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The Five Paths to Persuasion: Identifying and Influencing the Five Styles of Today’s Decision Makers by Robert B. Bruce


Rating: (Highly Recommended)


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Robert Bruce’s new book, The Five Paths to Persuasion, has several components that usually combine to produce a fine business book: data, examples, synthesis and practical application. Data formed through questionnaires to executives provide the foundation for synthesizing the types of executive decision makers into five different styles. Making the same presentation to each of the five different styles will result in failure in four out of five cases. Determining the style of an executive will allow any dialogue and presentation to proceed in a way that is more likely to generate success. Here’s an excerpt From the beginning of Chapter 6, “Persuading the Thinker Decision Maker,” pp. 62-72:




Thinkers can be swayed with logical arguments that appeal directly to their intelligence, and they much prefer presentations that are chronological. Thus, it is crucial that you tell your story from start to finish—with all the intermediate steps intact. Thinkers want to know exactly how you got from A to Z so that if they disagree with your rea­soning from step F to G, they can question you on that. If you can’t defend the reasoning behind that step, you’ll need to make the nec­essary revisions and logically follow those changes throughout the rest of your argument. For Thinkers, a flaw in any step raises doubts about the entire process and its conclusions. Therefore, to be comfortable about any decision, Thinkers need to verify for themselves that all steps are error free. Consequently, never start in the middle or the end of your story. Or, as the legal saying goes, never assume facts not in evidence. Doing so is a recipe for sure disaster.

A few years ago, we unwittingly played a role in such a debacle with VeriTabs, a billion-dollar financial information company headquar­tered in Memphis. (Note: To respect the confidentiality of our clients and colleagues, we have used pseudonyms for them and their com­panies, and we have altered identifying details of the examples in this chapter.) At the time, VeriTabs was investigating whether to launch a dot-com firm that would offer a number of the company’s services on­line, similar to the way in which the Barnes & Noble spin-off is the Web incarnation of the bookseller. VeriTabs hired an ad agency to determine whether an Internet spin-off would be viable and, if so, how it should be launched. The ad agency, in turn, hired us to assess whether VeriTabs had enough brand equity to estab­lish itself quickly within the on-line community.

To answer that, we conducted a large-scale survey of VeriTabs’s cus­tomers, developing extensive profiles of them, and found that the company’s brand wasn’t going to translate easily to a Web spin-off. But that didn’t necessarily mean that such a maneuver would fail, just that it would require a considerable investment, particularly in marketing and advertising, to establish the company’s brand with an on-line spin-off. Ralph Bedosian, a managing partner at the ad agency that retained us to conduct the brand survey, was in charge of developing the marketing campaign. When that work was completed, we would jointly present our results to VeriTabs’s top brass.

Before the big meeting, we talked with Bedosian about the best approach for the presentation. We suggested that we commence with a discussion of the survey results, after which he could then unveil the new marketing campaign. But Bedosian wanted the order reversed: He would lead with the marketing campaign and then present our research results to explain the reasoning behind the campaign. His strategy was to get the VeriTabs execs so excited about the catchy mar­keting campaign that their enthusiasm would overshadow the discus­sion of why, because of what our survey results revealed, they would need to spend more money than they had originally anticipated. We disagreed with Bedosian, but because his agency (and not VeriTabs) had hired us, we had to follow his lead. Unfortunately for him, Arthur Rickman, the VeriTabs CEO, is a classic Thinker.

The meeting was held in the VeriTabs boardroom at the company’s headquarters building in Memphis. About a dozen people were present: three from the ad agency, including Bedosian, and various VeriTabs executives, including Rickman, the chief marketing officer, the chief operations officer, a couple of marketing directors, and a vice president. We were sitting around a long conference table, with Rickman in the middle on one side and Bedosian and his colleagues from the ad agency directly across. Bedosian used storyboards for his presentation, and the first one showed the current status of VeriTabs products. The next storyboard showed what VeriTabs was hoping to accomplish with an on-line spin-off. Then Bedosian launched into the slogans that his agency had developed for the Web start-up. The catchphrases were vague, along the lines of “Stay in Power,” and Bedosian didn’t explain how his agency had come up with them or why they might work or how they would supposedly connect with cus­tomers.

