The Art of Persuasion (Part 1 of 3): Storytelling & Observation

by John Hoff on February 23, 2008

Image by Obenson’s Photos

In college I had to give a persuasive speech to 20 classmates for a communications course. My topic? I had to convince people there was life on other planets.

This can be a particularly hard thing to do being that there is no tangible evidence in support of it.

This was a great topic for me because I love astronomy and to me, life on other planets seems logical.

To prepare, my teacher told me I should brush up on the topic by reading what experts had to say about it and study the persuasive chapter in my over-priced shredding text book.

The Internet was somewhat new back then (1995ish) and with a 28.8k baud modem, finding lots of information on the sparsely populated Net and waiting a minute or so for a Web page to download was not an option.

I then decided to try a different approach. I already knew tons about the topic but what I realized was I didn’t really know anything about my audience other than their approximate age, how many, and they were in college. I thought to myself, I wonder how many people already believe there’s life on other planets? Are they religious, agnostic, or atheist?.

For the next two weeks before my speech I spent a little time observing and talking with my classmates. What I found was all but one person believed life on other planets existed. Thus I simply made sure I supplied those that already believed with simple facts that backed up the argument (plus I needed a good grade) and I tailored my reasoning and analogies around what I’d learned about this one person.

Did I convince him you ask? He told me afterwards that he strictly didn’t believe before but now he questioned it.

Good enough, I thought.

The 5 Keys To Persuasion

I have a Minor in Mathematics, thus I tend to equate things together. I equate the art of persuasion to the breakdown of 5 basic ingredients:

  • storytelling
  • being observant
  • being knowledgeable
  • timing
  • listening

I have decided to break the above topics up into 2 posts with a 3rd focusing on some great tips I have to hone in on your persuasive skills. Simply to put all this information into one post would make for a looooooong read.


One of the most powerful persuasive tools you can ever use is persuasive storytelling. Stories work because they go in under the conscious radar and impact people deeply. Stories play on people’s emotion. People respond better to emotion than they do logic.

Try reading Copyblogger’s Why Brains Crave Beneficial Copy. If you think about it, a sales person must be a persuasive talker/advertiser. Great sales people sale benefits and not only features.

Benefits play on the emotions of a people. That my friend is the door you want to open – and effective, meaningful storytelling is the key.

Being Observant

Observing how people hold themselves, talk, dress, where they come from, etc. all can give you an edge when debating a topic. By studying them you can speak to them in their own language.


Bill, a successful real estate investor and entrepreneur, taught me how to watch and listen for sensory words people use. We all have 5 senses, right? See, touch, hear, taste, and feel.

He mentions we all rely on our five senses to absorb information and learn. And this is where you should target part of your persuasion efforts.

For example, many people rely heavily on sight for inputting and storing information. You can spot these people by listening to they way they talk. They use sight words – I see, look, I envision . . .

Others use hearing to input information. You’ll spot them because they say words like, I hear what you’re saying, it’s all music to me, I heard that . . .

Take a little time to talk with and learn about the person (or people) you want to persuade, like I did for my persuasion speech in college. If you’re being observant, chances are you will catch on to which sensory item they rely on for storing information. Once you got that figured out, talk to them in that language so they can easily input and understand your argument.

Can you think of some words the smell, taste, and touch people use?

Body Language

Observe people’s body language while they talk. When they come to areas they are unsure of, they may shift their body weight, their eyes might wonder trying to think of something to say, they might bite their lip, etc. All these things may point out they are unsure of this area and this is where you can begin to poke holes in their logic and make them second guess themselves.

On the flip side, be conscious of your body language. Don’t do all those things listed above, otherwise you might give them the edge.

Things To Think About When Observing People

  • What is important to them? What’s not?
  • Are they Democrat, Republican, Independent, or other?
  • What country do they come from?
  • What is their faith?
  • Do they like action movies or romance?
  • How do they dress? Richly (expensive jewelry) or like a beach bum?

The list above is just some thoughts to think about and definitely can be added to.

The main point I’m trying to get across here is to not stereotype the person you’re talking to. Everyone’s different. And you’ll need to tailor your argument around the unique person they are.

