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“Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done, because he wants to do it.”

– Dwight Eisenhower


This famous quote implies that persuasion is fundamental to effective leadership. What many theorists of leadership look to uncover is how to get “someone else to do something you want, because he wants to do it”.


“… leading an organisation to constructive change begins by setting a direction — developing a vision of the future, along with strategies for producing the changes needed … the activity is aligning people. This means communicating the new direction to those who can create coalitions that understand the vision and are committed to its achievement … it is more of a communication challenge than a design problem.”

– What Leaders Really Do, John P. Kotter, Harvard Business Review


Observation of successful leaders coupled with statistical evidence from the likes of Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence) support Kotter’s assertions on the seminal importance of communication. However, many executives with leadership aspirations struggle to communicate effectively.

Over the course of the 20th Century, the teaching of language and modes of discourse diminished in importance to the point where in Australia, some states removed English grammar from the school curriculum. As a result, while many business leaders possess exceptional technical skill and business acumen, they often lack the tools to communicate persuasively.

Take a moment to reflect on the careers of two of Australia’s recent prime ministers, John Howard and Paul Keating. Regardless of your political stance, the connection between their persuasive powers and the success of their legislative agenda is clear. The same is true of business leaders. Despite differences in expertise, style and approach, great business leaders share one trait: exceptional communication skills.

The art of persuasion appears to come naturally for some, although many of us struggle with it. The good news is the principles of persuasive presentation can be learned by anyone and applied to gain consensus, sell an idea or generate support.



1. Do your research, know your audience

Analyse what’s important to your addressees and what will capture their attention. Research each audience member pre-presentation, and consider their wants, needs, fears and pain points. If there’s contention between different parties, you may have to explore different presenting styles and draw on multiple examples to evidence your point and appeal to differing perspectives. Don’t be afraid to stop and ask questions of the audience, or to clarify your point mid-pitch.

2. Put the audience at the centre of the pitch

Ensure your presentation is phrased in the audience’s language with meaningful benefit statements and real-life perspective. This is about them, not you. Make sure to avoid jargon and technical lingo, as longwinded sentences can distract the audience and make you veer off track.

3. Be clear and structured in your approach

Use a basic essay or story structure to organise your presentation, ensuring you have a hook, an introduction, an argument or thesis statement, a body of evidence, and a conclusion that reinforces your argument. Repeat, recap and reiterate just a handful of key points throughout your pitch or presentation. Don’t confuse the audience with mixed or multiple messages.

4. Provide a sound argument with a clear call to action

The key for any persuasive communication is a sound argument or thesis. The right argument will leave an audience believing the action you are recommending is compelling and when executed well, indisputable. Furthermore, it can lead the audience to feel that the conclusion is so self-evident, they came to it themselves.

How many presentations have you sat through thinking, “so what? Why are you telling me this? Why should I care?” An argument compels action, or at least debate that will lead to action. Without the right argument, you are only relaying facts and transmitting data. You will either bore your audience or worse, leave them to draw their own conclusions.

5. Use examples

Evidence is critical — prove your expertise and prove the value of your ideas. Link your examples back to your argument and spell out the connection. Include analogies and case studies that produce emotion, create an impact and support your point. If you can’t find examples specific to your field, draw from cases in other fields and industries that are facing similar challenges.

6. Deliver an experience

A level of interactivity will help maintain the interest of your audience and help manage your own nerves. Utilise questioning techniques and facilitation skills. Capture the attention of your audience by opening with a comment that is funny, startling or thought-provoking. Your personal style is an important part of how you engage stakeholders — not just what you say, but how you say it and the confidence that you project.

Explore creative ways of presenting, utilising role plays, simulations, multi-media and storytelling methods. Be aware of your voice, eye contact, gestures, stance and movement, and use them to command attention and create distinctions. Renowned screenwriter Robert McKee believes there are two ways to persuade people: “the first is by using conventional rhetoric … the other way to persuade people — and ultimately, a much more powerful way — is by uniting an idea with an emotion. The best way to do that is by telling a compelling story…”

7. Plan and prepare for difficult questions

The Q&A period post presentation is an opportunity to get immediate feedback on your pitch as well as an opportunity to reinforce your message. Be ready for difficult situations and anticipate the queries likely to arise from your audience. It helps to practice your presentation in front of a live audience to cover off any elements you may not have thought of. Ensure you paraphrase the question before jumping in and answering it and take into account the motivation of the questioner. This will give you time to mentally evaluate the question and crystallise your thoughts.

8. Practice makes perfect

Skills around presenting with impact can be learned and they improve with practice. Jump at every opportunity you have to present or facilitate in public, whether it be at team meetings, networking events, industry forums or conferences. There are many external organisations and networks you can tap into, such as Toastmasters International. This can provide the opportunity to build skills in a safe environment.

9. To lead, look to Aristotle

For a model of persuasive communication, look no further than Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Rhetoric refers to the art of employing language to communicate persuasively. It requires that the orator appeal to the audience through logos, pathos and ethos. Logos (logic) means to present a logical succession of evidence. Pathos means to make an emotional connection with your audience by understanding their needs and pain points. Thirdly, ethos concerns the speaker’s appeal to the ethics of the audience and the need for the speaker to communicate their own credibility.

What can we learn from Aristotle? Employing logic, emotion and credibility can inspire action through argument.




  • Communication
  • Persuasion

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