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The (He)art of Persuasion

By Kelly Hennigan

The Stepping Stone, July 2021


“A lucky few have it; most of us do not ...” is the captivating leading sentence of author and social scientist Robert B. Cialdini’s publication on “Harnessing the Science of Persuasion.” 

Persuasion is the act of presenting facts or arguments to an audience in order to move, motivate, or change their attitude or position on a particular topic. Typically, the communicator is encouraging others to agree with his or her point of view, or inspiring others to take up a cause or an action. Ultimately, audience members are not coerced, but are free to make their own choice—to either be persuaded by the speaker (or not!). Despite the seemingly logical, rational nature of persuasion, Cialdini’s quote suggests that persuading another person is truly more of an art than a science, and casts doubt upon the ability to develop persuasion as a skill.[1] 

Individuals can become more proficient at persuasion by fostering techniques to further their connection with the audience. While evidence and truths comprise a portion of the persuasion recipe, there is also the additional (and sometimes elusive) emotional ingredient. The successful communicator must make a plea that truly resonates with the listener—both logically and poignantly. 

As actuaries, our strength is in the facts-based portion of persuasive discussions. We are known for being rational and assessing any and all risks. We are consummate professionals at using statistics to quantitatively and objectively persuade our audiences. However, at times, sound reasoning may not be enough. We also must consider how to appeal to the audience’s emotional state of mind by expanding beyond the data. In order to further develop your powers of persuasion, consider the following:

  • Know your audience

    Before any workplace meeting where you plan to pitch a proposal, recognize who you are going to need to persuade. Will you need to convince a single person or specific functional department, or are there numerous individuals across different areas of the firm who you will need to sway? Consider their motivations—are they driven by a budget, a timeframe, resources, or a combination of factors? By knowing this information in advance, you will be able to customize the persuasive conversation to focus on critical topics of interest.

  • Cultivate a relationship with your audience

    Do you actually know your audience on a personal level? Reach out in advance to establish a connection before trying to get their buy-in on the proposal. Regardless if you never previously worked together or work together frequently, making a connection with the listener establishes and strengthens your bond with them. It gives you the opportunity to demonstrate and build ethos (i.e., your character and credibility).

    Ideally, you want the audience to like you—in order to leverage a phenomenon known as the Tupperware party effect. In 1990, the Journal of Consumer Research published findings that guests’ fondness for their Tupperware party host(ess) weighed twice as heavily in their decision to purchase merchandise rather than if they liked, wanted, or needed the actual products purchased![2] Any opportunity to find common ground, collaborate and build trust in advance of the proposal can be beneficial in cultivating a likability and a relationship—and enable you to sell more Tupperware.

  • Speak the “loss language”

    Frame the conversation around what the audience could gain by the proposal as well as what might be lost as a result of inaction. Cialdini stated, “Moving people under conditions of uncertainty is difficult—they freeze. They’re scared of what they might lose. It’s good to tell people what they will lose if they fail to move.”

    The Journal of Applied Psychology published a study across California homeowners related to energy conservation via the purchase of insulation.[3] When homeowners were told how much money they would lose if they failed to insulate their homes versus how much money they would save if they insulated their homes, those who were exposed to the “loss language” were more likely to make the decision to insulate their homes.

  • Be transparent

    If in the midst of the proposal a listener shares information of which you were unaware, be transparent and acknowledge that it is a point that you had not yet considered. To the extent possible, collaborate with the audience members and be open to modifications or counterproposals. If the audience sees that you are receptive to gathering feedback, taking note of stakeholder concerns, and attempting to address any issues, they will be respectful of the idea and more likely to give it a full hearing.

  • Be accommodative

    Audience members may have different needs, as they may intake information and react differently from each other. Some individuals may require more education on the topic in order to fully appreciate the idea, while others prefer visuals rather than being spoken to. Certain audience members may not want to be pressured to decide on the spot, as they may require time to completely digest the proposal. Recognize that some individuals may require a one-on-one conversation before they commit, while others may generally be non-committal.

  • Win over the majority

    Some individuals will base their decision off the lead of others. The current trend is that people are heavily influenced by their peers—primarily a result of the overabundance of social media platforms and the ability to share information quickly and widely. This has also proven to be true historically, as a 1982 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology noted that when charity donations were solicited door-to-door, households were more likely to donate if a lengthy donor list of neighbors already supporting the cause was shared with them.[4]

  • Consider your body language

    Body language can impact your ability to persuade—stand tall, make eye contact with the audience, and smile. Gesticulate with your hands to emphasize key points and encourage audience engagement. Avoid crossing your arms or putting your hands in your pockets, as these gestures can be perceived as defensive, shy, and powerless. To learn more about elements of body language, watch Amy Cuddy’s TEDGlobal talk on “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are”[5] or refer to The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan and Barbara Pease.

  • Create an emotional connection

    An emotional connection can be established with the audience in a variety of ways. Be authentic, be passionate in your delivery, choose words that evoke feelings or incite action, and perhaps share a story. Personal stories enable audience members to see the human element in you, as they enable the audience to know where you are coming from and why you are encouraging them to support the proposal.

In any situation where persuasion techniques are used, the communicator must use emotional intelligence to read and respond to the audience. While delivering the proposal in real time, the persuader must assess the listeners’ receptiveness. A balance between being convincing and confident versus overly pushy and aggressive is necessary. If the proposal is worthwhile, the audience will be persuaded to see its inherent value in time.

While persuasion is considered to be an innate personality trait for some, it is a skill that can be further developed and ultimately applied by incorporating the above techniques. Transcending the facts, and weaving in elements of connection and emotion, will result in a powerfully persuasive delivery. As American politician Everett Dirksen once said, “The mind is no match with the heart in persuasion. …”   

Kelly Hennigan, FSA, CFA, is vice president, head of Investment Operations, at Venerable. She is currently a member of the SOA’s Professional Development Committee. LinkedIn:


[1] Robert B. Cialdini’s publications include: Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, The Small BIG: Small changes that spark a big influence, and Pre-suasion. His books reference seven key principles of influence: reciprocity, commitment and consistency, social proof, authority, liking, scarcity, and unity.

[2] Frenzen, Jonathan K. and Harry L. Davis. “Purchasing Behavior in Embedded Markets.” Journal of Consumer Research, June 1990 (accessed June 6, 2021).

[3] Gonzales, Marti Hope, Elliot Aronson, Mark A. Costanzo. “Using Social Cognition and Persuasion to Promote Energy Conservation: A Quasi-Experiment.” Journal of Applied Psychology,  September 1988 (accessed June 6, 2021).

[4] Reingen, Peter H. Test of a list procedure for inducing compliance with a request to donate money. Journal of Applied Psychology, September 1988 (accessed June 6, 2021).

[5] Cuddy, Amy. “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are.” TED. Speech presented at the TEDGlobal 2012.