Persuade by Shutting Up


"My theory has an opinion. I don't have an opinion," says Harvard B-school prof Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator's Dilemma. He's employing a great rhetorical strategy. Want someone to agree with your opinion? Take yourself out of the picture. It makes you sound objective and disinterested--free of special interests. Those who have read my book or heard me speak know that appearing disinterested helps make an audience trust your opinion. So how do you take yourself out of your own point of view? 

1. The Reluctant Conclusion.

"I used to agree with the other side. But the facts (or changing circumstances) forced me to change my mind." Christensen doesn't exactly do this. But he does say Listen to the theory, not to me. That takes personality out of the picture. How does the audience know whether to believe the theory? By looking at the facts. Not at Christensen.

2. The Passive Voice.

Writing coaches tell you to stick to the active voice. But scientists (and B-school profs like Christensen) use the passive voice in most of their academic papers. "The mouse was placed into the maze," not "My hot young research assistant placed the mouse into the maze." Again, this takes the personality out of the picture, making the author seem disinterested.

3. Shutting Up.

I call this tool Stalin's Timing Secret. Before he became the Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin would sit mute until the very end of meetings. Finally, if there was any disagreement, he would weigh in on one side or the other and settle the issue. He did this so often that comrades would look at him toward the end of every meeting, waiting for his judgment. It works. Wait until late in a meeting, then say, "This is what I'm hearing." Then spin it in a way that favors your point of view.

Shutting up. Consider it the new eloquence.