The 8 worst things you can do to try and convince somebody

Paul Boag

We all need to win over clients and stakeholders to do our job. Without them, we cannot get approval to do the things we need to do. But, most of us are surprisingly bad at doing so. The question is, how are we messing up and what can we do about it?

I've been thinking a lot about how we work with clients and other stakeholders as I prepare for my upcoming online workshop at the end of June. It is a four-part course about getting buy-in from colleagues and customers.

I am running it because, in almost everything we do, we have to convince others it is worth doing. That might be something as supposedly straightforward as signing off a design or as complex as approval to implement a large-scale digital transformation project.

But, nobody teaches us how to present our work and ideas in a compelling fashion. The result is often a train wreck.

Below I outline eight of the biggest mistakes I see and what you can do about them. So let's begin.

Surprise them

With the possible exception of a party or unexpected gift, people do not generally like surprises. They certainly don't like them when it comes to working. We have a tendency to suddenly present others with the outcome of our work without giving them an indication of what is going to happen.

Designers are particularly bad at this. We take a brief and then go and work on our design, only showing the client once we consider it finished. It is hardly surprising that the stakeholder negatively reacts when you show them with a design they were not expecting.

We can avoid this problem if we collaborate with colleagues and clients rather than work at arm's length. By including them in the process, it means they will be much more prepared for the outcome. It also helps avoid our second mistake.

Exclude them

Working with colleagues and clients can be difficult. They often make suggestions that we don't like, and listening to them feels like it slows down the project. As a result, we often try to exclude them to minimise their impact. But this is one of the worst things we can do.

Those who feel excluded inevitably become angry and frustrated, making them more likely to block initiatives. Ultimately this has a far bigger impact on a project than it would have if you’d involved them from the beginning.

Again, the answer is to include them from the start. If somebody participates in the creation of something (whether a design or a project plan) that person will feel a sense of ownership. If people feel they own something they are less likely to block it, and more likely to defend it to others.

But we cannot include them and yet ignore their ideas.

Reject their ideas

I come across many digital professionals who have a reputation for being a roadblock. Colleagues feel that these designers and developers are always saying no to their ideas.

We may feel that this is justified when the ideas of others do not make sense from our perspective. But getting a reputation like this can be dangerous. It frustrates people and makes them more likely to block you when you want to achieve something.

You need to maintain a positive attitude. Instead of saying no, we need to ask questions that help our clients and colleagues identify the shortcomings in their ideas. We need to educate stakeholders about the impact of their suggestions gently.

That means we need to understand better their perspective.

Ignore their agenda

It is ironic that we put so much effort into understanding the motivations of users and so little into understanding our colleagues and clients. When we ignore the things that they care about we lose a valuable tool in convincing them to support our agenda.

When we understand what our colleagues and clients care about we can position our project within that context. For example, let’s imagine you need a client to sign off a design. If you know that client is obsessed with increasing the number of leads the company receives, it makes sense to talk about how the design will help achieve that. But if we haven’t taken the time to understand the client's agenda, we would never know to do that.

The great thing about digital is that it can help with most business problems. That means whatever our colleague's agenda, our digital projects can often be positioned in such a way as they appear to support it. After all, it is much easier to demonstrate how our project supports the current goals of others than convince them to care about our project. That is something about which they will get excited.

Tell them, rather than show them

One of the best ways to convince somebody of anything is to get them excited about it. People pretend that they make rational decisions, but often they are led by their emotions.

Unfortunately, we are not very good at appealing to people's emotions. Instead of showing them something tangible they can get excited about, we write long specification documents or go into detailed explanations.

Even a paper prototype can be enough to get people excited about an idea.

The problem is that people find it hard to imagine how something will look. They need to see it before they can become excited by it. That is where prototyping and mockups are so valuable. They paint a picture of what could be, and that is something which enthuses people. It is something that people can provide feedback over.

Ask for open-ended feedback

Let's be honest; things often go wrong when people start providing feedback. Often they fall back their personal opinions all go off on some tangent that is not relevant.

The reason this happens is that we don't make it clear what type of feedback we need. We ask vague questions like "what do you think?" It is hardly surprising then that they respond with an opinion.

If you ask people what they think, you won’t get very useful feedback.

Instead, we need to provide people with the framework within which they can give feedback. We need to ask specific questions such as "is this in line with business objectives" or "do you think this will meet the needs of users?"

However, we need to be careful in how we respond if we do not agree with their feedback.

Challenge them

One of the most common mistakes I see from those trying to convince others is that they allow it to deteriorate into an argument. That is particularly problematic in meetings when there are other people in attendance.

This kind of confrontation ceases to be about the topic of discussion and instead becomes about ego. That applies in particular if the individual you're speaking to considers themselves as having more authority than you. Even if you present a compelling argument, they will reject it because you are challenging their authority.

In such situations, you are better off acknowledging their point and saying that you need time to consider. Go away and formulate your argument giving everybody time to calm down and then speak to the person individually when they do not have to worry about backing down in front of other people.

It is always important to consider how your comments are going to make others feel. For example, it is also easy to overwhelm people.

Overwhelm them

Unfortunately, we often have to ask colleagues and clients to do unpleasant things like changing the way they work or take on more work than they have had in the past. The bigger the project, the more overwhelming these requests can feel. That leads many people to bury their heads in the sand and pretend the problem doesn't exist.

For example, many senior management teams ignore the threat posed by digital disruption because they feel overwhelmed by it. They are unsure of what they should do and so prefer to pretend it won't happen.

We can reduce this problem by avoiding asking our colleagues and clients to make big decisions or take on significant changes all in one go. Instead, we can present them with a series of smaller, more manageable, changes and decisions over time.

For example, instead of asking senior management to approve a budget to redesign your entire website, ask for a modest budget to do some user research and maybe build a prototype. Focus on the next step, rather than getting full buy-in upfront.

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A transformative effect

Thinking about how we convince colleagues and clients will have a transformative effect on our work. I am not claiming it will all be clear sailing, but taking the time to understand what motivates others will make getting approval much easier.

Hopefully, this post shows you what a difference even a little bit of thought into this subject can make. But that is just the beginning. There is so much more you can do, but for that, you will have to sign up for one of my workshops!