detail than the audience needs, and buries the main selling points in information overload. This is the underlying cause, I believe, of most of our struggles with persuasion.

It is the human spirit that inspires and persuades, and there is precious little of it evident in our proposals, marketing materials, correspondence, and presentations. If you want to be more persuasive, let me suggest you start by dispatching the usual "technicalese" in favor of communication that acknowledges the humanity of both you and your audience.

In my next post, I'll outline some of the breakthrough research in the area of persuasion, and some associated practical tips. In this economy, we can't afford to continue to give this topic the short shrift.

1 comment:

  1. I'm looking forward to your dispatching of the next article...:-)