Thursday, September 29, 2011

Preparing for Another Possible Downturn

While the news outlets were abuzz last week about renewed concerns of another recession, many questioned whether the last one had really ever ended. But among engineering, architectural, and environmental firms, many have seen business improve significantly since the financial crisis in 2009. Will the improvement continue?

There are some disconcerting signs for 2012. Sixty percent of American cities are delaying infrastructure projects due to declining revenues. Nearly half of states are projecting budget shortfalls of over $1 billion next year. About 85% of the Recovery Act funds have been spent. And now I'm hearing of delays and cutbacks on federal projects and contracts, and clearly there are more reductions coming.

AIA's Consensus Construction Forecast in July projected a 6.4% growth in nonresidential construction in 2012. But given the recent economic news, that forecast is likely subject to downward revision. Reed Construction Data, for example, in August modified its forecasted growth in 2012 to 4.8%, down from 10.5% (admittedly one of the rosier projections). Last week, McGraw Hill dialed its projection down from a 1% gain next year to a 3% drop, with a 7% decline in non-building construction predicted.

How all this impacts your firm, you'll have to determine. I suspect the outlook will be mixed across our industry, just as it has been recently. But there's little doubt that the worst is still ahead for many A/E and environmental firms. If you're among them, what can you do? Here are a few suggestions, with emphasis on developing new business in a tough economy:

Don't discard discipline in your sales pursuits. It's easy to succumb to a volume strategy when the volume of sales and proposal opportunities decreases. But simply chasing more is unlikely to translate into winning more. On the contrary, spreading your collective business development time across more pursuits usually means spending less time on your best opportunities--and losing some you can't afford to let slip away. Every hour spent on a proposal you have little chance to win, for example, is one less hour available to do a better job on a proposal where you're better positioned.

Specifically budget BD time for seller-doers. Even in a down economy I still hear utilization goals used as an excuse for not making more sales calls or getting a head start on key proposals. Don't try to tackle these crucial tasks with leftover time! Instead, manage BD activities like project work. Define tasks, assign individuals, budget their time, and track their follow-through. Give BD the same importance as any other project. Of course, deadlines and detours will arise, but you don't ignore other client projects just because you're busy. Yet that happens with BD all the time.

Transform lower utilization into higher BD activity. Every person in your firm can contribute in some fashion to your marketing and sales efforts (for a list of possible BD tasks to be divvied up among staff members, check out this previous post). So redirect every available nonbillable hour to supporting the firm's business development activities. This is not only wise use of your resources, but helps raise employee morale and productivity because they become part of the solution.

Be diligent in following up leads. Most legitimate sales leads are neglected or mishandled resulting in lost sales, according to research. Part of this is due, no doubt, to chasing too many leads at one time. It's important to evaluate your sales prospects, just as you do (hopefully) RFPs, determining which ones to go after and which to pass on. But once you've made the "go decision," you need to give every lead the appropriate focus and effort. Again, define specific action items and carefully track follow-through.

Keep talking to your clients even if they don't have work. Client relationships are a long-term investment that you dare not neglect when there's a budget crunch. Someone else may well have nudged your firm out when the funding returns. Don't forget that clients' needs didn't go away when their budgets did. They still need help, perhaps more than ever, and you might find ways to make a big difference that will pay off later if not now. In staying engaged with your clients, don't neglect asking them for leads or referrals with other clients.

Don't cut marketing costs; redirect them.
Marketing has traditionally been one of the first targets for budget cuts when business declines. And I understand why. For most firms, marketing is nice to have when times are good, but is not seen as essential when the economy tanks. The problem is that the tangible benefits of it are usually neither demonstrated nor measured. But rather than cutting back, consider redirecting your efforts from the usual ineffectual self-promotion to generating content and resources that clients find useful. Check out this previous post for insights on what works best in professional service marketing.

Commit to growing market share. Your firm's growth for years to come may depend on your ability to take more work from your competitors. Sure, you've had success beating the competition on a situational basis, but the challenge of actually increasing market share is one that few A/E firms are prepared to handle. You won't get there doing business as usual. You're going to have to out-sell, out-serve, and out-work your competitors. Get your management team together and outline the particulars of how you're going to do this.

