8 Ways to Make People Believe What You Tell Them

How do you get people to believe you?

It sounds like a simple enough problem. In business, most of us – implicitly, if not explicitly – have one answer (or at most, two). That answer is to prove it with data; and to look polished and confident while doing it.

Particularly in complex, B2B services businesses, this is the knee-jerk response. It gets applied to sales pitches, and to handling sales objections. Consultants who advise you on giving presentations will say the same thing: marshal the data, and present it convincingly. It is the approach taken to journalistic writing (at least in J-schools). It is the approach to writing legal briefs.

In consumer marketing, we can be more skeptical. Ah, those wacky consumers, they can be conned by slick TV ads and Instagram campaigns.

But in the ‘real,’ ‘hard’ world of B2B services – not so much. Surely you can’t con sophisticated audiences like the buyers of legal services, the clients of accounting firms, or the CXOs who buy from systems and strategy firms. Surely they abide by the iron-bound rules of logic and evidence. After all, they insist on the point themselves. Surely the only way to get them to believe what we tell them is to provide them with data, delivered with practiced panache.

Isn’t it?

No. And here’s why.


Credibility is one piece of the bedrock of trust. If people doubt what you say, all else is called into doubt, including competence and good intentions. If others don’t believe what you tell them, they won’t take your advice, they won’t buy from you, they won’t speak well of you, they won’t refer you on to others, and they will generally make it harder for you to deal with them.

Being believed is pretty important stuff. The most obvious way to be believed, most people would say, is to be right about what you’re saying. Unfortunately, being right and a dollar will get you a  cup of coffee.  First, people have to be willing to hear you. And no one likes a wise guy show-off – if all you’ve got is a right answer, you’ve not got much.

While each of these may sound simple, there are eight distinct things you can do to improve the odds that people believe what you say.  Are you firing on all eight cylinders?

1. Tell the truth. This is the obvious first point, of course – but it’s amazing how the concept gets watered down. For starters, telling the truth is not the same as just not lying. It requires saying something; you can’t tell the truth if you don’t speak it. (A quick test: ask yourself if anyone believes the opposite of your claim. For example, “we are extremely high quality.” Does anyone advertise their so-so, or their low quality? If not, ditch the pitch).

2. Tell the whole truth. Don’t be cutesey and technical. Don’t allow people to draw erroneous conclusions based on what you left out. By telling the whole truth, you show people that you have nothing to hide. (Most politicians continually flunk this point).

3. Don’t over-context the truth. The most believable way to say something is to be direct about it. Don’t muddy the issue with adjectives, excuses, mitigating circumstances, your preferred spin, and the like. We believe people who state the facts, and let us uncover the context for ourselves.

4. Freely confess ignorance. If someone asks you a question you don’t know the answer to, say, “I don’t know.” It’s one of the most credible things you can say. After all, technical knowledge can always be looked up; personal courage and integrity are in far shorter supply.

5. First, listen. Nothing makes people pay attention to you more than your having paid attention to them first. They will also be more generous in their interpretation of what you say, because you have shown them the grace and respect of carefully listening to them first. Reciprocity is big with human beings.

6. It’s not the words, it’s the intent. You could say, in a monotone voice, “I really care about the work you folks are doing here.” And you would be doubted. Or, you could listen, animatedly, leaning in, raising your eyebrows and bestowing the gift of your attention, saying nothing more than, “wow.” And people would believe that you care.

7. Use commonsense anchors. Most of us in business rely on cognitive tools: data, deductive logic, and references. They are not nearly as persuasive as we think. Focus instead more on metaphors, analogies, shared experiences, stories, song lyrics, movies, famous quotations. People are more inclined to believe something if it’s familiar, if it fits, or makes sense, within their world view.

8. Use the language of the other person. If they say “customer,” don’t you say “client.” And vice versa. If they don’t swear, don’t you dare. If they speak quietly one on one, adopt their style. That way, when you say something, they will not be distracted by your out-of-ordinary approach, and they will intuitively respect that you hear and understand them.

What’s not on this list?  Several things, actually. Deductive logic. Powerpoint. Cool graphics. Spreadsheet backup. Testimonials and references. Qualifications and credentials.

It’s not that these factors aren’t important; they are. But they are frequently used as blunt instruments to qualify or reject. We’d all prefer to be rejected or disbelieved “for cause,” rather than for some feeling. And so we come up with rational reasons for saying no, and justifying yes.  But the decision itself to believe you is far more likely driven by the more emotive factors listed above.

Now – this blogpost was written about B2B services businesses. Just for kicks, try going back and reading it as being about congress and politicians. Does that shed any light on trust in government?


Why People Take Your Advice – Or Don’t: Webinar

Your client asks you for advice. You know the answer.

Further – let’s assume you’re absolutely right.

You give your client the answer.  And then – your client doesn’t take your advice.

What’s Up with That?

How is it that people come to take your advice? Or don’t?  How is that you take other people’s advice; or don’t?