Throughout the presentation, Rickman just sat there, trying to absorb everything. At one point, he flipped through a two-page handout that the ad agency had given him, but the skimpy document was just a very high-level summary with no details. Essentially, it showed no more than what the storyboards were going to portray. As Rickrnan looked back and forth between the handout and the story-boards, trying to find information that wasn’t there, his frustration grew. He didn’t even understand enough to ask any questions, so he sat there silently. In Thinkers, silence is a bad sign: It shows that they don’t have the necessary background information to ask questions. Otherwise, they would jump right in with an intense series of queries about this particular option or that piece of data or that step in a process.

By the time Bedosian and his colleagues had gotten to the fifth sto­ryboard, Rickman had had enough. “Hold on,” he said. “I’m lost. Where are we in the process? I’m not sure where we are in trying to figure out what we’re going to do.” Bedosian then tried to explain that his agency had followed the progression of VeriTabs products to see how the new product line would fit in. “Wait a minute,” said Rickrnan. “You guys are already talking about slogans and product launches when I don’t even know if I want to do this yet. I’m still trying to figure that out. I would love to move forward with this but only if it makes sense for our company to do so. And I don’t know whether we want to do this or not. I’m looking for some data, some­thing to show me that this is the type of thing that we should be doing.”

At this point, Rickman was out of his chair, pacing the room. In his fifties, Rickman is not a large man, but when he is agitated, his voice can boom, and this was one of those occasions. He walked over to the storyboards, flipped through them, picked them up, and tossed them over to a nearby credenza. “I don’t need to see any of this stuff right now,” he said. “We’re way ahead of ourselves. I don’t even know if I want to go into this business yet. I need to see some data.”

Bedosian then turned to us, trying to salvage the situation, and told Rickman that we had some pertinent market research to present about the VeriTabs brand. But it was too late for that. “I want to see it,” said Rickman, “but now I’m not in the right frame of mind. So here’s what I want you to do: I want you to regroup and figure out what you’re doing on this project. And then come back to re-present the information to me.” With that, Rickman left the room.

Everyone was nonplussed. We were barely ten or fifteen minutes into the meeting, which had been scheduled for an hour, and Rickman had walked out. We had never seen a CEO take someone to task like that. People in the room couldn’t help feeling sorry for Bedosian. He had made a serious miscalculation about the structure of his presentation, and he paid the price. When we gathered our belongings and headed out the room, his one remark was, “Well, that was interesting.”

Two weeks later we flew back to Memphis for the do-over meeting, but this time the ad agency sent another executive instead of Bedosian. Together, we made a three-hour presentation to a team of VeriTabs people, which did not include Rickman but did include an executive VP who was present at the first meeting. This time we gave people a detailed report that included our survey results as well as an analysis of what it would cost for VeriTabs to transfer its brand equity to the on-line community.

In the end, Rickman scuttled his plans for launching We realize that even if our initial meeting with him had gone without a hitch, he still might have made the decision he did because our data showed that the spin-off would have required a substantial investment. But Bedosian certainly didn’t help his chances because his presentation was geared more for a Charismatic than a Thinker. Even if Rickman had been a Charismatic, Bedosian still should have described the problem in greater detail (that is, explained why VeriTabs would have difficulty establishing its brand on-line) before launching into the marketing slogans. Of course, hind­sight is twenty-twenty, but the ideal presentation for Rickman would have first defined the problem thoroughly, listed the different options, discussed the pros and cons of each of those options, explained how risks would be minimized, and then arrived at the optimum solution. An unfortunate epilogue to this story is that the ad agency lost the Ver­iTabs account—more than a million dollars of business—and Bedosian was fired a few months later.







The reason Thinkers prefer a chronological presentation is that it enables them to easily follow someone else’s logic. This in turn allows them to ask questions along the way to thoroughly understand that person’s decision-making process. Such a presentation should include the following steps: (1) define the problem, (2) describe and evaluate the different options, (3) explain why a particular option is best, (4) assess the value of that option, and (5) evaluate the potential problems with that option.