Do things differently if you want different results.
I'll not repeat the old line about insanity, but doesn't it seem crazy to keep trying the same tired approaches to BD when it's clear they're not working very well? The temptation is to blame this all on the economy, but the reality is that most A/E firms were mediocre at BD before the recession and now they've been exposed. More of the same won't cut it. I've written extensively about distinct approaches to BD in this blog, so I'll encourage you to use the search bar or browse under the BD heading for ideas. If you need more advice, don't hesitate to call or email me.

Friday, September 23, 2011

How to Have More Productive Meetings

Meetings have the distinction of being among the biggest time wasters in your office and, potentially, one of the best time savers. It all depends on whether you're holding the right meetings in the right manner. To maximize the productivity of your meetings, consider these proven strategies:

Make sure the meeting is necessary. In many firms, there are too many meetings. In others, there are too few. Every meeting should have a clear purpose. In determining whether a meeting is needed, consider different options for achieving the same purpose. Could you accomplish the same thing using email, a memo, or a phone call? Would one-on-one conversations be better?

Most meetings fall into one of the following categories: (1) informational, where you gather people to share information they all should know; (2) reporting, where meeting attendees report to the group on their activities or findings; (3) brainstorming, where people assemble to share ideas and collaborate on defining a solution or course of action; or (4) decision-making, where people meet to collectively make a specific decision.

What's the purpose of your meeting? Review what you need to accomplish and then determine whether a meeting is the best means to do it.

Distribute an agenda in advance. Send out an agenda a day or two before the meeting to allow participants to prepare and make a more meaningful contribution. Always clarify in your agenda what the meeting's objectives are.

It's usually a good idea to allocate a certain amount of time for each agenda item. You will need to balance the desire to have adequate discussion with the goal of keeping the meeting as brief as possible. Experts suggest that most meetings should last no longer than 1.5 hours.

Assign a meeting facilitator. Virtually any meeting will be more effective with a competent facilitator. Hopefully you have one or two in your office; if not, consider hiring one for important meetings. The facilitator is responsible for keeping the meeting on topic and on time, orchestrating participant interaction, and guiding group decision making. Don't automatically consign this role to the person "in charge" (e.g., office manager or project manager). For one thing, that person may not be a good facilitator. Secondly, there are some inherent advantages in not having the boss run the meeting.

Schedule most meetings for late morning. Participants tend to be fresher in the morning, and protracted discussion will be discouraged by the desire to break for lunch. Early morning meetings can cut into what is for many people their most productive time of the day to do their work. The exception is when a meeting is helpful in planning or preparing for the day's activities.

Deal with the most important issues first. Attention is the highest at the outset of the meeting, so that's when you want to tackle the highest priority or most challenging matters. Pushing lower priority issues toward the end of the meeting gives you the option, should time run short, of delaying that discussion or dealing with the matter outside the meeting.

Encourage everyone to contribute, but place limits on discussion. A skilled facilitator knows how to manage the dynamics of group interaction. Naturally, some participants will be more vocal than others. But that doesn't mean they have the better ideas. Try to give everyone a voice, and politely prevent individuals from dominating the meeting. In some cases, it may work best to have one-on-one conversations before or after with the most reticent participants.

Managing discussion is probably the facilitator's toughest responsibility. There are no specific guidelines on how long to allow discussion on an issue or when to cut off the conversation. When I'm facilitating, I usually intervene when discussion runs long and ask questions that help focus the dialogue and move the matter more quickly to resolution. I also typically redirect off-topic comments or questions to the "parking lot," where it is captured in writing to be addressed later in the meeting or afterwards.

Work toward "practical consensus." Consensus means that most participants agree and those who don't can accept the majority decision. But it's not that simple. Some people wield more influence and power in the organization, so their agreement is critical. They can undermine any course of action they don't buy into. So in practical terms, consensus means getting agreement among the people who are needed to put the decision into action.