Variations on the theme:

  • Why don’t my customers buy from me?
  • Why won’t my teenager do what I tell them to do?
  • Why doesn’t my spouse appreciate my well-intended suggestions?

If this interests you, join my webinar TODAY on

Why People Take Your Advice – Or Don’t

It is  TODAY, Wednesday August 8, at 11AM US East Coast Time

Major corporate clients pay me quite nicely to hear what I’ll share in this targeted webinar: you can get it for under $50, and I promise you it’ll be fun and entertaining as well.

The event is today, Wednesday August 8, at 11AM US EST.

I’ll talk about the drivers of trust, and how they relate to reciprocity and soft skills. I’ll tell you which gender and which profession is the most trustworthy, and why – and how that reason drives the influence triggers.

I’d love to see you there. Sign up quickly, the event is

TODAY, Wednesday August 8, at 11AM US EST.

Thank you.

If I Were You…

Mike O. explains how he came to understand what it means to be a trusted advisor.


Getting It Right

I had been a consultant for many years. I had a good sense of what client service meant – that I should pursue the right thing for my client, rather than just what I thought was the coolest idea.

I had learned the importance of communication. You had to be clear on your thinking in the first place, then be articulate about getting points across. I knew about body language, about using graphics and not just data, and about dramatic presentations.

I knew all this was hard work and that even with good effort and skill, it was still not an easy task to persuade clients of what I knew to be in their best interest.

Then one day something happened.

Getting It Inside Out

I’d gotten to know Manuel reasonably well. We had spent time together “thinking aloud” and had gained respect for each other as thinkers.

We were talking about some business issue, I honestly don’t recall what. Toward the end he asked me what I thought he should do about a particular angle.

At that moment I was completely at ease. The job was going well. He and I got along nicely. It was a sunny day.

I knew the issue inside out. I knew what Manuel was good at and not good at, what he liked and didn’t like, and how he was likely to respond to the particular situation.

In that moment I could envision exactly what would work for him – while still from my perspective as an outsider. It was like being him, but without any attachment to either his limitations, or to my ego. I knew what would be exactly right for him to do.

“If I were you,” I began – and suddenly everything changed.

He leaned in toward me, relaxed, but focused and intent on what I was going to tell him.  He really wanted to hear what I would say next – and I knew he was going to do exactly what I suggested.

Now, I know how to read body language. I realized this had not happened before. Every other time I gave advice to clients, they leaned back or sat up straight; they stiffened their back, rather than relaxing. Their eyes narrowed, rather than opening up; they were preparing to evaluate what I had to say.

But Manuel wasn’t in evaluation mode; he was going to accept exactly what I said, and we both knew it.

If I Were You…

I realized later those words both triggered and expressed a new perspective. Until then, I had always thought of consulting as telling the client what I thought they should do. I was the expert, they were paying me to get my expert advice. I packaged my advice to maximize the chances they’d do the right thing.

But it was always me, advising them. With Manuel, for the first time, I’d gotten outside myself. I’d realized what I would do if I were him.

I no longer had to be me, telling my clients what to do. I could tap into being them, imagining what it was like, what would work, and what wouldn’t. All I had to do was imagine putting myself in their shoes.

I realized they really did want my advice – if I was a steward about it, really reflecting their take on things.  I became more careful about giving my advice, waiting until I not only had the facts and the problem straight, but had a chance to empathize with the client as well.  That way, when the time came, I knew I could sincerely say, “If I were you…”

Consulting began to get a lot easier. I still had to do the leg work, the thinking, the presenting. But I no longer felt it was a struggle. I now know, my best advising comes when I’m able to put myself in the other guy’s shoes.


Thanks, Mike, eloquently said.

Arguing Rationally to the Irrational

More and more research—from behavioral economists and psychologists—is pointing out ways in which our Renaissance-era views of human cognition are a bit off base.  It is one thing to say cogito ergo sum.  It is quite another to claim we cogit very well.

Perhaps the best-known of the new works is Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely.   Others include Sway and Nudge, and maybe Blink and Squawk.  And definitely Yes.  (See a pattern in these titles?).

However, the opening story in Ariely’s Predictably Irrational raises an interesting question.  To whom are these books addressed?

Does Convincing People Change Their Actions?

He tells a fascinating story of having suffered from third-degree burns, wondering why the nurses insisted on the all-at-once one method of bandage removal, rather than slow removal of the bandage.

The nurses insisted the all at once theory was the best for the patient.  Ariely concluded, based on research done afterward, that the nurses’ attraction to that theory was in fact based on their own need to curtail the empathetic pain that they felt for the patient.  If the patient’s pain were all that mattered, some version of slow removal turned out to be far better.

So far so good.  Ariely tells the story as an example of how irrational thinking often—and predictably–dominates rational decision-making.  Indeed, as he says, when he talked to the nurses about it:

“In the end, we all agreed that the procedures should be changed.”

