October 14, 2022 / Esther Choy

Two business leader discussing a new sales itemGerald’s marketing company just expanded its line of services to include social media support. He was having lunch with a long-time client to reveal the launch of the new services. Hopefully his client, Stephanie, would sign up for a trial. He had the spec sheets with the details of the services. He had memorized the turnaround times, the different level of services, and the cost-savings she’d enjoy by bundling packages.

Gerald was ready to prove that his company’s new wraparound services were going to make them the best in the business; the one-stop shop for all their marketing needs.

After the coffee arrived, Gerald pulled out the spec sheets and got ready to dive into the details of the new services. But instead of asking about the roll out, the client wanted to know if Gerald would still be her account manager, and if his dedication to her company would remain unchanged.

Gerald had been ready to prove why Stephanie’s social media marketing needs should be outsourced to his company’s expertise, but he hadn’t been prepared to persuade her.

Many professionals and college graduates excel at proofs. When it comes to improving leadership skills, a lot of training time goes into teaching people how to prove that their company, their services, their products, are the best. In everyday business interactions, there are times when you need to prove your point. But an often overlooked leadership skill is understanding that there are times when you need to persuade your audience.

Business leaders usually learn the leadership skill of persuasion through trial and error, stumbling upon mentors, or by simply having an innate gift for reading the room. In this article, we will look at the differences between proof vs. persuasion, and how to know when to do what.

Persuasion versus Proof

According to Merriam-Webster, to prove means: “to demonstrate the truth or existence of (something) by evidence or argument.” When we set out to prove something, we amass evidence and data. We provide analysis to illustrate our point. We may call on experts in the field to provide the background and context. This helps our audience understand our proofs.

When you do a superb job of proving yourself to be right, it doesn’t necessarily change your audience’s beliefs. Or make them take action. Yet, throughout history, one doesn’t need to look very far to notice that people don’t need a whole lot of proof to believe and do… all sorts of things.

What does it take to persuade someone to act? Returning to Merriam-Webster, we see that persuade means to “cause (someone) to do something through reasoning or argument.” Social scientist Robert Cialdini has written about the seven social levers that help people be persuaded to act during uncertainty, especially in social situations, like when you are trying to convince your 82-year-old mother to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

From these definitions, we see that proving provides knowledge or information, while persuasion provides knowledge in a way that causes people to take action or change their beliefs. Persuasion answers the questions that are most pressing your audience: Why should I care? Why should I believe?

The key difference between proof vs persuasion is emotion. As Alan Weiss describes it: “Logic makes you think; emotion makes you act.” When we are trying to persuade an audience to act, we are appealing to their whole brain, their logical and the emotional centers. For business leaders, it is important to empathize with our audience in order to be able to discern if they are already emotionally engaged and just need the facts. Or do they need a story that connects the logical proof to an emotional context? When this is the case, stories help us demonstrate our expertise while engaging our audience’s emotion with the arc of a story.

The following two examples illustrate the difference of when you just need to provide the data versus when you need to provide proof within the context of a persuasive story.

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When NOT to tell stories.

A woman walks in the elevator at the 17th floor and compliments my shoes. “They are beautiful,” she says. The first thing I tells her is that these shoes are really comfortable.

The woman is into the aesthetic of the shoe, why then would I bother to mention comfort? Because of an insight. Almost all women have experienced the trade off between good looking shoes and comfortable shoes. Often, one has to sacrifice comfort for beauty. This first piece of information I offer her provides proof that is contrary to commonly held beliefs.

Then, the woman asks for the name of the designer. I tell her the designer’s last name and last name only, and the fact that she’s based out of Spain.

Why do I only mention the designer’s last name and where she’s based? For many Americans, remembering a foreign name can be challenging. I keep the information I provide at a manageable level. Then, why add Spain? When it comes to shoes and fashion, foreign elements can often add an alluring flare.

Finally, I volunteer a bit of unsolicited info. “Early in her career, the designer worked for a podiatrist in New York City.” This added information underscores why these shoes are designed for beauty as well as comfort. I provide context that shows the designer’s a unique advantage that not many shoes designers have.

The woman asks for the designer’s name again. This time, I spell it out for her. The woman’s eyes brighten, and she says, “Thank you,” as she exit the elevator.

In this story, my audience is already emotionally connected. She’s already bought into the beauty of the product. All she needs is information. I provide the information in a manageable way that further peaks her interest. It also increases the likelihood that the woman will take further action.

Give me a story, please!

Tell the right story for any business situation - we'll give you the tools.

I didn’t need to persuade my audience in the last story. But recently one of our clients needed to persuade their team to buy into storytelling training. The team leader wanted to persuade his audience — a team of data-rich consultants — that storytelling was a leadership skill they needed to invest in. He didn’t run down list of psychological studies to prove that stories can have a powerful impact. Instead he started with a story that his team could connect with emotionally:

“We pitched a top-ten client for a $10MM strategy and transformation opportunity, but we didn’t get the job. We lost to another firm with comparable experience who packaged its solution within a more compelling story. The client felt they’d be ‘missing out’ if they went with us over the competition.

This was not a one-time incident. We’ve been noticing a trend. We learned some of our clients have been having difficulty making meaning from our analysis in a way that was presentable and powerful. One client told us that there was too much detail, all presented with equal weight; it was impossible to decipher the wheat from the chaff…This is why we are here. Now we need to level up and provide our clients with the data and the story behind it so they can turn insight into action.”

In this case, the executive uses a story to remind his team of a familiar and painful trend they’ve been seeing in their business. His team connected with the story emotionally and it prepared them to be engaged in the upcoming training session. It demonstrated the importance of the training and got buy-in from participants that may not have been possible with just the facts. Stories connect the dots, create meaning, and persuade your audience to take action.

Before your next meeting or presentation, spend a few minutes thinking about the opportunities that lay before you to connect with your audience and offer information in a persuasive format.


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Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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"This is an amazing and insightful post! I hadn’t thought of that so you broadened my perspective. I always appreciate your insight!" - Dan B.

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