The secrets of the art of persuasion

Police negotiator Mark Glentworth.
Warwick Smith/ Fairfax NZ

Police negotiator Mark Glentworth.

Dale Carnegie didn't beat about the bush. The title of his 1936 motivational bestseller was How to Win Friends and Influence People. His advice mixes well-turned homily ("Any fool can criticise, complain, and condemn – and most fools do. It takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving") with an impressive level of cynicism about human nature ("When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures bristling with prejudice and motivated by pride and vanity").

Since then, studies of the science and art of persuasion have shown people are more likely to do what you want if you give them a gift first – even if it's a crappy pen; that people will agree with you more if you say their name a lot; that we're more likely to trust somebody's opinions if they're wearing a white coat. But there's much more to influencing people than rules and tricks. Here are a few of the real experts.

THE HOSTAGE NEGOTIATOR: Mark Glentworth, 46, is a senior constable in Ashhurst, and team leader of Palmerston North's five-person police negotiation team, which attends about 50 call-outs a year.

People think negotiating is about how you talk, but it's more about how you listen.

We were executing a search warrant with the armed offenders squad where firearms were believed to be at the property, and I was on the phone with an occupant. He was really abusive and aggressive when his associates were around him, but as he walked through the house his demeanour changed, and I got the impression he was really fearful for his partner and his child.

Part of the active listening technique we use is acknowledging what's going on, so I was saying to him, "I understand what you're doing and that's fine – you can yell and swear as much as you like." He kept that up but when he went into a quiet room he was saying, "Look, I'm afraid of what's happening." In the end it was a very successful resolution.

We deal with people at their angriest, the most desperate, the most traumatic. It's the extremes of emotions, and you are put in the middle of it. If you're fortunate enough to get in communication with them, you have to be the calm voice of positive reason. At the same time you need to be very clear: this is who we are and we're not going away till it's resolved.

Sometimes people hang up. Sometimes they want to talk and talk and talk. Sometimes they want to rush out to see if it's true. I'll say: "This is Mark from the police. This is really important. I need you to talk to me and stay on the line," and they'll say, "Naaaah. This is a wind-up!" The natural instinct is to open up the door and have a look, but because of the dynamics of the armed offenders staff working, you need to slow them down.

The key is to keep it positive. You need to not be overbearing. You paraphrase what they tell you, so you'll say: "This is really important that I get this right. When you say 'x', do you mean this and this?"

The conversation needs to be open-ended. You wouldn't say for an intended suicide, "Are you going to kill yourself?" You'd say, "Tell me what you're intending to do today." With a suicide you need to tread very carefully about what you go near and don't go near. You try to establish what's a "hook" (a positive), and what's a trigger – something that sparks a negative reaction.

After doing it for close on 14 years, negotiating becomes part of you, even outside of work. But I still can't get my children to clean their bedrooms.

THE JEHOVAH'S WITNESS: Robin Stolp, 58, spends 15 to 20 hours a week door-knocking as an evangelist in Manurewa, South Auckland. A successful cold-call may lead to return visits and perhaps, eventually, a conversion and baptism.

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Very occasionally, people will come to the door and say "I worship Satan" just to shock you, but nothing shocks you after a while.

Or you get children sent to the door to say "We're not home," and the child looks back to see what their next line is. It's all part of the fun. Doors are slammed occasionally. You just remember that you came uninvited, and the household has the right. We don't take it personally.

We're not on any hard sell here. We believe the Bible holds out a hope that our creator will soon intervene and rid the Earth of suffering and injustice and wickedness, so we just feel there's a wonderful future and we've got good news to share.

As individuals, we have different methods. I often default to: "I'm making a brief friendly call as part of our ministry…" to emphasise that it's non-confrontational and it will be brief. Early on I ask the householder their opinion about something. Usually the subject would be connected to the message in our monthly magazines Awake and Watchtower.

Almost all Jehovah's Witnesses are enrolled in a weekly Theocratic Ministry School to help us develop skills. We have a textbook with a variety of techniques: persuasiveness, how to use scripture, showing personal interest, modulation, facial gestures, hand gestures, use of illustrations, both word pictures and actual pictures. Many of us carry an iPad or device we can show little videos on.

I remember as a child going door to door in the 60s, when a lot of people went to church still. Conversations at the door were very doctrinal and very passionate. There were issues that came up: that Jehovah's Witnesses won't go to war, that Jehovah's Witnesses won't have blood transfusions. That's rare now. People have become more tolerant.

THE STREET COLLECTOR: American-born Abi Smith, 36, has been a Greenpeace fundraiser, on the front line and as a manager, for eight years, five of those in New Zealand. Street collectors work seven-hour shifts, inviting passers-by to sign up for monthly donations.

There are so many people approaching people on the street that there's a need to stand out, and to be genuine, not scripted.

One of the last times I was on the street, I heard a team member who'd joined us from the US office say to somebody: "Hi, I'm [Name]. Do you love whales?" They said yes, and he said: "Oh good – they told me this morning that they love you too!" It made the person smile. It was unique, kind of cheesy, but it worked for him.