Case Example: Psychic Magicians

Magicians who claim they are psychic and can talk to the dead are the ultimate persuasion artists and a lot can be learned from their methods.

Have you ever watched one of those magician shows (like David Copperfield) where a host will walk through the audience and seemingly at random pick someone out of the crowd to get a psychic reading?

The magician asks the person if they have ever met or talked before and the guest always says no, which is typically true. The psychic proceeds then to tell this person a bunch of personal things most strangers might not know.

For example, they might mention such things as: where they come from, who they ate dinner with last week, strenuously pull out of the air a name of a person really close to them who has died, and so on.

The guest, who has never met the magician before, is amazed and is now convinced (i.e. persuaded) that the magician is a real psychic. At this point, the magician can pretend he’s talking to the dead and everyone will believe him.

Is it so? Is the magician really talking to dead spirits?

While I cannot say for sure that every magician is just pulling a fast one on you, I do know there is a trick involved in convincing you to believe. What’s the trick?

You guessed it. Observation!

Oh wait, didn’t I say observation was one of those key ingredients to the art of persuasion?

Want to know how they do it?

Before a performance, the illusionist gets a copy of names and addresses of all people attending. A week or so before the performance the magician has a crew(s) that go out and observe a few audience members and learn about them – their habits, history, the color car they drive and license plate number, etc. Then during the performance, the host and psychic work together. The host picks out John Doe sitting in seat 10 row 12 and the psychic gives him a reading.

Now John Doe is persuaded that the magician is really psychic and can be lead to believe the magician can talk to the dead.

Observation. It can be used in so many different ways.

If you are a business owner you would do good to hone in on your observational skills. Learn about your target market. Get into their heads. What’s important to them? Observe their problems and try designing a product that solves this problem and benefits them.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Kelly February 24, 2008 at 7:57 am


I learned this from reading Sherlock Holmes when I was a teen. People would do anything he said after he told them obscure facts about themselves, and he had no staff, just those keen powers of observation. That, and the advantage of being fictional. :) Still, Arthur Conan Doyle used Mr. Holmes to teach me a lot about how to observe keenly and the benefits of doing so. Sounds like college did the same for you.

Good food for thought here. I enjoyed it!



Kelly’s last blog post..Why TypePad Doesn’t Want Your Comments


John Hoff February 24, 2008 at 8:20 am

Thanks, Kelly and welcome to my blog :)

Observation has a way of integrating itself into just about everything, doesn’t it?

For example, I invest in real estate and when meeting with a seller I examine EVERYTHING. I examine them as a person, their reasons for selling, their real needs and not just their wants. By observing and solving these problems for the seller, I often times can get what I want.

Yeah I learned a lot from school (both educational and non-educational LOL). It was only after school that my actual experience education began and my education and learning is a never ending process, as I’m sure you know.

Thanks for stopping by. Hope to see you again :)


IQ-Freak July 13, 2009 at 11:02 am

Great post!


John Hoff July 13, 2009 at 11:34 am

Hey IQ-Freak. Love the name.

Thanks for the comment.
.-= John Hoff´s last blog ..How To Upgrade WordPress Manually Video =-.


Matt-Bierig July 29, 2009 at 10:49 am

Great idea, but will this work over the long run?


The Simple Approach December 10, 2009 at 7:41 pm

Great Blog I like the graphic with this post! Is that a hair drier she is holding?
I leaned a lot about persuasion when serving as a police officer. Perhaps the most important thing was “you have two ears and one mouth”, use them proportionally and people will do what you ask.


.-= The Simple Approach´s last blog ..Twitter? – A Lot of Potential if You Pick The Right Time =-.


John Hoff December 10, 2009 at 8:20 pm

Hi Rob. I believe that is a high heel the woman is holding. I actually contacted the owner of that image (found it on Flickr but it wasn’t under the creative commons license) and asked if I could use that image on my post.

Re: “you have two ears and one mouth”, use them proportionally and people will do what you ask.

…. I like that.
Thanks for taking a moment to comment and stopping by.


Shermy Cruz August 30, 2010 at 8:30 pm

Persuasion is well defined in this post even if the real meaning is not stated. The example itself will show the real meaning of persuasion.


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