In any meeting with a Thinker, you should not only plan a system­atic presentation but also be prepared to answer numerous queries throughout the discussion. An important thing to remember is that the battery of questions is not personal, even though it might seem like an intense interrogation. Instead, it is simply the Thinker’s attempt to gain an in-depth understanding of your methodology. Remember that Thinkers usually need to fully comprehend some­thing before they will truly trust it. In fact, they are often more inter­ested in the process that was used to obtain an answer than they are in the answer itself. So you need to fully explain your methodology and flow of logic and be prepared for Thinkers to challenge you whenever something is unclear. During a meeting, they may even take contradictory points of view, but don’t be confused when that happens. They are merely trying to understand a situation from all perspectives. Playing devil’s advocate helps Thinkers to make sure that they have left no stone unturned, so don’t let that approach throw you off your game and don’t take it personally.

Thinkers are most persuaded by logical arguments that incorporate an explanation of best practices and procedures, information and methods endorsed by experts, clever and unique approaches, exten­sive data analysis, and a discussion of future results. Furthermore, to hold a Thinker’s attention, consider using the following buzzwords: quality, academic, think, numbers, makes sense, intelligent, plan, expert, competition, proof, hear, tell, talk, future, risk free.

Perhaps the best overall strategy is to focus on open communica­tions. The ideal way to accomplish that is by involving Thinkers as much as possible in the process that you are using to arrive at a solu­tion. This will engage them, and a side benefit is that they will begin to take ownership of your process, which will only help you in the long run in getting their ultimate buy-in. So don’t hesitate to openly discuss your worries and concerns about the shortcomings of your proposal, and continually ask the Thinker for suggestions. Specifi­cally, be candid about where your data are inconclusive or con­flicting, where you’ve made assumptions (especially ones that you’re unsure of), where your arguments are based on gut feelings, and so on. Thinkers won’t hold that information against you; in fact, it’s likely to increase your credibility with them.

This is why we recommend that the optimum approach for dealing with Thinkers is to schedule two presentations, perhaps a week apart. In the first meeting, show your process and the progress you’ve made in solving a problem. Get a clear understanding of any additional options or other information that the Thinker deems important. The most crucial thing to remember is that, as much as possible, you want to obtain the Thinker’s input about your process. In the second meeting, highlight any revisions you’ve made to your process since the earlier presentation and then follow those changes through to their logical conclusions to make your recommendations. The two-meeting approach might seem inefficient, but it helps Thinkers to become familiar and comfortable with your process.

To understand why, consider Kevin McLaughlin, who is the deputy director of a state agency with a $40-million budget. In his mid-fifties, McLaughlin is intelligent and well read. He is also a classic Thinker: thorough and methodical. One thing his staff has learned is that, particularly for any major decision, they need to keep him informed of the process they are using to arrive at a solution. “I would always try to send Kevin a report before a meeting, so that he’d have the chance to review it. And then during the meeting I could talk him through the details,” recalls Eric Vieau, who was the chief financial officer of the agency. The bigger the decision, says Vieau, the more important it was to involve McLaughlin in the different steps along the way.

Vieau recalls such a situation in the mid-1990s when he proposed that the agency upgrade its computer systems. At the time, only a quarter of the staff had desktop personal computers, and those were a hodgepodge of incompatible hardware and software. Worse, the PCs weren’t networked, which aggravated the inefficiencies. McLaughlin was all in favor of investing in standardized and networked PCs, and he asked Vieau to investigate how to accomplish that.

One of the issues was whether to buy or lease the PCs. Another matter was the type of arrangement for the maintenance and servicing of the equipment. Vieau explored those and other issues and prepared a report for McLaughlin with details of the different alternatives.

Regarding the buy-or-lease decision, for instance, the report showed that although buying PCs would be cheaper, that option had various hidden costs. If the agency bought the equipment, it would have to do so in piecemeal fashion, perhaps purchasing fifteen PCs the first year, fifteen the next year, and so on. During this transition time, the new PCs wouldn’t be compatible with the older, existing machines, thus aggravating the inefficiencies. By leasing the equipment instead, the agency could install everything at once, and everyone would be using the same software.