When necessary, assign a smaller group to tackle an issue outside the meeting.
Sometimes it's prudent to defer certain discussions or decisions to a later time. This may involve assigning a team to address the matter further and perhaps report back at a future meeting. Some issues are more difficult to resolve in a larger meeting, some simply don't deserve the attention of all meeting attendees. Often assigning the matter out to a working team is necessary because there's not enough time to reach a conclusion in the meeting. You want to try to avoid letting an unresolved matter bog down or derail your meeting when its settlement is not critical to achieving the meeting's purpose. Defer or delegate it instead.

Take notes and follow up. Be sure someone is assigned at the outset to take notes. As facilitator, I typically capture the main points on a Post-It type sketchpad (where sheets can be displayed around the room). If someone can also keep more detailed notes, that's a plus. After the meeting, you should distribute minutes--with a focus on action items--to attendees and others as appropriate.

A successful meeting is, of course, judged in large part by the actions that follow it. Always assign a single individual (not a group) for follow-up on each task defined in the meeting. Be sure the deliverable is understood and a deadline is set. Determine how and when progress on action items will be monitored.

It's also a good idea to at least occasionally review how meetings went and identify ways to improve on future meetings. This is particularly true on recurrent meetings. There are always opportunities for making meetings more productive. You should also consider meetings that weren't held (like kickoff meetings) that could have improved productivity.

Bottom line: Meetings consume too much of your time and influence too many important outcomes to take them lightly. Be deliberate in planning and managing meetings to get better results. The potential payback is substantial.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Performance Incentives and the IRS

The federal government is looking for new sources of "revenue" these days. Let's hope they don't target the over $100 billion spent on employee incentive programs, much of which is probably not taxed. That's because most companies don't understand that many of the incentives distributed through such programs are deemed by the Internal Revenue Service to be taxable income.

"There's a simple rule," said one IRS attorney, "There's no such thing as a gift to an employee. It's all compensation."

Well, almost. The IRS does allow a few exceptions, but they are so narrowly defined that it's difficult to devise an effective incentive program that doesn't subject employees to additional income tax. Plus, as you might expect, the rules are confusing enough that I've read varying opinions about what's tax exempt and what's not (thus I make no guarantees about the accuracy of this post!).

Before we get into the weeds about incentives and taxes, let's consider what characterizes an effective incentive. The rewards that best motivate employees are those that are:
  • Valued by the person receiving it
  • Contingent on performance
  • Delivered immediately
  • Provided frequently
As you can see, the usual annual bonuses do not meet three of these conditions. They typically are not contingent on the individual meeting specific performance goals. Worse still, they are delayed and infrequent, which renders them largely inconsequential in affecting near-term achievement.

To counter these shortcomings, many companies are using more frequent, smaller rewards. One intriguing twist on this theme is a points-based incentive program. Instead of tangible rewards, employees are given points for meeting or exceeding certain performance expectations, which in turn can be redeemed for various rewards.

There are many advantages to such an approach, both for employee and employer. But the IRS designates even relatively small rewards such as gift cards or merchandise subject to income tax. While the amounts may be negligible, paying tax on a jacket bearing the firm's logo, for example, is likely to diminish the perceived value of what is already a pretty modest gift.

From what I've read, most companies don't fully understand the tax rules applying to employee incentives and gifts. So here's my best attempt to briefly summarize them:

De minimis rewards. The IRS allows you to provide employees gifts, awards, or benefits of minimal value that fall short of constituting compensation. What's minimal? "A de minimis benefit is any property or service you provide to an employee that has so little value (taking into account how frequently you provide similar benefits to your employees) that accounting for it would be unreasonable or administratively impractical," says the IRS guide on fringe benefits. In other words, there is no definition of de minimis.

Many tax experts draw on other IRS rules to conclude that the limit is $25 per employee per year. But that's merely an educated guess. Whatever the amount, it's not much. Which means it's tough to meet that first criteria (valued by the employee) based on cash value. Good thing that verbal praise and recognition is more valuable than many employers realize--and it's free and nontaxable.

