Persuasion for Product Managers

Oct 13 2020

The core of a product manager's job is to make change happen by influencing stakeholders without exerting power over them. It is not an easy task. But it is much more approachable with the right tools.

Here I have curated some powerful principles and practical tips from the field of psychology as well as experts trained in persuasion so that you can rally support behind your ideas.

Persuasion is the focus of this post. Other topics such as building the right product and making robust decisions are out of scope (to be covered in future posts).

It should go without saying, but use these techniques wisely. Always do what's right for the product and for your customers.



Facts Are Overrated

We like to think we are perfectly logical and rational beings. But we are not. Humans tend to make decisions based on (often hidden) biases and emotions.

By all means, bring facts and data to the table wherever possible. But don't expect facts alone to change people's minds.



Reciprocation

We are hardwired to reciprocate favours. If you want a partner's cooperation tomorrow, do that person a favour today. But offer real value, not just as a means to get what you want.

Another way in which reciprocation can work to your advantage is starting with a bigger (exaggerated) ask that is likely to get rejected. Then concede to a smaller request. It is more likely to work than when presented on its own.



Persuasion Still Works Even if the Person Recognizes the Technique

In a way, this is similar to optical or audio illusions. Even if you know certain psychological effects are at play, it is hard to resist.



What you Think More About Becomes More Important

When you devote mental energy to an idea, you remember it better. In your mind, it becomes more important. For this reason, intentional "errors" in your message (such as a typo in your email) can make the message rise in importance, even as the errors attract criticism (which is a form of attention).



Repetition is Persuasion

Repetition is persuasion.

Repetition is persuasion.

Repetition is persuasion.



Commitment and Consistency

The moment we make a decision, there is a tendency to justify the wisdom of our choice and find reasons to dismiss the other options. From this point, cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias are at play.

Trivial requests increase the likelihood of compliance to larger requests. In the book Influence, Robert Cialdini noted that once a small commitment has been made, people tend to add justification to further commitments.



Visual Persuasion

All else being equal, visual persuasion is more powerful than non-visual persuasion. Humans are generally visual creatures. Using visual language and visual imagery is persuasive. What's more, if you can make someone imagine the scene, you don't even need a physical picture.

Try using the whiteboard in a meeting and drawing out ideas as you go, or attaching simple illustrations in your emails/messages to convey your ideas.



Thinking Past the Sale

Related to the above points about visualization and the importance we tend to assign to what we think about more, getting your stakeholder to "imagine" a future where your proposal will have manifested is powerful.

As they think about your proposed future more, they are more likely to see opportunities to make that future a reality. In persuasion writer Scott Adams' observations, people tend to gravitate to the future they are imagining most vividly, even if they don’t want that future.



Social Proof

If you already have buy-in from some other stakeholders, you are more likely to gain support for your idea.

You know that restaurant in town that is popular because it is popular? Or the TV show that everyone is talking about because everyone is talking about it? Your feature idea can be like that too.



Don't Feel Their Pain. Label It.

We all like to be heard. When we talk to people who ignore us, resentment and frustration build up. We talk past each other. Conversations break down.

Pay close attention to the subtle changes in people when they respond to your words. One way to validate and acknowledge the other person's feelings is by labeling. Give their emotion a name. Then lead with words such as "it seems like...", "it sounds like...", or "it looks like...".

And once you have used a label, be quiet and listen. Give the person a chance to share and reveal.



"That's Right"

According to FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss, the sweetest two words in any negotiation are "that’s right." If you are arguing with your stakeholder, you want to lead the conversation to a "that's right".

It is at the point that they feel heard and become ready to listen to what you have to say. They are signaling that they believe you understand their perspective. You are now on the same page. You are now ready to move the discussion forward.



Further Readings

 Influence by Robert Cialdini

 Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely

 Win Bigly by Scott Adams

 Never Split the Difference by Christopher Voss and Tahl Raz

 Impossible to Ignore by Carmen Simon

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