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Storytelling and genuine persuasion

First, true persuasion is not about any old idea, good, bad, or indifferent. Genuine persuasion is about an idea that is worthwhile in itself. If the idea is not worthwhile in itself and is being pursued for other reasons, such as career, prestige, money, power or simply the goal of winning, then it is unlikely to generate enduring enthusiasm in any audience.

Second, to persuade, a leader must be truthful. the the use of deception or dissimulation to promote ideas is known as propaganda. The use of such techniques to promote ideas is frequent in shabby advertising.

The idea that persuasion is about true ideas is unpopular, perhaps even anathema, in those realms of academia where post-modernist and ironic philosophy prevails, and truth is a discredited notion, and any viewpoint can be accepted as being as good any other, so long as someone happens to hold it. But in the real world, the world of change, the pursuit of the true is fundamental to persuasion. There is a fundamental practical difference between ideas that are reliable and those that have no intellectual basis for belief. Persuasion is basically about the former kind of ideas.

Third, persuasion is not about selling an idea in a one-way process of communication. Effective persuasion is inherently two-way communication. Unless persuasion is a two-way process, it is unlikely to be effective, it will be temporary, ephemeral exchange of information. If it is forceful one-way communication, it will be brow-beating, intellectual rape and pillage. If such communication is supported by economic incentives and disincentives, it may become coercion and it may enjoy a sort of short-term effectiveness. If it uses devious means, it becomes trickery.

None of these types of communications constitute genuine persuasion. They may be effective in getting short run actions or even shifts in attitudes, if enough economic or other power is brought to bear on the audience. In a one-way process of communication, information may become temporarily lodged in the listener’s mind, like flotsam and jetsam washed up from the sea, but it will wash or blow away with the first wind that comes, the first wave that breaks. Effective persuasion is about permanent change in people’s minds, and the only way in which this can happen is by a two-way process of communication.

Persuasion is a two-way interchange like conversation. You give and you take. As an instigator of change, you are likely to find that you get more than you give, because you are listening to every nuance of audience reaction, seizing on every question as a invaluable indication of what is going on the interchange, capturing your answers which you have to invent on the spot and using them in future interchanges. A bad persuader is like a bad conversationalist who monopolizes the conversation in a monotonic lecture. Good persuasion is basically two-way communication.

Fourth, in what follows from the previous characteristic, persuasion is a process in which the listener is active. The listener must actively participate in the discovery of truth for the idea to become part of their permanent mental framework.

Fifth, genuine persuasion is about achieving permanent change in mental frameworks. Great persuasion is not different from great teaching or fine dialogue. The truly great persuaders – Plato, Jesus, Descartes, Jefferson – communicated their ideas so effectively, the entire human race has been unable to recover from their teaching. There is no way that we can go back to looking at the world the way it was before they spoke. They have permanently altered the way the human race thinks about things and looks and feels about the world around us. Even people who have never heard of them cannot escape the reach of their ideas. Looked at from the devil’s point of view, the “damage” they have done is irreparable. Put more positively, their way of thinking has been incorporated in the way the human race thinks about things, so that it is now such a part of the human mindscape we are no longer aware of it as persuasion. Persuasion thus aims at permanent change in mental frameworks.

For genuine persuasion, a leader must show narrative intelligence. To learn about these concepts, read The Secret Language of Leadership.


Stephen Denning, The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leader's Inspire Action Through Narrative (Jossey-Bass, October 2007): chapters 1, 5 and 6.

Stephen Denning, The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations. Boston, London, Butterworth Heinemann, October 2000, chapters 4

Aristotle, The Art of Rhetoric

Plato, Symposium

Plato, Phaedrus

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