Intangible and tangible rewards. Cash gifts are viewed by the IRS as intangible and thus taxable income when above the de minimis threshold. The same rule applies to gift cards and gift certificates, and apparently to tickets to the theater, a concert, or a sporting event (although there is some difference of opinion on this latter category). The value of any intangible gifts or rewards above the de minimis level must be included on the employee's W-2 form.

Gifts such as a holiday ham, turkey, or wine are not considered income because the IRS designates them as "tangible personal property" that has nominal value. That is, as long as the value of such tangible gifts are "nominal"--whatever that means--and given infrequently. But don't give employees a gift certificate to pick up the turkey themselves. That's the equivalent of cash.

By the way, that merchandise with your company logo on it? If you give it to your employees, it's apparently subject to the same de minimis rule, although I've read a variety of opinions about this. If it's clothing that can be considered a "condition for employment" (e.g., field personnel wearing logo'd shirts) or "suitable for everyday wear" on the job (?), some experts consider this exempt.

Achievement awards programs. Tax-exempt tangible personal property "awards" (e.g., plaque or merchandise) can be provided to employees with a value up to $400 for a single employee over the course of a year. If you have a written plan, that amount goes up to $1,600. Now we're talking!

But there's a catch, of course. Apparently, this exemption can apply to no more than 10% of your employees. That's not much of an incentive program, is it, if you can only recognize 1 in 10 workers.

Interestingly, the IRS seems to be more flexible with respect to holiday and end-of-the-year gifts and awards. But, again, these do not constitute effective incentives the rest of the year.

I could go further, but my head hurts and I'm not sure what I'm telling you is totally accurate anyway, despite reading several articles and the IRS guidance on this subject. What can you do?

Learn what you can about the tax rules on employee gifts and rewards. I don't know how many IRS documents cover this topic, but here is one. As I mentioned, I read several articles by the supposed experts and found divergent views. If you provide incentives or gifts to employees that potentially fall under the rules mentioned above, you may need to hire your own expert to guide you (recognizing that he might not be totally right either!).

Determine how much uncertainty you're willing to tolerate. Apparently many companies have decided to proceed with incentive programs that potentially violate tax rules. Lacking clarity on what specifically qualifies as tax exempt rewards, they've forged ahead with the intent of doing what they believe is right for their employees. You may or may not choose to do the same, but at least be informed and deliberate in your course of action.

Focus on positive reinforcement that doesn't fall under IRS scrutiny. The research shows that cash and tangible rewards are not nearly as effective in incentivizing performance as many firm leaders assume. Check out this earlier post on which incentives work best, as well as these posts on positive reinforcement ([1] and [2]).

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Recruiting and Ethics

One of my clients received a call from a competitor who was upset that my client's firm had hired away one of their employees. The competitor called the action "unethical"--even though the employee was enticed to leave by his brother who worked for my client.

Is is unethical to hire employees away from a competitor? Many believe it is. Under what circumstances? When a man recruits his brother to join him? What if an outside recruiter had been involved? Is that more ethical? Many seem to think it is since they hire headhunters who often pull candidates from competing firms.

The ethics question is becoming relevant again. Despite the economic uncertainty, many firms are doing quite well and are hiring. The best candidates are typically gainfully employed and are not actively looking to leave. So the old "they find us" approach of simply advertising openings isn't likely to be adequate as business picks up and the pool of attractive candidates shrinks. That will push many firms to recruit from their competitors. Does that cross the line for you?

I don't pretend to have the definitive answer on ethics in recruiting. But I would encourage many in this business to re-examine their convictions. One of the hallmarks of ethics is consistency. And I see some double standards in the positions many have taken on the appropriateness of modern recruiting strategies. Consider the following questions:

  • Do you think it is unethical to directly recruit a candidate currently employed by a competitor?
  • What if the candidate works for a firm that is not a direct competitor? Is that more ethical?
  • Is it more ethical to use a headhunter to recruit from a competitor than it is to do it yourself? If so, why?
  • Is it more ethical to steal a long-term client from a competitor than to steal an employee? Which action is likely most detrimental to the competitor?
Your answers will likely vary depending on circumstances. For example, you may feel more uncomfortable hiring someone from a competitor you know versus one you don't. The way you approach the candidate (calling at work vs. calling at home) will probably make a big difference. The main point of my questions is to pose a larger question: Are your responses ethically consistent? If you haven't already done so, let me encourage you to have this discussion with your colleagues.

