I was meeting with a new client last week to get an idea of what she was hoping to achieve from our work together.  She said quite simply, “I want to be more inspiring and I have to be more persuasive. The first part is for me and the second part is for my job.”  Immediately an image popped into my head of a time when I was both inspired and persuaded.

It happened at a large conference of business leaders and education reformers who had gathered to discuss the then radical notion of charter schools and whether they were just a nefarious scheme to rob existing schools of precious resources, or whether they were the answer to all that was wrong with public education.  The stakes were high, lines were drawn, and hackles were raised.

The keynote speaker at this conference was Howard Fuller, former Superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools and currently Director of the Center for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University.  He not only captured the hearts and minds of everyone in the room, but he persuaded many skeptics that charters were worthy of a second look.  He was successful in his mission – and memorable – because he let his passion for educational equality shine through, and because he did such a good job of articulating why the audience should care about the charter school movement.

Part preacher, part storyteller, with a little in-your-face poetry slam technique thrown in for good measure, Howard Fuller blends the qualities of a captivating speaker into one powerful delivery.  While there is no video clip of that particular speech (remember VHS tapes?), I have included a link above and here to give you a sense of his style.

So, what can we all learn from Dr. Fuller about how to be more inspiring and persuasive?  Rhetorical devices.  Since I took notes that day and still have them in my Inspiration Folder, I can share with you the techniques he used to get all of us to sit up and pay attention.

Kinesthetic Imagery – Creating the feeling of motion, movement, or muscular tension/relaxation.

“What I have learned over the years is that far too many of us support change as long as nothing changes.  Change is hard. At every level it’s hard.  And as soon as you get some traction, someone will ask, ‘Why are we doing this? Can’t we go back to the old way?’ So I started this mantra of ‘leap before you look.’ Because if you look too long, you will never leap. You’ll be standing over that cliff, looking out, and waiting, and waiting some more.  But if you jump, you discover that there is an urgency to find new answers.”

“We have rules and regulations and policies for everything. I mean ev-ry-thing. We have policies that allow adults to stay in their building just because they’ve been there the longest.  We’ve got people in these buildings who’ve been sitting back with their arms folded for the last ten years! Peter Drucker said, ‘There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.’”

Anaphora/Word Repetition – using the same word or words at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, or sentences.

“One of the things I did was to require that all 9th graders take Algebra.  You would have thought I asked for the world to end. The change blockers said, ‘They’re all gonna flunk!’ Now, I’ve visited classrooms where kids were taking Math for Life, Math for Going to the Supermarket, Math for How to Get on the Bus, Math for the Living Dead.  So my response was, ‘If you’re flunking them anyway, why not flunk them in a course that actually means something!’”

“We need people who respect our children, but I’m going to take it further and say that we need people who love our children. Because if you cannot love them, you cannot understand them. And if you cannot understand them, you cannot reach them. And if you cannot reach them, then how in the world can you expect to teach them?”

Analogy – comparing two things for the purpose of explaining or clarifying an idea.

“Those of you who have been in an [Apple] store, you know there are lots of gadgets and work tables and bean bag chairs. Invariably there are kids sitting on those chairs working on computers.  Now, when those kids show up in the classroom, do you think they’re gonna sit in perfect rows and be quiet and turn to page four in the textbook?  If you think that, you are sorely mistaken.  It’s like trying to teach the hip-hop generation with a waltz mentality, and then blaming the kids when it doesn’t work.” 

Key Takeaway:  It takes time to cultivate the skills of persuasion and influence primarily because it involves shifting our focus from our own needs and wants to those of our audience. We are all so busy and distracted that we don’t carve out the time to carefully craft our presentations, our project updates, our recommendations to the Board.  Our focus is on self-preservation (let me just get through this) or, in some cases, political positioning (all I need to do is not diminish my standing).  We end up giving nothing of ourselves.  As a result, our delivery is often dull and full of verbal junk food.

If your reputation matters, then be sure to find the time to plan out your remarks using these techniques. Then practice your delivery. Suddenly, your intention to be more persuasive has momentum. And one last word on being more inspiring. To quote Winston Churchill, before you can inspire others with emotion, you must first be swamped with it yourself.


– Barbara