Corporate Leadership: The persuasive CEO

At the annual Milkin Institute Global Conference held in southern California recently, researcher Frank Lutz made some eye-opening remarks about why many CEOs aren’t very persuasive.

Their surveys indicate that many corporate leaders are lousy communicators who simply can’t connect with the people they are trying to influence to a given course of action.  Trust, they maintain, is the key factor here, and for CEOs to be trusted they must back up what they claim to be true, follow through on what they say they will do, and honor their public commitments.

Luntz, of Lutz, Maslansky Strategic Research, offers up “Ten Corporate Commandments” to improve a corporate leader’s persuasive capability:

  1. Make the message simple, as in “are you smarter than a fifth grader?”
  2. Keep it brief.
  3. Make sure it’s credible and believable.
  4. Make sure it’s consistent throughout.
  5. Offer something different—the unexpected.
  6. How it “sounds” matters.
  7. Talk “aspirationally” (with heart-felt ambition).
  8. Use props to make the complex easy to understand.
  9. Ask rhetorical questions (no answer is expected).
  10. Always provide a clear context for the message.

Being persuasive with these well-founded communication commandments enhances the perception that the message is trustworthy. Since the days of Aristotle, we know that to be persuasive, a CEO must also use “logos” and “pathos.”


Two forms of reasoning can be used in a persuasive argument: inductive and deductive.  Either one, if logically presented, is convincing.

An example of inductive reasoning: “Lowering our costs, increasing our productivity, and increasing our efficiencies will lead to higher profitability.” Note that three intrinsically-related actions point to a single generalization: higher profits.

An example of deductive reasoning: “Customer satisfaction is our Number One objective.  We can only accomplish this with consistent quality, on-time deliveries, and service innovations.” Note that the generalization, “customer satisfaction,” is supported by three intrinsically-related actions.

Some CEOs are more persuasive using an inductive reasoning model and others with a deductive model. Knowing which model fits your style is an important step to enhancing your persuasive capability.


By definition, this is an appeal to our emotions. People are persuaded both by what they believe to be true and what they feel to be true. Emotions, for most of us, run the gamut from extreme melancholy to extreme euphoria.

Translated, these emotions look like sadness, resentment, anger, disgust, guilt, remorse, happiness, elation, pride and so on. Visibly, they are reflected by laughter, crying, a frozen expression that shows no emotion, and so on.

The CEO as a persuasive communicator must know how to tap into the language of the emotion that he or she wants to evoke in support of the point being made. Sometimes, it is appropriate to call upon several emotional states within a single message.

The match always comes from combining the needed level of trust with the type of logic used, and the emotional interface desired in the process. The next time you’re preparing a persuasive communication, ask yourself:

  • How am I establishing trust and believability?
  • Is my logic consistent with that trust and believability?
  • Am I evoking emotions that don’t contradict my overall persuasive message?

Whenever possible, Luntz says, CEOs who personalize, individualize, and humanize their communications to employees will be far more effective than those who do not.  Symptoms of ineffectiveness with an employee audience include: signs of boredom, apathy, physical unrest, and inattentive communication with others such as whispering.

He has also developed a list of words that seem to sit well with employees and customers alike, and I’ll add some of our own:

  • Imagine   
  • Invest                           
  • Independent   
  • Hassle-free                   
  • Genuine   
  • Accountability
  • Bottom-line    
  • Innovation                     
  • Passion   
  • Certified                       
  • Consequence   
  • Prosperity
  • Same Page   
  • Confidence
  • Financial Security   
  • Efficient                        
  • Productive   
  • High Energy
  • Commitment   
  • Reliable                         
  • Consistent   
  • Metrics                          
  • Satisfaction   
  • Caring

Used strategically in a persuasive message, and repeated for effect, these words help people recall important points, especially as they relate to a call for action.

Messages that individualize and personalize should also contain literary devices customized to the message recipients. The most common ones used are metaphors (an unrelated example in a different context that underscores the point being made) and similes (a figure of speech that likens one issue to another such as, “tears flowed like wine”).

But perhaps the most powerful of all literary tools, if you can call it that, is a story, which might be true or in the form of a parable (a short simple story with a moral lesson). CEOs are the best keepers of stories and business legacy historical notes. People always remember stories when they will forget everything else.

Sam Jacobsen, the founder of PDQ convenience stores and TEC member for 35 years, tells how as a young man he had his own milk delivery business. He realized that people were willing to pay more for reliable convenience. Many of his early customers became his first new customers when he opened his first convenience store. To this day, he sells the message “reliable convenience.” It’s a message that’s hard to forget.

There is an old adage that what you say is not necessarily what people hear. Today, the media dutifully remind us on a daily basis that everything about the economy is heading south and that the economic news just continues to worsen. As I mentioned in a recent Small Business Times column, we find a significant number of TEC members who continue to say, “Recession, what recession?”

CEOs are in the best position to convince their stakeholders that the world isn’t turning upside down. But frank and deliberate persuasive communication must be used to convince people otherwise. Hopefully, this article has some useful ideas to get the job done. Until next month, make sure people really hear what you have to say.

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