Balancing Ethics and Effectiveness

The companies that are most successful recruiting take the initiative in identifying and pursuing desirable candidates. They don't just place ads and see what turns up. In many cases this means they are pursuing individuals currently employed by competitors.

Most A/E firms still employ the traditional "they find us" approach. Will this continue to be adequate for your firm in the future? Or do you need to adopt some form of the "we find them" approach? If the latter, you'll need to define how to to balance ethics and effectiveness. Here are some suggestions:

Clarify your firm's ethical boundaries in recruiting. The first step is to assess the ethical consistency of your current practices. For example, I know firm managers who claim that initiating the pursuit of a competitor's employee is wrong, but have no problem hiring an outside recruiter to do the same thing. Plus they offer referral bonuses to employees who bring candidates to the firm, which would seem to encourage the very behavior they call unethical. So where's the line? I think it's important to clarify where your firm stands on the ethics of recruiting.

Work within the context of relationships. At my last place of employment, I actively recruited a few individuals who I highly valued both as coworkers and as friends. I had a selfish motive, of course, but I also believed I was offering a better opportunity than their current employers could.

Is it wrong to recruit a friend? Most would say it's typically not. So a starting point in avoiding the ethical quagmire in recruiting is to work within existing relationships. This is the intended purpose of referral bonuses, to encourage employees to talk with their friends and former colleagues about joining their firm.

The "we find them" approach is rooted in relationships. Not only does this address some of the ethical dilemma, but it's a far more effective way to recruit. The "they find us" method attracts mostly strangers, where you have to make a quick assessment of the candidate's competency and character--which often leads to hiring disappointments. Building relationships first is a better way when you can do it. Plus recruiting people you know usually involves less ethical ambiguity.

Use only recruiters with impeccable ethics. My preference would be to avoid headhunters altogether, instead mobilizing your staff to leverage their relationships in meeting your recruiting needs. But that strategy isn't always adequate.

So when a recruiter is needed, it's important to select one who embodies your firm's values. The recruiting profession has its share of individuals with questionable ethics. Plus, even among the ethical recruiters, you may not be entirely comfortable with their methods.

Ask your current or prospective recruiter about his tactics. How does he go about identifying potential candidates, contacting them, screening them, selling the opportunity, helping close the deal? Would he later recruit individuals he's previously placed with another firm? Some do. Will the recruiter adhere to your firm's ethical boundaries? Always check references before hiring a recruiter.

Don't oversell the opportunity. When pursuing an impressive candidate, it's expected that you make your best sales pitch. Yet in your enthusiasm, don't neglect your duty to try to ensure a good fit. The candidate's credentials may be stellar, but that doesn't necessarily mean she's the right person for the job. Two common mistakes we make are:

  • Overselling the job opportunity, either by exaggerating the potential or by failing to disclose some significant issues. This isn't always intentional, but it's misleading nonetheless.
  • Failing to acknowledge some serious shortcomings on the candidate's part. For example, overlooking weak interpersonal skills because we're so enamored with the person's technical capabilities.
Integrity in recruiting demands an honest assessment of the benefits and risks for both parties. If you uncover factors that suggest a poor fit--no matter how talented or qualified the individual--talk about it with the candidate and with colleagues involved in the hiring decision. I've seen situations where the firm's honesty in such matters encouraged the candidate to join the firm later, when either the position or the timing was more attractive.

Recruiting in a highly competitive market, much as with business development, presents a myriad of both tactical and ethical choices. Some firms choose to ignore the most effective strategies, excusing their lack of drive by calling it "more professional" or ethical. Other firms, by contrast, let the pressures of competing cloud their judgment in matters of integrity and ethics.

