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Persuading One Step at a Time

Mario Moussa, one of the directors of Wharton School’s Strategic Persuasion Workshop, shared with us a compelling story about how understanding the motivation of someone you are trying to persuade can change history.

We’re taking you back to December 1776. With very few victories under his belt, General Washington could hardly feed and clothe his army. The winter was brutal. At the end of the month, most of the men would have fulfilled their tour of duty. There was little hope in sight, little reason to continue this struggle. The straits couldn’t have been more dire.

“I believe there’s a lot of wisdom in this story. It is at a pivotal point in the war when Washington was asking himself, ‘How am I going to keep this army together?’ He considered all his options, which were few. Then he and his officers hit upon was the idea of offering an incentive to sign up for six months more of duty. So they offered the soldiers $10, which at the time was not a completely insignificant sum. Then he mustered his men together, and one of the officers announced their plan to the soldiers. Then, with a roll of drums, he asked them to take a step forward to indicate their agreement. So they announced this incentive scheme, and they roll the drums, and they stop, and they’re waiting for soldiers to take a step, and nobody is moving. And Washington is observing this scene, asking himself how am I going to keep this army together?

“He takes a moment to gather his thoughts, and he then delivers one of the most powerful speeches in military history and, even more generally, in rhetorical history, and he says, essentially, ‘Men, I understand you’ve made great sacrifices, you’re starving, you’re freezing, you’ve been apart from your families, and you’ve lost friends, but I can’t pursue the cause of liberty without you. The cause of liberty needs you, and I won’t be successful unless you stay with me. I asked you for six months of duty. And I understand that is a lot to ask.’ Then he paused and said, ‘Just stay with me for one more month. Take, with me, a small step for liberty.’ And then one man stepped forward. Then another. Then virtually the entire army stayed with him for that month.”

He changed the deal. He knew how to connect. He persuaded by understanding the motivations of his men. And as a result, he changed history.

“That month lead to the next and beyond. Most of them stayed for longer than the six months. Most stayed for the rest of the war. There’s been a lot of discussion in the psychological literature about the aftermath of that scene. But the point is that the six months at that time, under those conditions, was too big an ask. One month, however, was something the soldiers could commit to. Then, once they made that commitment, those commitments grew legs, as psychologists put it.”

Persuading, whether in sales, leadership, or on a personal level, starts with understanding your strengths, your potential, and your motivations. Then it is equally important to thoroughly understand the strengths, potential, and motivations of those who you are trying to persuade.

“Exactly. Another lesson learned in this story is that it’s hard to change people’s minds. And, for the most part, people change their minds in small ways. Some of us, on a very rare occasion, have a dramatic changes of heart or faith or belief. For the most part, though, we’re pretty much who we are, and we don’t make dramatic changes. We change in small ways, and that’s very important to keep in mind from the point of view of persuasion. It is realizing that most people need time to make small changes. Then, ultimately, what drives those small changes in the way we think is small changes in actions. This is the one-small-step idea. So, if I’m trying to persuade you, it’s really important for me to find ways to get you to take a small action step that will lead you to begin to think differently. Then you will align what you think and believe with what you are doing. So, focusing on those small ways I can get you to change is much more effective than asking you to make large, dramatic changes.”

Herb and Patrick

One Response to "Persuading One Step at a Time"

  • Andrew Reimer
    March 22, 2014 - 12:23 am

    Good article on change management for sales leaders – take one small change with your team at one time and bed that down before moving to the next. Much better than trying to make one huge change or trying to make several changes as once with your team. Thanks Patrick.

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