Set Your Top-Level Strategy

Sometimes the thought of building a persuasive argument can feel overwhelming. Especially when stakes are high or there is a lot of work to be done, it can be tough to know exactly where or how to begin.

But rest assured, you already have the know-how to get started. Going back to the basics, you know that effective business communication is goals-oriented and receiver-centric. Now it is time to learn additional strategies for goal setting and receiver analysis that setting your top-level strategy for successful persuasive efforts.

At the outset, it is important to note that even though these tasks are presented in a sequential order, you likely will complete them in an iterative manner. That means that you repeatedly go back and forth between setting goals, analyzing your receiver, changing your strategy, doing more receiver analysis, tweaking your goals, and so on.

Establish Your Overarching Persuasive Position

A core task of building persuasive arguments is to set your goals. As with all messages, your instrumental goal will be based upon what you want to accomplish. But specifically with persuasion, you have to consider whether you want to change what your receivers believe about something or influence them to engage in a particular behavior. (Of course, you also will set your identity and relational goals.)

Once you have decided upon your instrumental goal, you then must determine the best approach for presenting it. The term overarching persuasive position refers to the combination of your instrumental goal and the type of persuasive appeal you use. Below are four types of persuasive appeals common in business contexts.

Present a Recommendation

If your goal is convince your receiver to make a particular choice among options, change the way something is done, or do something new, you likely will be making a recommendation. A recommendation is a persuasive appeal that involves directly advocating for (or against) a formal course of action. Formal courses of action could include such things as adopting or changing a policy, implementing a program, moving into a new market, or firing the office bully.

Recommendations usually are worded as should statements. You can present a recommendation by specifically saying “we should” or “you should.” But the word should is not absolutely necessary. You can present a recommendation in a variety of ways, just as long as it would be possible to state it as a should statement.

Example: We should implement a bike-to-work incentive program.

Alternate: I recommend that we hire Ream Case Co. as our office supplier.

It is worth noting that because recommendations are worded in a direct and rather forceful way, they tend to be more persuasive when the person making the recommendation has some sort of authority to do so. Authority can be granted in multiple ways: you could be decision maker or leader in the organization, be a member of a committee that is tasked with addressing a particular challenge, or work in an organization that has a culture of innovation and is open to ideas from everyone.

Make a Request

There will be many times when you want to persuade someone to take a particular action, but you are not in a position to tell your receivers what they should do. For instance, you may want to persuade your boss to give you a raise. But recommending he or she do so probably isn’t going to work very well. Instead, you will be more successful if present your persuasive appeal as a request. A request is a persuasive appeal in which you formally ask for a particular outcome.

Requests are usually worded more tentatively and acknowledge that your receiver has the prerogative to approve or deny your requested course of action. Below are two different ways to state the same request.

Example: Would you pay for me to attend a data visualization conference?

Alternate: I am requesting funds to purchase a multi-user software license for my department.

Appeal to Action

There may be occasions where you want to persuade people to do something, but neither a formal recommendation nor a request seems quite right. Perhaps you want coworkers to contribute money to a gift fund for a colleague who is retiring or maybe you have launched a new corporate social media account and want employees to follow you and engage with the content.

In cases like these, your desired behavior does not rise to the level of making a formal business recommendation. Additionally, even though you may asking your receiver to do something, it is not a formal request that requires approval. In these cases, you would make a casual appeal to action. An appeal to action is a persuasive appeal in which you encourage someone to take an immediate action.

Example: Please sign up to volunteer on Saturday for our Day of Service community project.

Influence a Belief

Sometimes the your persuasive goal may not be explicitly tied to an action-based outcome—or at least not an immediate action. Instead, you may want to change how your receivers think about something. For example, you might want to convince organizational leaders that something is a problem or change employees’ attitudes about the importance of sustainable business practices. Being successful in these persuasive endeavors could serve as a first step towards a longer-term persuasive goal.

Broadly, there are two ways to think about influencing beliefs. Arguments of fact are persuasive appeals that take a persuasive position on something that is or will be. Unlike facts, which are statements broadly accepted as true, arguments of fact involve debatable positions.

Example: Our start-up will be profitable within two years of product launch.

Arguments of value are persuasive appeals that take a subjective position. They can be arguments about whether something is good or bad, important or unimportant, proper or improper, etc.

Example:  Raising the wages of our lowest paid employees to a living wage is the right thing to do.

Understand Your Receiver

Another core task of building your persuasive strategy is to understand your receiver. All of the steps you learned earlier about receiver analysis still apply, as you will need to understand your receivers’ content needs and your relational dynamics. But when it comes to persuasion, there is even more to consider.

