Persuasive Communication Strategies

Last Sunday I had the chance to hear Professor Tannenbaum speak at a local Brown Alumni Club event in Dallas. I was so excited because her classes at Brown were always full and hard to get into. I never got to take one. So I felt like I was getting a second chance for a small snippet of what I missed.


The brilliant Barbara Tannenbaum

Tannenbaum is not only a professor at Brown but also a consultant to global businesses, organizations and leaders, teaching the power of persuasive audience-centered communication. She conducts communications workshops at other colleges, such as Wellesley and Dartmouth and regularly helps political candidates communicate and speak more effectively.

Naturally, her hour-long talk was spectacular. Engaging, lively and informative. Here’s what I learned from her talk that can help anyone who has to use persuasive communication, i.e. most of us.

1. Always consider the WIFM. WIFM stands for What’s In It For Me and means that you have to consider what how your audience will benefit from what you’re trying telling them or get them to do. For example, she said that she consults with a large museum in New York. The IT manager was preparing to communicate that he was switching the email program the museum staff used. Barbara asked him what the WIFM was since people hate change, especially technological change. He said that it would save the museum money. She argued that the message of saving money might not go over as he intended. Staff members might then think that their jobs were at risk. More importantly, saving the museum money was probably not the most important thing to the museum’s employees. She challenged him to figure out what would about the switch would mean most to the employees and focus on that. Finally he realized that  changing email programs would allow employees to send larger files and have more storage (something that a museum’s employees would be happy about since they often send large image files) and focused on that as the core of his communications. It worked.

2. When public speaking, project confidence through your stance and the amount of space you take up. We did an audience activity where she told the women to sit like men and the men to sit like women. What happened? The women spread their legs and took up more space while the men crossed their legs and took up less space. She said that women are often perceived as less confident because of this tendency we have to contract into ourselves. We should sit with legs uncrossed, especially in an interview situation. And she said that if your skirt is too short to do that, then it’s also too short to wear. She had us stand up and stand with our feet hip length apart and told us that this is how we should stand when speaking in public. No crossed legs. No fifth position ballet stance. No leaning against a wall. No hands clasped in front of your crotch. Hands by your side. Also, don’t wear distracting accessories like earrings that dangle when you move or bracelets that clink. She said solid colors are best and then she can get away with addressing more edgy topics if she is conservatively dressed.

3. Repeat important information two to three times. She said research shows that once is not enough and that four times is too many and starts to annoy people. I noticed that when Barbara was telling us about Harvard Business School Professor Amy Cuddy’s interesting TED Talk (which is truly fascinating and if you struggle with public speaking or confidence you must watch it) about how your body language shapes who you are and how you are perceived, she mentioned Cuddy twice in a row, and then a third time she spelled Cuddy’s last name. I’m remembering it here two days later so this technique must work since I’m notorious for forgetting people’s names, especially right after I’ve just met them. For this problem, Barbara recommended repeating a person’s name when shaking their hand and looking in their eyes to determine their eye color. This avoids the dreaded “politician’s greeting” where someone shaking your hand is looking over or around you for someone more important to talk to.

I am so grateful that I finally got to take a “class” with Barbara Tannenbaum.


3 thoughts on “Persuasive Communication Strategies

  1. The problem is that people do this outside a business situation, for example in a train…

    Women who cross their legs in a train or a subway/bus usually annoy each other (when crossing legs towards another woman with her legs crossed) or generally everyone in the bus since their legs take up some space in the aisles as well.


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