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Learning the gift of gab

Persuasive hands

TESS VIGELAND: Let me ask everyone a pretty simple question. By a show of hands, how many of you want a promotion?

Well, OK, I can't see your hands - but I can imagine lots of them sticking up.

Well, if you want that better job and all that comes with it, one way is to go back to school - business school. But you might be surprised to find a class other than finance and accounting on your schedule. You might call it Persuasion 101.
Alex Goldmark reports.

ALEX GOLDMARK: After more than 15 years as an entrepreneur, Matt Symonds still felt he needed brushing up on his some of his business skills, especially the interpersonal ones, like negotiating.

MATT SYMONDS: I think my approach up until then had always been a fairly haphazard, ill-prepared approach.

So he found a course on negotiation at Columbia's Business School. The course drew on psychology and other social sciences to suggest better business moves. Like, try to make the opening offer when negotiating.

SYMONDS: I think I was always far too timid to do that, but now found I had the confidence to go in and make an opening bid and really then set the stall for the rest of the discussion. That meant that we achieved much greater value in some of our advertising campaigns. I think that we actually think that we improved some of the returns by 30 or 40 percent.

So you made more money then.

SYMONDS: As a European, we of course always shy away from that idea. But yes. In a very concrete way, both personally and for my company.

Professor Bob Bontempo of Columbia's Business School specializes in turning psychology into business profits. He taught that negotiation class. And now he's going to help students brush up on a new skill: persuasion. He says students wanted more than just negotiation.

BOB BONTEMPO: It wasn't just negotiating transactions, [how to negotiate contracts of formal negotiations,] it was that on a day to day basis they are often in meetings where they need to be persuasive, they need to build consensus, they need to change people's minds, they need to overcome resistance to a change in strategy or implementation of a new initiative.

Bontempo says the key is understanding the psychology of the target of your persuasion. If you disagree with them too much, they'll reject everything else you say. But flat out agreeing won't get you anywhere.

BONTEMPO: Second you can train people how to fine tune their message based on the type of person they are dealing with. Some people are swayed by a dramatic vivid colorful story, other people want to see data and facts and figures.

I'm more swayed by trustworthy testimony and word of mouth, he tells me. Personally I'm not so sure he pegged me right. I'll test it out next time I buy a used car. But his course isn't just for salesmen. It's for their bosses too.

Chuck Wardell of the executive recruiting firm, Korn/Ferry says persuasion is critical for executives who have to sell their ideas to coworkers and motivate subordinates.

CHUCK WARDELL: Persuading people that the business proposition is sound. And that it's in our joint self-interest to work together to get it done is the art of leadership in corporate existence. It is the skill that you must have at a certain level.

So he says, classes that focus on interpersonal skills are a helpful compliment to the traditional business school regimen.

WARDELL: You have to have the analytical skills to understand what you're seeing and the pressures on you but you have to have the leadership skills to get the end result in the marketplace.

OK, but isn't teaching persuasion just manipulation boiled down to a science? Again, Professor Bob Bontempo:

BONTEMPO: People often raise issues with the ethics of persuasion as manipulation. And I'd like to simply point out that you are manipulating me right now, because you are making direct eye contact with me, and your smiling and nodding and you're at least feigning if not expressing sincere interest and that's a very powerful way to get me to keep on talking and tell more stories.

Mmmhmm. Go on.

BONTEMPO: We're manipulating and influencing and persuading people all day long. I am just trying to make people more effective at it.

And then they'll use it to make more money.

BONTEMPO: And I hope they use it to make the world a better place.'

So not just money?

BONTEMPO: But because I believe in market forces I believe that that's one and the same thing.

A persuasive point - if I were persuaded by that kind of thing.

In New York, I'm Alex Goldmark for Marketplace Money.

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