The Art of Persuasion - How to Influence People and Get What You Want, by Juliet Erickson

Getting your own way the easy way
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Entrepreneurs and owners of growing businesses can be a bit like those people who prop up the bar in the pub complaining that nobody understands them. They have great ideas, wonderful business models and yet they can't persuade investors to back them or customers to try them out.

Some of their complaints are justified. After all, you only have to look at some of the struggles endured by entrepreneurs with ideas that go on to be hugely successful to wonder how many ventures founder for the lack of the founder's determination or even just luck.

But it is also fair to say that entrepreneurs - like everybody else - cannot expect an easy ride. It is a highly competitive world and investors, would-be customers and the rest have many other things competing for their attention. They have to be persuaded to listen or to act - and that requires communication.

Corporate communications has something of a murky image. It is widely assumed to be largely about generating good PR (public relations). But in the true sense it is about helping the outside world understand what companies do and where they fit into the wider world. Larger corporates have begun to realise this by constantly widening their communications remit so that they seek to influence all sorts of sectors of the public in a variety of ways other than simply advertising and PR. For companies listed on tock markets, communicating with investors has become so important that investor relations is a separate activity often carried out by a team of people.

But communication is just as crucial - if not more so - for smaller businesses. At the very outset, it is no good an entrepreneur developing a wonderful new technology if he or she cannot explain why it is significant and how it can change lives. Without this explanation, the idea is unlikely to get the financial backing required to bring it to fruition.

In much the same way, business owners can be so caught up in what their enterprise is about that they cannot communicate to those working for them what the objective is and how they, the staff, can help bring it about.

Some people are so-called naturals at this sort of thing. Others have to work at it. And those in the latter camp could do worse than take a look at this book.

As the co-founder of an international communications consultancy, Juliet Erickson has spent a good deal of time advising executives in large corporations and has also lectured at London Business School and at Stanford University in the United States, two places that produce such executives. But she has plenty to say of relevance to those involved in smaller enterprises. After all, she stumbled into the communications business working for a couple of entrepreneurs launching a new form of technology as the person whose job it was to persuade people to buy it, and then helping to launch a magazine and related chain of stores. And she now spends part of her time as a business mentor for young entrepreneurs.

Like many books of this kind, The Art of Persuasion is apt to come over as a sort of self-help manual. Indeed, some of her examples concern individuals rather than businesses, such as "the bright young student" enhancing her communication skills to gain a place at her choice of university or "a determined mum" winning a place on the board of governors in order to change things for the better at her child's school. But there are enough lessons - put across, in a pleasingly bright and breezy style - for the book to be of real value to those struggling in this increasingly important area of modern business.

In the first section, "Getting the Basics Right", Erickson explains why persuasive communication is so critical and how to make sure you are "absolutely clear about what it is you want to communicate". The second is the ubiquitous "toolbox" of fundamental skills. These include such things as style of approach, structuring the message and cold calling, but most importantly, in her view, building rapport. Though widely felt to be something that happens naturally, rapport - or making a special connection with somebody - Erickson says it is possible to learn how to create it.

Her final section deals with "make-or-break moments", times when a presentation, speech, for instance, has to be got right first time. Here, the key is preparation - and Erickson has various tools to recommend, such as preparing for a meeting by sending a short presentation in advance, as well as doing your homework to ensure you know as much as possible about the audience and their organisation and - as a result - making sure you include the right sort of information to make your case to this particular audience.

Indeed, flexibility of approach - remembering that one size will not fit all - is one of the themes of a book that goes a long way to take the mystery out of effective communication.