Anticipate Your Receiver’s Information Needs

In order to persuade someone, you will need to anticipate all the information they will need to make a decision. In addition to the who, what, where, when, why, and how framework that you apply to all your messages, in persuasive appeals, even more information will be needed.

For example, if deciding between alternatives, your receiver will need to know what the other alternatives are and how each alternative compares to one another. If deciding whether to adopt a particular recommendation, your receiver will need to know the pros and cons of the proposed action and what the likely impacts are. If deciding whether to approve a request, your receiver will need to know what they are approving, how much it will cost, and what the expected benefits will be.

Identify Your Receiver’s Decision-Making Criteria

The criteria that people use to make decisions can vary widely. Sometimes decision-makers are motivated strictly by the bottom line. Other times, other factors may enter the mix and decision-makers will also consider such things as environmental impact, fairness, ease of implementation, risk, employee morale, and ethics. So you will need to identify your receiver’s specific decision-making criteria.

For example, if you know that your receiver is concerned primarily with the budget, you will know that you you have to provide detailed information about financial impacts. If your receiver is someone who cares strongly about environmental impact, you will know that questions about carbon footprint will have to be addressed.

Determine Your Receiver’s Favorability

Knowing your receiver’s favorability toward your position is essential for designing your overall argument. As a general rule, the less favorable people are to your position, the more challenging it will be to persuade them.

If your receiver is generally favorable, you may only need to provide basic supporting evidence. But if your receiver is neutral or generally unfavorable, you likely will have to develop a much more heavily supported argument.

You can determine receivers’ favorability in several different ways. First, you can use perspective-taking. For instance, you could ask, “how would I feel if I were my receiver?” Second, you can examine past behavior. You could look at previous decisions your receiver made or statements your receiver may have made in the past on the topic. Third, if you have direct access to your receiver you can ask him or her directly. If you don’t have direct access, you might even be able to ask others who have a closer relationship with your receiver.

Additionally, when you have neutral or unfavorable receivers, it will be important to understand their likely objections. For instance, if you expect that your receiver will be unfavorable toward your proposal because it seems too difficult to adopt, then you could present information on how recent changes have made adoption much easier.

Evaluate How Your Receiver is Impacted

Another important component of receiver analysis for persuasive messages is evaluating how receivers will be impacted by what you are proposing. This should go without saying, but people are going to be more likely to respond positively to persuasive attempts that have a positive impact and respond negatively to those that have a negative impact.

But it’s not that simple in practice—especially because people generally have a tendency to like predictability. When you are proposing change, the first thing that comes to mind for many people is, “Uh oh. What (bad thing) is going to happen to me now?” That means that even if you are proposing something that will have a positive or neutral impact, your receiver still may be inclined to start from an unfavorable position.

You can evaluate receiver impact by asking yourself, “What’s in it for them?” You should consider the following questions:

  • Who will (and won’t) be impacted?
  • What benefits may occur?
  • What harms may occur?
  • What will (and won’t) change?
  • What will my receiver be expected to do?
  • What else is at stake?
  • What are the long-term consequences?

Answering these questions will help you tailor how you create your message for your receiver. Also, it is possible that by answering these questions up front, you may identify some impacts that will ultimately change your position before you begin.

Your Turn: What’s Your Strategy?

Imagine that you are an entry-level employee at your company. There were 14 people hired at the same time as you. You all met at the first-day orientation. Many of you exchanged contact information and have continued to keep in touch even though you work in different departments.

But now six months later, nearly half of your cohort have quit and you know at least two more people who are actively looking for other jobs.

Because you work in the human resources department, employee retention is something that you care about. And you know that your company cares about retention, too. But at the same time, you’ve been hearing managers grumbling that it is just a problem with “the younger generation and their lack of motivation to work.”

But because you know these individuals personally, you know that’s not true. One of the most significant problems with retention is that employees don’t feel like there is a future at the company. Apart from the first-day orientation, onboarding is non-existent. Career paths are unclear. Managers seem unwilling to mentor young employees.

You want to persuade your company to invest in a more comprehensive employee development program. Your manager, who is the Vice President for Human Resources, has told you that he is open to hearing your suggestions. But you need to come up with a strategy before you pitch your idea.

What is your instrumental goal?

Which persuasive appeal will you use? Why?

What is your overarching persuasive appeal? Write it out.

What are five specific pieces of information and/or insights would you seek about your manager before presenting your case?




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Business Communication: Five Core Competencies Copyright © 2023 by Kristen Lucas, Jacob D. Rawlins, and Jenna Haugen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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