If a team member gets beyond "hi" and "how are you", a conversation might take five to 10 minutes. You get talking to people about what they love about New Zealand, what they personally care about. Are people concerned about future generations? Are they concerned about wildlife? Are they concerned about beaches?

You go out with the goal of getting at least two supporters in a day. An amazing day might be four.

If you're waving at someone from 10 metres, whether they make eye contact and their body language is a guide to how receptive they'll be. My first words might be, "Hi I'm Abi, what's your name?" The tone and the pace changes based on who I'm speaking with. If somebody looks like they're in a hurry, I'm going to be more speedy.

What's really gratifying is when people aren't sure at first but over the conversation they shift. Sometimes people even say, "Thank you for being persistent and sticking with me because this is silly – I've been wanting to do this for ages."

One time, in San Diego, a woman saw my Greenpeace-branded clothing and her face lit up in a big smile. She walked up to me and she said, "Oh. Greenpeace. Can I do that thing where I give you my credit card and you take money out of my account every month?"

And I was like, "Yes. Yes. You totally can."

THE PUBLIC HEALTH CAMPAIGNER: Dr Nikki Turner, 53, is director of the Immunisation Advisory Centre. She runs major public awareness campaigns and frequently fronts media queries. She is also a GP.

Say I have a graph that shows a vaccine has pretty much eradicated the most common cause of bacterial meningitis in under-fives. Now this graph makes me cry, because I read graphs all the time, but it's not going to make anybody else cry.

So I look at this graph and I go – how can I turn this into an image or a soundbite that somebody else will understand?

I practise soundbites – framing a response to something in succinct language – because scientists are renowned for being longwinded and boring. I'm trying to synthesise the science and translate what it means to people's lives. As a GP, I listen and try to advocate what will work for that person or that whanau, and in that one-on-one relationship it's about trust. In a big campaign you don't have the one-on-one so building the trust is harder.

The times I feel I've really been heard is when there's a personal narrative – if you can genuinely say, "I know what measles really feels like," and "I've seen a child die of whooping cough and it really matters."

If people understand what the disease is they tend to be more convinced about the vaccine, so we need to show the disease, but without scaremongering. There's data to show if you scare people, it can paralyse them – stop them acting.

One debate we have is with the HPV vaccine – whether to use pictorial images of genital warts or not. On an individual level people go, "Oh my God, that's a genital wart! I want to vaccinate!" and in some contexts I've presented those images appropriately and it works. But I have colleagues who disagree with that approach.

THE BILL-STICKER: Jamey Holloway, 40, is general manager of Phantom Billstickers, which prints and pastes street posters around the country.

A really good poster campaign gets pinched. But you know that when something's getting pinched it's because people love it.

Ninety-nine percent of what we do is working for other designers, be they designers at ad agencies, or the fantastic rock-and-roll poster designers we've got in this country.

You want your poster as big as possible and high-contrast. The contrast can be within your image, but also with the world outside it. If you decide to be pink and black the week everybody else goes for yellow and black, you're going to stand out. There's always a competitive design element. If someone puts a skull and crossbones on A2 next to something that's more involved and complicated on A0, the A2 will win despite being a quarter of the size.

It's design, then size, then repetition and location – you can't expect the public to react to your message till they've seen it seven times, which means if you only put up one image you're asking people to go past that one spot seven times. So you need to be all over town.

Some posters leave the viewer wondering. If all the problems of getting the eyeball to the poster are solved yet the punter goes away not knowing what it was, it's a failure. The best posters inspire people – they take them out of their mode of thinking, and have them know about something in a totally different way.

THE SECOND-HAND CAR SALESMAN: Maurice Rollo, 70, is manager of First Cars in Pt Chevalier, Auckland, where no car is more than $6000. He's sold cars for 30 years, and before that was in the Royal New Zealand Engineers, including service in Vietnam.

Years ago I worked for [Centrepoint commune founder] Bert Potter, when he owned a company that did borer treatments on houses. He put us through a Dale Carnegie course. Dale Carnegie teaches you to be positive – when you get up in the morning you look in the mirror and say, "Today's going to be a good day, I'm going to go out there and make a fortune, blah blah blah."

Carnegie also said never pressure people into buying something they don't want, and that's the philosophy I've always followed. When we have a customer on the yard, we don't all rush out. I let them walk around, feel comfortable. Once they've found something they like, I'll go out. I'll introduce myself – "Good morning, I'm Maurice." They'll say, "I'm John." "Hi John. How's your morning been? … Oh, you're an electrician. How long have you been doing that?" Just start something off, nothing to do with cars. Keep the conversation normal, like you're talking with a mate over a beer.

Tyre-kickers don't worry me. A tyre-kicker may come back three months later and buy because you didn't fob them off.

Once upon a time dealers would say, "If you buy this, I'll fill the tank for you." But the price of petrol now, if you did that with 20 cars you'd have spent a lot. And when you start giving away free things, people start thinking, "Why are they giving free this, free that?" It sounds like you're desperate.

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