In 1956, defense lawyer Emile Zola Berman traveled from New York City to Parris Island, South Carolina, with a near-impossible task.
Staff sergeant Matthew McKeon had prescribed a routine training exercise that resulted in the drowning deaths of six recruits. Berman was tasked with defending him. It was a complicated case, but not altogether unusual. What made it near-impossible is that higher-ups had instructed McKeon’s fellow drill instructors not to speak up on his behalf – they were discouraged from helping his case. And when Berman arrived, the instructors were as tight-lipped as ever.
When Berman and his protege arrived, he addressed them all, saying, “My name is Emile Zola Berman. I’m a civilian, I’m a Jew, and I’m a Yankee from New York City. I’ve come down here to save the Marine Corps. If no one helps me, I’m going back to New York to resume my life. If you care about the Corp, and if you care about truth, come see us in our quarters tonight. And help us keep you proud to be a marine.”
A knock at the door the next morning at 2 A.M. told Berman and his protege that his simple speech had successfully convinced one sergeant to speak up – and then another, and another, until Berman had the forces he needed to make his case.
Ethical Influence: A Communication Superpower
Was Berman’s simple speech the only thing that convinced the instructors to speak up? There’s no way to know for sure. But whether his words were a grand revelation or the straw that broke the camel’s back, his short speech made a big impact – and in it, we can see 6 major principles of effective persuasion.
1. KNOW PRECISELY WHAT YOU ARE TRYING TO ACCOMPLISH.
When he arrived, Berman was quick to realize that his back was up against a wall. The instructors had been pressured not to communicate with Berman, and he would have to break their code of silence in order to defend McKeon. But he knew all it would take was one. If he could get one to speak up, many more would follow.
That was the goal he had in the back of his mind: just to get one of them to communicate with him.
When he introduced himself to the instructors, he said, “I’ve come down here to save the Marine Corps.” He was trying to get them to understand that his goals and their goals are the same. He wanted to communicate to them that they would also benefit by helping him achieve his goals.
2. PUT YOURSELF IN THE OTHER PERSON’S SHOES.
When we successfully persuade someone, they see the value in taking action – but not for our reasons. They act for their own reasons.
This makes empathy a compelling tool of persuasion. When you see yourself in the position of the other person – when you come from a place of knowing what they know, feeling what they feel, and wanting what they want – you begin to understand how your request helps them.
With that short statement of purpose – “I’ve come down here to save the Marine Corps” – Berman communicated that he knew them. He appealed to their camaraderie, their loyalty to their organization and to each other, and to their ultimate desire to see it improved.
3. EXPOSE PROBLEMS IMMEDIATELY.
In his speech, Berman introduced himself quite plainly: “My name is Emile Zola Berman. I’m a civilian, I’m a Jew, and I’m a Yankee from New York City.”
He was speaking to a group of military men, in the South, in a town with almost no Jewish populace, if any. As much as his goal communicated his common ground, his introduction exposed the differences between himself and his audience.
Persuasion is not as simple as explaining how one course of action will benefit the listener. There are external factors that color our perception of the person doing the persuading and their points. When we, as the persuaders, expose them right away, we earn their confidence and credibility.
4. BE PREPARED TO TAKE A RISK.
After introducing himself and stating his purpose, Berman completed his talk with a call to action: “If you care about the corps, and if you care about truth, come see us in our quarters tonight. And help us keep you proud to be a marine.”
He confronted the truth head-on and gave them clear instruction.
So many sales pitches fall flat because there’s no direction at the close. If we want to influence to make an impact, we must take the risk of clearly communicating a call to action.
5. APPEAL TO PEOPLE’S HIGHER SENSES.
“If you care about the corps, if you care about the truth, come see us in our quarters tonight.” That’s what he said to the instructors.
Berman knew that communicating with him and his protege would also mean disregarding the wishes of their superiors and risking appearing disloyal. But Berman also knew that his listeners knew that. If he wanted to persuade them, he would have to appeal to their ability to see beyond the consequences into the benefits.
He turned their choice into an exercise in priorities. In essence, he asked them, “Which do you value more – your silence or your dignity?” and left it up to them to choose.
6. KNOW WHEN TO STOP.
There comes a moment in every persuasive conversation when you have finished making your point. You have leveraged every tool at your disposal – and after that point, you are either creating resentment in the listener or wasting their time.
Berman’s speech is less than 100 words. The truth of the situation could be summed up in enough ink to fit on the back of a dinner napkin. His words were intentional, but remarkably simple. And once he laid out the truth, he finished and allowed the power of his message to speak for itself.
Looking for more ways to become a better communicator?
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