McLaughlin reviewed the report and asked Vieau to investigate various other issues: How would the costs fit into our budget? What impact might it have on other areas of the budget? Who would get what kind of PC? How would we train everyone, particularly those who weren’t familiar with e-mail, word processors, Web browsers, and other software? What would be the best timing for the implementa­tion? What brands should we go with?

Sometimes the answer to one of those questions would lead to another issue that would then need to be resolved. To determine who would get what kind of PC, for instance, Vieau had to come up with a position-by-position analysis to ensure that staff members didn’t feel that any favoritism was involved. All administrative assistants, for example, would get a certain type of CPU and monitor. Those and other issues were worked through in numerous back-and-forth exchanges, until Vieau had provided McLaughlin with all the infor­mation he needed. After that, McLaughlin gave the project the green light.

McLaughlin’s other managers have also adapted to his style of deci­sion making. Mary Flood, the agency’s director of finance and admin­istration, recalls that she learned to accept the fact that decisions wouldn’t usually be made in a single meeting. “Kevin would always ask, ‘Have you looked at that?’ or ‘Have you considered this?’ “she says of her boss. “His points were usually very good ones—you’d frequently say to yourself, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’—but then you’d leave the meeting without a decision.”

For smaller matters, Flood learned to copy McLaughlin on c-mails and memos to inform him on how she was handling them and to give him the opportunity to add his input. That way he wouldn’t be blind-sided by any decision. So, for example, if Flood were handling a personnel problem with one of her staff, she would copy him on certain correspondence she might be having with someone from human resources so that McLaughlin would know what steps she was taking to address the problem. Usually he wouldn’t comment, but occasion­ally he would have a suggestion.







Thinkers like McLaughlin thrive on information. They have a strong need for data, facts, and figures, and this makes it difficult to persuade them. One effective tactic is to deliver that information in huge chunks interspersed with enough time for them to make sense of the material. You can almost never provide Thinkers with too much infor­mation. Even when you think you have, they will ask you for some­thing that you hadn’t even thought of. So expect that even when you’re confident that you’ve exhausted all avenues, they will find other pathways to explore.

In Flood’s meetings with McLaughlin, he would frequently ask her for some piece of information that she hadn’t anticipated. When she first started working for him, she would leave those meetings thinking, “Why didn’t I cover that base myself?” But as their working relationship evolved, she realized something important. Thinkers like McLaughlin don’t necessarily expect you to have all your ducks in a row when you make a proposal. They believe that part of their job is to help their staffers clarify and fine-tune their thinking processes. And although Thinkers don’t expect you to have all the answers at the outset, they do expect you to eventually locate and properly position your ducks after they’ve given you the necessary guidance.

If Thinkers want information that is proprietary or is otherwise dif­ficult for you to provide, the best solution is to point them toward where they might get that information for themselves. Thinkers don’t expect you to breach your or anyone else’s code of ethics or privacy, but they do appreciate any guidance they can get.

After Thinkers have all the data they need, you should give them ample time and space to come to their own conclusions. Remember that Thinkers are less innovative-driven than they are control-driven, so it’s important to give them some ownership of the decision-making process. After you’ve provided all the information they need, don’t crowd them or you’ll very likely annoy and irritate, rather than help.

Sometimes the wait can he unsettling. You might have struggled to painstakingly address every detail, dotting each i and crossing every t. After all that, you might feel that a decision should be imminent. But the truth is that Thinkers still need ample time to process information on their own terms. And if they say they’ll make a decision at the end of the week, then they will make a decision at that time. In other words, you can take them at face value.

That point brings to mind an interesting dealing we had with James Gonon, the president and COO of Optektrix, a leading supplier of semiconductor manufacturing equipment. We’ve known Gonon for years. He’s a Thinker: process-oriented and very much a numbers person. We had worked with him in the past, but we hadn’t talked to him in about a year. So we thought long and hard about how we might get our feet through his door again. At the time, we were repo­sitioning our firm to specialize in customer-value research, and we had a strong feeling that our methodology and hard data would appeal to Gonon. But we waited until we had something tangible that would demonstrate exactly what we were capable of doing.

