11 May 2021 19:38 IST

Getting a stakeholder to a ‘yes’

Still from the film Lagaan: Bhuvan used a four-step influencing framework to convince the sceptical villagers.

It is all about what you say, how you say it, who you say it to and who you are

There is no magic wand. There is, in fact, an art and a science to it. This was deftly demonstrated by Bhuvan, the protagonist of the iconic 2001 film Lagaan. Set in 1893, the film depicts the people of a small village in central India pleading with Captain Russel, the ruthless British officer, for exempting their tax in wake of a yet another drought year. The officer, instead, challenges them to win a game of cricket in return of cancelling the tax, a bet which, much to the chagrin of the villagers, is accepted by Bhuvan.

Bhuvan now had the arduous task of convincing the sceptical villagers to play the match. He used a four-step influencing framework for getting them to a ‘yes.’

Step 1: Offer a strong, logical argument

Aware of the villagers’ concerns about playing, let alone winning an alien game, Bhuvan pointed out that they had enough time on hand to learn the game, which was akin to the traditional Indian gulli-danda they had been playing all their lives. Next, he set up a game of cricket with a village boy to demonstrate its similarity with gulli-danda. He further assuaged their fears about learning a new game by pointing out the willingness of a British lady to play coach. In addition, he outlined the benefits of playing the match in the terms of the cancellation of the onerous tax for three years, which could potentially change the destiny of the village in more ways than one. He also played up to their fears by identifying the only other option before them — selling their land to pay the tax.

In effect, taking an audience-centric approach, Bhuvan started by finding common grounds with the villagers, and followed this up with outlining benefits, anticipating and addressing objections and fortifying his claims by providing strong evidence.

Step 2: Make your message memorable

Your success in selling an idea is contingent upon getting the audience interested in your narrative. So, gain their attention by incorporating stories, analogies and visuals, on top of strong logic.

Use visuals or vivid descriptions

Bhuvan went beyond just stating that their village will be prosperous. He held the villagers spellbound by painting a striking picture of a green, flourishing village, and conjured up a scenario depicting the village kids, Bittu, Rani and the others, going off to school and growing up to become doctors and lawyers.

Say it with a story

Most of us may struggle to remember the Archimedes principle, but we may be quick to recall the story where Archimedes, struck with an idea, jumped out of the bathtub, and ran naked on the streets of Syracuse, shouting “Eureka Eureka!” According to cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, we are 22 times more likely to remember and appreciate a fact, when it has been wrapped in a story.

Let’s say that you are advocating for people to use seat belts while driving. Just telling them that people without seat belts are 30 times more likely to be ejected from the vehicle during a crash, and that three out of four people who eject, die from injuries, may not do the trick. Strengthen this logical, data-driven pitch by spinning a real life story of a person who had met with an accident, and would most certainly have died, had it not been for the seat belt. Relate a vibrant story, giving the character a name and throwing in a graphic description of the scene to have people actually feel vicarious pain and trauma.

Use analogies

In the early 1990s at Microsoft, product managers Karen Fries and Barry Linnett, pitched for a software with a social interface, where animated animal figures would help the user negotiate through different tasks. They offered a strong data-driven proposal encompassing the first mover advantage, the readiness of the market for such a software and a favourable cost-benefit analysis. But they did not stop here.

In order to cook a meal, they said, you need to look up a recipe, trudge to the supermarket to buy the ingredients, come back and sweat it out in the kitchen to cook a meal. They caught the imagination of their audience when they claimed that the experience provided by the software currently offered by Microsoft was analogous to this experience. They proposed replacing this with a restaurant experience where you drive to a restaurant, check out the menu, order your dish, sit back and relax while the dish is prepared and served, and then walk out of the restaurant after having your meal. (Example from Jay Conger’s 1998 Harvard Business Review article — The necessary art of persuasion)

Step 3: Identify the decision makers and influencers

Bhuvan treaded ahead carefully meeting people one-on-one, and in small groups, identifying, assessing and addressing their concerns, outlining the benefits of playing the match and gradually winning them over to his cause. In a show of strength, he deliberately went to these meetings accompanied by people who had already bought into the idea.

It is, therefore, imperative to work on those who’s word counts with the decision maker, influencing them first, before finally approaching the decision maker. You need allies for achieving this, people who will support and promote your cause.

Step 4: Build your credibility

Bhuvan’s success in a convincing the villagers was largely the outcome of the trust that people placed in him. Similarly, Microsoft product managers Karen Fries and Barry Linnett not only had a compelling track record of past successes, but also great relationships within the company, all of which held them in good stead in making a successful pitch.

Getting a stakeholder to a ‘yes’ is, therefore, contingent upon what you say, how you say it, who you say it to and who you are.