Jedi mind tricks: How to persuade your users, boss, or clients

Paul Boag

Whether you are trying to get signoff for a site’s design or persuade a user to complete a call to action. We all need to know how to be convincing.

Like many in the web design industry I have a strange job. I am part sales man, part consultant and part user experience designer. One day I could be pitching a new idea to a board of directors, the next I might be designing an ecommerce purchase process.

There is however a common theme – I spend most of my time trying to persuade people.

As web designers we often have to nudge people in the direction we want them to go. It is a vital skills that we all have to learn.

I am not talking about manipulation. I don’t believe in using underhand techniques and I certainly do not believe in lying. However, there are ways of presenting yourself and your argument in such a way that people are more receptive.

The first and probably most important way is to empathise.


The worse thing you can do is go into a meeting or begin designing a user interface with a personal agenda.

If your goal is to push the other party into agreeing with you, they will resist. However, if you seek to understand their needs and respond to these, you will find them more cooperative.

Start by listening

To achieve this you must really listen. It is not enough to pay to pay lip service to the idea of listening. You need to hear what they have to say and look for ‘points of pain’ where your ideas might actually help them.

Tailor the way you communicate your agenda

The idea is to tailor the presentation of your ideas so that it can be seen to benefit the other party, rather than forcing them to reluctantly agree. This involves some creative thinking but is possible if you really understand their needs.

Show the other party what benefits you can offer them

Remember it is not enough to explain how your ideas will help you or even others. You have to demonstrate how it helps the person you are speaking to.

For example do not say to your client:

Users are going to love this new feature.

Instead say:

This new feature will keep users coming back and that will dramatically improve the number of leads you receive.

Once you understand the other party and are thinking about their needs, the next step to form a relationship with them.

Be personable

If you have a good relationship with your users, boss or client they are more likely to follow your suggestions.

Obviously the kind of relationship you build is dependant on who the other party is. Your relationship with website users is different from your relationship with the boss. However, there are certain approaches you should always consider:

Get them nodding

It’s a silly little thing but when I go to pitches I try and get people nodding. If they start nodding it is a good sign. However, more than that it put them in a positive mood.

I normally achieve this by repeating back to them (in different language) a point they themselves have already made. This is obviously something they can agree with, but also demonstrates that I was listening and that we are on the same wavelength.

The same approach can be used online. For example if I am writing a post aimed at web designers, I know that berating IE6 will start them nodding in agreement. I have succeeded in making a connection.

Be enthusiastic

Enthusiasm is such an important tool. Clients want to know you care about their project. Bosses want to know that you are motivated to work and users want to know you care about the service you provide.

However, so many people lack enthusiasm when communicating their message. They either come across as defeated before they start or as overly aggressive.

A better approach is to go in with overwhelming enthusiasm. People get caught up in enthusiasm. It is infectious. However, most importantly it is hard to say no to somebody who is exuding enthusiasm and excitement from ever pore. It would be like kicking a puppy :-)

Mirror them

You have all heard how mirroring somebodies body language helps establish a positive connection. Whatever you do, do not do it! If it is done as a conscious action it just comes across as creepy! It will happen naturally, so do not worry about it.

That said it is a useful indication of whether a face to face meeting is going well. If the other party is mirroring your body language, then the chances are they like you.

What is more interesting is that you can mirror people’s language.

Try and use the same terminology as the other party. If your boss or client talks about return on investment or success criteria, ensure you do too. Equally if your user is not familiar with certain language, make sure you avoid it.

The way we speak associates us with a certain ‘tribe’. If we share the same language we are more likely to build a rapport.

Make them smile

A final trick I use for building relationship is to inject some humour into proceedings. If you can make the other party smile, you are a long way to breaking down any barriers that may exist.

Of course, this has to be used with some care. Overdo it and you look like the fool. However, even the most miserable looking board of directors are human beings and like to smile.

Although all of these approaches are great for building relationship there is one that trumps them all – openness.

Be open

You maybe reading this thinking “this guy is mad, what if his clients read this stuff. Won’t they feel manipulated?” My answer is no. I am being open and honest about what I do. I would be entirely happy for any one of my clients to read this because there is nothing manipulative or hidden here. People hate being deceived and so if anything the honesty in this article will build my relationships, not undermine it.

I believe there are two key components in building open relationships that lead to a receptive audience.

Disarming honesty

Many times the best approach is to diffuse potential conflict with disarming honesty. For example I regularly acknowledge in sales situations that I am there to sell and that they should take anything I say with a pitch of salt.

The client would obviously know this already. However, admittedly it verbally is the kind of honesty people rarely encounter.

When designing a website it is important to be upfront with users too. For example if you are asking for somebodies telephone number on the website, do them the courtesy of admitting that it is because you want to contact them.

A willingness to show weakness

We can sometimes be so desperate to make our point that we become unwilling to admit even the slightest weakness in our argument. However, ultimately we come across as pig headed and inflexible.

People respond well when you admit that you are wrong or if you are unsure of an answer. Be willing to say I do not know or I have messed up if appropriate. People will respect you for it.

One of the best examples of this is Flickr’s blog post “Sometimes We Suck” in which they apologised for performance problems. By taking this approach they demonstrated their integrity and completely defused the anger of those complaining.

Of course, being willing to show weakness takes a lot of confidence and that is a trait desperately needed if you are going to convince others.

Be confident

As humans we are drawn to confident leaders. We follow those who have a clear vision and who walk that path with confidence.

It is therefore important to communicate your message with confidence. Establish yourself as an expert and talk with authority. People will respond to this.

However, confidence is not the same thing as arrogance.

Confidence not arrogance

Being confident also involves having the confidence to admit when you are wrong. A truly confident leader does not claim to have all of the answers all of the time. Conceding points and being willing to allow others to express their views is a key component of confidence. Only those who lack confidence fear an opposing view being expressed.

You do not need to always win

Pick your battles. It is okay to concede some points to achieve your greater aim. It does not undermine your position to give ground. Sometimes you need to play a submissive role to get people on board.

Don’t allow your ego to get in the way. If it makes somebody feel good that they have won an argument then they are more likely to be consolatory when you suggest an alternative.

Some degree of compromise is okay. It is certainly better than being negative and constantly rejecting counter proposals.

Be positive

Whether dealing with your boss, a difficult client or your users, you need to impress them with your attitude and service.

You should always remain helpful and keen to leave a positive impression. Sometimes that involves going the extra mile in customer service. Other times it means finding some positive aspect in your bosses latest mad scheme.

Whatever the situation, the worse thing that can happen is you get a reputation as somebody who is unhelpful and negative.


You will probably have gathered by now that my title is somewhat misleading. There are no Jedi mind tricks here. At the end of the day the secret to persuading others is to show them respect, listen to their opinions and seek ways of presenting your vision in language that they can understand and benefits them.