July 23, 2012
One of my favorite movie scenes in recent memory is from The Last King of Scotland, a dramatized "biography" of the megalomaniac dictator Idi Amin, as seen through the eyes of a fictional Scottish personal physician.
|Idi Amin||I want you to tell me what to do!|
|Garrigan||You want ME to tell YOU what to do?|
|Amin||Yes, you are my advisor. You are the only one I can trust in here. You should have told me not to throw the Asians out, in the first place!|
|Amin||But you did not persuade me, Nicholas. You did not persuade me!|
If you haven't watched this movie yet, you should. It is amazing. (For trivia buffs, this is the video clip that prompted me to write YouTube vs. Fair Use. The kind folks at vive.ly originally offered to host this fair use video clip, and I took them up on that offer, because I still can't find anywhere to host it.)
What I love about this tour de force of a scene – beyond the incredible acting – is that it illustrates just how powerful of a force persuasion really is. In the hands of a madman or demagogue, dangerously powerful. Hopefully you don't deal with too many insane dictators on a daily basis, but the reason this scene works so well is the unavoidable truth it exposes: to have any hope of influencing others, you must be able to persuade them.
Steve Yegge is as accomplished a software engineer as I can think of. I was amazed to hear him tell us repeatedly and at length on a podcast that the one thing every software engineer should know is not how to write amazing code, but how to market themselves and their project. What is marketing except persuasion?
Marc Hedlund, who founded Wesabe and is now the VP of Engineering at Etsy, thinks of himself not as a CEO or boss, but as the Lobbyist-in-Chief. I believe that could be re-written as Persuader-in-Chief with no loss of meaning or nuance.
I was recently asked how I run our development team. I said, “Well, basically I blog about something I think we should do, and if the blog post convinces the developers, they do it. If not, I lobby for it, and if that fails too, the idea falls on the floor. They need my approval to launch something, but that’s it. That’s as much ‘running things’ as I do, and most of the ideas come from other people at this point, not from me and my blog posts. I’ve argued against some of our most successful ideas, so it’s a good thing I don’t try to exert more control.”
I’m exaggerating somewhat; of course I haven’t blogged about all of our ideas yet. But I do think of myself as Lobbyist-in-Chief, and I have lots of good examples of cases where I failed to talk people into an idea and it didn’t happen as a result. One person I said this to asked, “So who holds the product vision, then?” and I replied, “Well, I guess I do,” but really that’s not right. We all do. The product is the result of the ideas that together we’ve agreed to pursue. I recruit people based on their interest in and enthusiasm about the ideas behind Wesabe, and then set them loose, and we all talk and listen constantly. That’s how it works — and believe it or not, it does work.
So how do we persuade? Primarily, I think, when we lead by example. Even if that means getting down on your knees and cleaning a toilet to show someone else how it's done. But maybe you're not a leader. Maybe you're just a lowly peon. Even as a peon, it's still possible to persuade your team and those around you. A commenter summarized this grassroots method of persuasion nicely:
- His ideas were, on the whole, pretty good.
- He worked mostly bottom-up rather than top-down.
- He worked to gain the trust of others first by dogfooding his own recommendations before pushing them on others.
- He was patient and waited for the wheels to turn.
Science and data are among the best ways to be objectively persuasive, but remember that data alone isn't the reductionist end of every single topic. Beware the 41 shades of blue pitfall.
Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such minuscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.
If I measure by click data alone, all Internet advertising should have breasts in it. Incorporate data, by all means. But you need to tell a bigger, grander, more inspiring story than that to be truly persuasive.
I re-read Letter from a Birmingham Jail every year because I believe it is the single best persuasive essay I've ever read. It is remarkably persuasive without ever resorting to anger, incivility, or invective. Read it now. But do more than just read; study it. How does it work? Why does it work? Does it cite any data? What techniques make this essay so incredibly compelling?
Nobody ever changed anything by remaining quiet, idly standing by, or blending into the faceless, voiceless masses. If you ever want to effect change, in your work, in your life, you must learn to persuade others.
[advertisement] How are you showing off your awesome? Create a Stack Overflow Careers profile and show off all of your hard work from Stack Overflow, Github, and virtually every other coding site. Who knows, you might even get recruited for a great new position!
Posted by Jeff Atwood
Excellent post! Persuasion, and communication in general, is underrated in the tech industry.
A good book on the topic is How to Win Friends and Influence People. I learn something new every time I read it.