When it comes to recruiting, has your firm adopted practices that are aggressive, effective, and ethical? Or are you struggling to find that middle ground? If the latter, hopefully this post will at least get the dialogue started.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Putting Persuasion to Work

In the competitive marketplace of ideas, it takes more than innovative thinking to succeed. You must be able to persuade others that your ideas are worthy of their attention, acceptance, or investment.

In my last post, I suggested why most technical professionals have a particular struggle with persuasion. They've been taught to communicate in ways that are fundamentally nonpersuasive. This week we turn the issue around and explore ways to become more persuasive as practicing engineers, architects, or scientists in this business.

These days it's hard to discuss the topic of persuasion without acknowledging the work of Robert Cialdini, an Arizona State University psychology professor who spent years investigating the body of research on this subject. He summarized his findings in the popular book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Cialdini concluded that among the different studies, six primary psychological and social principles emerge that underpin effective persuasive strategies:
  • Reciprocity. Most people are inclined to return a favor. Extend generosity or kindness to others and they will likely feel a sense of obligation to reciprocate in kind.
  • Commitment and consistency. Most people desire to fulfill promises and act consistently with their convictions. Get them to make an initial commitment in your direction and it becomes easier to persuade them to take the next steps.
  • Social proof. People tend to follow what others are doing, especially those who are respected or admired. We see this expressed in part through the so-called "herd mentality."
  • Liking. People are most inclined to agree to requests from people they know and like. No doubt, trust is a critical factor here.
  • Authority. People tend to comply with the requests or desires of those in position of authority. In our business, expertise can serve as a substitute for positional authority.
  • Scarcity. People tend to give greater value to something that is rarer, less available, or time limited. Thus they are more easily persuaded to choose a particular option if they perceive it's necessary to avoid a "missed opportunity."
These are valuable principles to keep in mind, but the challenge is transform these into practical application. Below are some persuasive strategies that I have used with success for years, going back well before I discovered Cialdini's research (it's always good to find empirical validation for what seems to work!). Where appropriate I'll reference the persuasive principles that seem to apply to each strategy:

Build a foundation of trust. You can't persuade others who don't trust you. That sounds obvious, but I've been associated with several high-profile persuasive efforts (e.g., community relations programs for controversial projects) where technical professionals seemed to ignore the obvious. It doesn't matter how well you construct your technical arguments if no one's listening.

How to build trust? Studies show that trust is derived from the presence of three key elements: (1) concern, (2) competency, and (3) candor. In the A/E industry, we are most focused on competency, demonstrating our expertise and qualifications. We generally get high marks for our candor and honesty. But where we most often come up short in building trust is showing others concern.

You've no doubt heard the old axiom: "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." That's certainly true in attempting to persuade others. The principles of Reciprocity and Liking come into practice here. You'll be far more persuasive if your audience thinks you care about them.

Some tips on demonstrating that you care: Listen, not just for information but to better understand. Focus on the needs and concerns of your audience. Make the connection between your technical solutions and "felt needs." Orient your business activities around serving others, before and after the sale. That establishes a ripe context for persuasion.

Communicate at a personal level. Several studies over the years have remarkably come to the same conclusion: The most persuasive word in the English language is "you." Yet this word is practically banned from many of our persuasive messages (e.g., proposals), seemingly because it's not "professional" enough. Sometimes our definition of professionalism equates to "detached" and "impersonal," even though that's likely not our intent.

Impersonal language and exclusive focus on technical matters impede persuasion. Review the above principles again, and tell me if you see anything that suggests people are moved by cold professionalism and objectivity. So why would we dare produce persuasive communication products that seem to set such a tone?

To reverse this trend, start with the use of first and second person ("you") whenever appropriate. Avoid stuffy "technicalese" and use conversational language instead. Remember you're communicating with people, not faceless entities. Address human needs in your technical discussions.

Engage the emotions. As I noted last week, persuasion is powered by emotion and steered by logic. Yet too often, our attempts at persuasion amount to sitting at the wheel of a motorless vehicle. Don't forget that people make decisions based in large part on how they feel. Ignore that dynamic at your own risk when you need to change minds and actions.