In late 2001, we finished two major studies: one that covered the personal computer industry (detailing who bought PCs and why) and the other on how executives make decisions (that research was the basis of this book, Paths to Persuasion). We then knew we had some­thing very powerful for Gonon to see. We didn’t know what his exact needs were, and we didn’t know which of the two studies might catch his eye. But we were hoping that our recent research might somehow be related to a project he had in mind, and at the very least we could show him our methodology, which we thought would interest him. So we called Gonon and scheduled thirty minutes of his time.

At the meeting, we presented him with the full reports of both studies; each document was more than fifty pages long. We also brought copies for his key people. Gonon was particularly interested in our research on decision making, especially our breakdown of the five executive styles. As he looked through that data, he said, “This is perfect timing because we have an executive call program that we want to put together for our sales professionals. Maybe you can help us out with that.”

We were excited because we knew that executive call programs are extensive projects. They typically consist of two-to-three-year plans for sales professionals to strategize how best to cultivate relationships with key executives at major accounts. Gonon was considering our research as a tool that would enable his sales staff to make more effec­tive presentations to Optektrix’s clients. Our timing was indeed fortu­itous in that we might be able to be a part of the company’s executive call program from the ground level.

At the conclusion of our meeting with Gonon, he asked us to call him on his cell phone on February 27 at 6:30 in the morning. He was going to be touring a plant that day (thus the early time) and would then have a decision whether Optektrix would want to use us in the company’s executive call program.

Three weeks later, on February 27, we called Gonon promptly at 6:30 A.M. “Thanks for calling me,” he said. “I had a meeting about this yesterday, and we do want to go ahead. The person you need to talk with is John Switzler, so please give him a call. He’s in China right now, but he’ll be back on Thursday of next week.” Gonon had the details in his head, and our phone call took no more than two min­utes. When we later met with Switzler, an executive vice president with Optektrix, he had a copy of our report and had marked it up, so Gonon had obviously forwarded it to him to bring him up to speed.

Certainly, we were fortunate that we had caught Gonon at the per­fect time, right when he was starting the planning for his executive call program. But we had bided our time until we had the kind of data that would appeal to him and so were ready when the opportunity presented itself. And, just as important, we were careful not to blow that opportunity.

During the three-week interlude between our initial meeting with Gonon and the subsequent phone call, he probably scrutinized our data and methodology and processed all that information. When everything passed muster, he had a meeting with other Optektrix executives to obtain their buy-in for including us in the company’s executive call program.

The important point is this: During the three-week period, we had zero contact with Gonon. We took him at face value: If he said to phone him on a particular day, there was no reason to have any contact with him before that unless he requested it. If he had trouble understanding our research methodology, for instance, he might ask us for additional details, and we would obviously respond promptly to that request. But we didn’t hear anything from him during those three weeks, so we assumed that everything was in order. In contrast, if Gonon had been a Charismatic, we might have called or written him just to stay in contact and to ensure that he hadn’t dropped the ball.

Remember that Thinkers like to process information by them­selves, and during that time you need to back off; otherwise, you’re likely to annoy rather than help. Once Thinkers have all the infor­mation they need, they don’t require additional assistance. What they prefer is that you give them the space they need to do their thorough analysis.

A primary caution with Thinkers is that they will never forget a bad experience, so you must be absolutely positive that any recommenda­tion you make is truly the best option. Of course, you should do this for any of the five types of decision makers, but particularly so with Thinkers. And, anyway, Thinkers will eventually figure out for them­selves whether something was truly the best alternative.

My inclination in reading The Five Paths to Persuasion was to balk at this approach to categorization. After a few chapters, my hesitation diminished, and by the end of the book, I thought there were valuable messages delivered that are useful for any reader interested in being more effective in persuading decision makers.

Steve Hopkins, May 25, 2004


ã 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the June 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Five Paths to Persuasion.htm


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