But if my end goal is to show people that data and fact IS more important than persuasion, should it not be our first inclination? Would I not be a liar, no worse, a hypocrite whose utterances spit upon his own beliefs if I were to rely primarily on a tongue that I don't believe has as much merit as my own?
I mean, I am not so blind as to miss that there is need for some persuasion when data shows no discernible path. Do you not think of persuasion and data as two extremes?
I am a painted fence, as I've been persuaded things were much better than they were (unhealthy friendships & crap situations), only to realize the bitter truth later.. And under this paint, I myself am terrible persuader. So maybe.. maybe I am just a hater. Yet I still I think it wrong that persuasion can win out over truth; I don't believe persuasion should have such power to effectively mute the truth, or deafen those within earshot.
"If you ever want to effect change, in your work, in your life, you must learn to persuade others."
Meh. I'm unconvinced of that. :)
I think this is one of the most important skills anyone can possess, programmer or not. I'm 34 and I'm only just beginning to understand why I have gone through my life as bit of a Cassandra. I've watched, frustrated, as I've told those sitting next to me about the mistakes being made all around me, about product ideas that then come successfully to market years later, and I have often suspected that the problem is actually me.
I came from a working class British family so I've been brought up dis-empowered. In Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, he talks about a study between working and middle class parenting and concludes simply that middle-class parents endow their offspring with the feeling of entitlement, of power and equality and the belief that they are masters of their own universe.
While in a book store on holiday, I randomly bought a book that I'd normally never look at. It was cheap and appeared to be an easy, friendly read. It's called "Life's a Pitch" and although it deals with putting together a compelling sales pitch/presentation, it also talks about how the same principles apply across your entire life.
I'm very glad you thought to write about this, Jeff, it's a remarkably important trait, arguably more so than technical skills. If you have a great idea and can persuade someone to lend you money, then you can persuade great technical people to build it, then persuade people to buy it.
If I could buy just a single personality trait, the power of persuasion would be it.
I love your writing, and agree with the content of your blog post...but the video definitely does not fall under fair use.
In order for your video citation to be fair use, you must be actually commenting on the piece itself or something it represents. You simply cite a movie scene to make your point, and are even doing this on a blog from which you derive at least indirect monetary value. The fact that you think it's fair use does not make it fair.
@Peter J. Maybe I'm not seeing it, but I thought he WAS commenting on it. In fact, at least one entire paragraph in his blog was a comment on that video clip. How did he not comment on it?
I hope "dogfooding" made it into the list of programming jargon in your previous post.
Leading by example is probably one of the best techniques to earn more respect and have your team motivated.
The vive.ly link is probably causing a lot of deley on your blog...I am seeing this from past few days. not sure if anyone else has noticed this slowness yet. It takes almost 30 seconds to open each page on your blog which used to be fraction of seconds in past.
That clip is one of my favorite movie moments of all time. The man is truly terrifying.
You think there's no anger in Letter from a Birmingham Jail? Really? I think there's a barely contained (and to be clear, fully justified) rage. It's civil, yes. And it's lacking in invective, yes. But Martin Luther King Jr wasn't some smiling Buddha. He just had the rare gift of channelling his anger completely into trying to make the world better.
"There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair." That whole glorious paragraph wasn't written without anger behind the pen.
"The ultimate management challenge is responsibility without authority."
I was told that within the first year or so of my career, i.e. early 20's, and it's stuck in my head 30 years later (and quoted many times along the way!). It turned out to be somewhat prophetic for me as I kept ending up in jobs where my ability to accomplish objectives often required contributions from people over whom I had no authority.
I like to think I did pretty well at that... My approach was pretty simple -- earn the respect needed overall as an individual as well as specific to the challenge. If what you're doing is logical and is consistent with the goals of the organization -- i.e. "yup, that's a great idea" -- it's much easier to be persuasive.
"Persuasion" is a neutral term -- the simple act of getting others to agree with you. It's the intention of persuasion where things get ugly --- "manipulation" is a not-so-neutral term and note that some will argue that some manipulation is in the best interests of others, but I'm kind of slow to drink kool-aid.
This is essential when working with management figures. Those people got to where they are by getting their way. So, in dealing with them, you have to figure out how to get your way. More often than not, this results in a resolution that satisfies both parties involved, which is not an way thing to do.
Thank you very much for all your suggestions on this site. Your shares are very interesting and very rewarding. Congratulations to you .
this information is very useful for manage a organization ...
That’s the sunny side of your writing, you write in a lucid manner and I have no difficulty to understand what you have said, even though I am a novice. Keep the good work going by continue blogging new and entertaining posts. driveways