Good. Clear thought (cognitive rational therapy?) triumphs, thanks to Ariely’s insightful analysis.  Right?  Well, not so fast.

“My recommendations never changed the bandage removal on a greater scale…”

This is ironic: but it should not be a surprise.  If you’re trying to convince people of the weakness of rational argument, then rational arguments are not likely to do the job.  In a similar vein:

•    You often can’t solve a problem by working at the same level at which it was caused.
•    Most people, if told what to do, are generally inclined not to do it.  (Underscore that for strangers, teenagers, relatives over the age of 14, and men—I think).
•    In the US, the self-help book market is $2 Billion.  That’s about $600 of self-help per person per year.  Clearly either the advice is bad or people don’t take it.  (Hint: put your money on the latter).

Corporate Implications of Non-rational Thinking

This raises interesting questions for the daily conduct of major parts of corporate business.

  • Why do salespeople spin lengthy arguments about value propositions?
  • Why do consultants use powerpoint for numbers and words alone?
  • Why do buyers spend time rationally justifying decisions?
  • Why do change initiatives spend so much effort developing convincing arguments?

So what’s a corporate change agent to do?  Let me offer a few very broad, inconclusive observations:

1. The likelihood of other people accepting suggestions is greatly improved if:

  •     They are presented in the form of a story
  •     They are presented at a time of crisis for which the suggestions offer a solution
  •     The recipients of the suggestions conceive of them as their own

2. People make decisions with their gut, and rationalize them with their brains.  The rationalization process is important: it dictates procedures, and positions logic as a kind of least-common-denominator quality requirement.  It also serves as an emotionally neutral (albeit manipulable) arbiter, which relieves us all of the emotional/political pressure of deciding based solely on argumentation.

3. We need to take these books seriously.  One b-school industrial economist who focuses on culture change told me, “Frankly, we know perfectly well how to manage organizational change.  It’s called propaganda, or the Big Lie.  Just keep saying the One Big Thing, over and over, and people will fall into line.”  You may not like his observation, but it makes a lot of sense, and there’s data to prove it.

Not that that proves anything…



Zen and the Art of Trusted Advisorship

In our Trusted Advisor workshops and coaching engagements, we spend a lot of time on listening. Why? Because not listening is one of the top two causes of trust breakdown. (The other — accelerating too quickly to a solution – is another form of not listening.)

Listening is critical to advice-giving because it’s through listening that we earn the right to offer advice.

There are many reasons we humans do a crappy job of listening. One of my favorites: the little internal voice that clogs our brain with incessant chatter.

(Don’t have a little voice in your head? Your little voice is the one that says, “What little voice? I don’t have a little voice.”)

A 30-second snippet from a typical internal dialogue:

Client: [insert reasonable work-related comments here]

Your little voice: “Uh oh. I should have spent more time preparing for this meeting. You know, I’m not sure I like this guy.”

Client: [insert reasonable work-related comments here]

LV: “I do like his tie. The suit, not so much.”

LV: “Did I remember to take my black suit to the drycleaner?”

Client: [insert reasonable work-related comments here]

LV: “I wish he’d hurry up and finish so I can re-focus this conversation. He’s taken us way off course.”

And so it goes. Like static on a radio station, the little voice interferes with our ability to tune in.

Which begs the question: How to reduce the static to improve our listening so that we, in turn, will be listened to?

Unfortunately, that little voice will never go away – it comes with being human. But there are ways to minimize it. Here are my Top Three:

1. Prepare your mind. This suggestion comes directly from The Trusted Advisor (page 200, if you must know). Train your brain to notice random chatter, and substitute some wry wisdom of your own choosing. Examples:

“I am not the center of the universe.

"It’s a ‘we’ game, not a ‘me’ game.”

“A point of view doesn’t commit you for life.”

“Knowing the truth is better than not knowing it.”

You can also make this part of your pre-flight checklist before your next big client meeting.

2. Get a little Zen. When the chatter arises, notice and observe it; raise your consciousness about it in the moment and gently but swiftly return your focus to the real conversation at-hand. This is similar to the practice that experienced meditators use of returning to the breath when “monkey mind” (a mind that jumps from thought to thought like a monkey jumps from tree to tree) takes over.

3. Think out loud. Get the chatter out of your head and into the conversation. This is especially valuable when your little voice is expressing a concern. Here are some examples:

LV: “He seems distracted.”

What you might say: “Let’s take a time out to be sure we’re going in the right direction with this conversation.”

LV: “I’m not sure she understands what I’m getting at.”

What you might say: “At the risk of appearing a little assertive here, may I be blunt?”

LV: “I am doing a lot of talking; someone shut me up!”

What you might say: “I’m hearing myself doing a lot of the talking here. What haven’t I asked about that’s important for me to know?”

This one requires some risk-taking. As does all trust.

You’re not crazy for having the little voice; you’re human. Do your clients – and yourself – a favor by training your brain to tune chatter out, client in. By listening, you earn the right to be listened to.