Again, we can see all of the principles of persuasion at work in this regard. So how specifically do you engage the emotions? Showing concern and interacting at a personal level are a good start. Once you've established a rapport, ask questions that explore opinions and reveal feelings. Try to uncover felt needs, not simply objective information. Also, show some enthusiasm about your topic or position. People are more persuaded by your passion than your facts.

Proceed from common ground. One of the most powerful persuasive tactics is to define what you and your audience already agree upon. Begin this process by learning their position, not by telling them yours. Establishing areas of agreement draws on the principles of Consistency and Social Proof. Understanding positions you hold in common enables you to make an appeal for consistency in decision making, while showing agreement among parties can encourage social influence.

Often you will find agreement on the problem and the desired outcome, but lack of consensus on approach. Assuming you've gained the other party's trust, this is where you can best leverage your expertise. I've had good success persuading others on a course of action when I can demonstrate that my ideas are better researched and tested (that's the principle of Authority). But I've learned that this kind of facts-based persuasion generally works well only after I've first built trust and staked out common ground.

Offer legitimate choices. People are by nature reluctant to accept take-it-or-leave-it offers. Yet that's essentially what is presented, for example, in most public meetings where A/E firms outline the proposed design or solution. "This is what we've decided to do, now we'd love to hear your comments." Normally we get away with this, but such meetings sometimes blow up in controversy--and it usually has little to do, really, with whether the audience liked the proposed option.

The reaction comes in response to a perceived attempt to coerce or manipulate rather than persuade. Persuasion by definition involves choices. You're trying to convince someone to choose your position or option. Remove choice and you remove the need for persuasion; instead it becomes more PR or damage control. Now you may argue that in many cases, there are no choices to offer. But that's rarely the case.

For example, at one contaminated site, the owner (and we, their consultant) concluded there was little opportunity for meaningful neighborhood involvement on cleanup options. But we were able to gain their acceptance on technical strategy by opening up discussions on future land use options. In other situations, offering choices on less critical matters helps gain buy-in where choice is limited (i.e., "Do you want that in blue or beige?").

Offering choices helps build trust, and lends the other party a sense of control over the situation. These conditions facilitate the persuasive process.

Feature a few key messages. People may consider a lot of information in making a decision or taking a position, but usually they are persuaded by only a few points of differentiation. A common mistake in our profession is to present lots of facts and data, but to obscure the key decision points. I addressed this issue in part in recent posts on clarifying your proposal's core theme and organizing your writing.

I illustrated the power of focusing one's message last week in a seminar on persuasion. I flashed two sample documents on the screen. Document A was typical of most reports and proposals I've seen--nondescript headings, long blocks of text, few if any graphics. Document B captured main points in bold inline headings (as in this post), short paragraphs, at least one graphic per page.

"Which of these two documents is most persuasive?" I asked. Everyone quickly answered, "Document B."

"Why?" I queried. "You haven't even read what these documents say. How can you say one is more persuasive than the other?"

"Because the second one presents the key points," came the reply. We may not often apply this persuasive tactic, but we intuitively understand it. Why then is it so rare in our firms? Has common sense been preempted by common practice?

To overcome this shortcoming, let me encourage you to do the following: First, determine your purpose; what specific response or outcome are you seeking? Identify what 3-5 key messages you need to clearly communicate to accomplish that purpose. Then present those key messages in such a way that they are unlikely to be overlooked or easily forgotten. This applies to both written and oral persuasive messages.

Another tip for clarifying and focusing your persuasive messages is to practice the "Two-Minute Drill." Imagine you were given only two minutes to persuade your audience. What would you say? What key messages would you need to communicate? Write out your response word for word. Then use it for the close of your presentation. Expand on it for the executive summary of your report or proposal. Break it down to form the starting point of your document or presentation outline.

There's probably someone you need to persuade even today. Take that as an opportunity to begin putting these persuasive strategies into practice. Don't let misplaced conventions get in the way of your being convincing.