How To Persuade Your Users, Boss Or Clients

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Paul is a leader in conversion rate optimisation and user experience design thinking. He has over 25 years experience working with clients such as Doctors … More about Paul ↬

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Whether you are getting a client to sign off on a website’s design or persuade a user to complete a call to action, we all need to know how to be convincing.

Like many in the Web design industry, I have a strange job. I am part salesperson, part consultant and part user experience designer. One day I could be pitching a new idea to a board of directors, the next I might be designing an e-commerce purchasing process. There is, however, a common theme: I spend most of my time persuading people.

As Web designers, we often have to nudge people in the direction we want them to go. It is a vital skill we all have to learn. We’re not talking about manipulation. Underhanded techniques, and certainly lying, won’t get you anywhere. But you can present yourself and your arguments in ways that make people more receptive. The first and probably most important way is to empathize.

A picture of a beautiful living room with a computer opened on the dinner table.
Web designer’s office style.

1. Empathize

The worst thing you can do is enter a meeting or begin designing a user interface with a personal agenda. If your goal is to push the other party into agreeing with you, it will resist. But if you seek to understand their needs and respond to them, you will find the others more cooperative.

Start by Listening

To achieve this, you must really listen. Paying lip service to the “idea” of listening is not enough. You have to hear what they’re saying and look for those “points of pain” that your ideas might actually relieve.

Tailor Presentation of Agenda

Rather than forcing the people in the room to reluctantly agree, tailor your presentation of ideas so that they see the benefit of them. This involves some creative thinking on your part but is possible if you really understand their needs.

Show Benefit to Other Party

Remember, explaining how your ideas will help you or others is not enough. You have to demonstrate how they help the actual people you are speaking to. For example, rather than saying to your client, “Users are going to love this new feature,” you could instead say, “This new feature will keep users coming back, which will dramatically improve the number of leads you receive.” Once you understand the other party and have thought about their needs, your next step is to form a relationship with them.

2. Be Personable

If you have a good relationship with your users, boss or client, they will be more inclined to take your suggestions. Of course, the kind of relationship you build depends on who the other person is. Your relationship with website users is different from your relationship with your boss. However, certain approaches hold true across the board.

Get Them Nodding

It’s a silly little thing, but when I give a pitch, I try to get people to nod. Nodding is a good sign and puts them in a positive mood. I normally achieve this by repeating back to them (in different words) one of their own points. They will obviously agree with what you’re saying, but it also demonstrates that you’re listening and are on the same wave length.

The same approach can be used online. For example if I am writing a post aimed at Web designers, I know that berating IE6 will get them nodding in agreement right away. I have succeeded in making a connection.

An of a computer, a cup filled with coffee with glasses, pencil, and paper in the background.
Get your pitch ready for people to nod.

Be Enthusiastic

Enthusiasm is so important. Clients want to know you care about their project. Bosses want to know you are motivated to work, and users want to know you care about the service you deliver. However, so many people lack enthusiasm when communicating their message. They come across either as defeated before they even begin or as overly aggressive. Instead, try overwhelming enthusiasm. It is infectious, and people get caught up in it. More importantly, saying “No” to somebody who is oozing enthusiasm and excitement from ever pore is not easy. It would be like kicking a puppy. (Well, not quite.)

Mirror Them

You have probably heard how mirroring a person’s body language helps establish a positive connection. Whatever you do, do not do it! Consciously doing it just comes across as creepy! It will happen naturally, so don’t worry about it. That said, it is a useful indication of whether a face-to-face meeting is going well. If the other person is mirroring your body language, chances are they like you. What you can consciously do is mirror their language or use the same terminology.

If your boss or client talks about “return on investment” or “success criteria,” do it yourself. And if you suspect the other party is not familiar with certain terminology, make sure to avoid it. Our way of speaking associates us with a certain “tribe.” If we share the same language, we are more likely to build a rapport.

Make Them Smile

Another trick for building relationships is to inject humour into the proceedings. If you can make the other person smile, you’ve gone a long way to breaking down any barriers. Of course, this has to be done with care. Overdo it and you’ll look like the fool. But even the most miserable-looking directors on a board are human beings, too, and like to smile. Although all of these approaches are great for building relationship, one trumps them all: openness.

3. Be Open

You may be reading this thinking, “This guy is mad. What if his clients read this stuff. Won’t they feel manipulated?” My answer is no. I am open and honest about what I do. I would be entirely fine with any one of my clients reading this because nothing manipulative or secret is here. People hate being deceived; so if anything, the honesty in this article will build my relationship, not undermine it. Two key components help build open relationships and create a receptive audience.

Disarming Honesty

Many times, the best way to diffuse a potential conflict is with disarming honesty. For example, I regularly acknowledge in sales situations that I am there to sell and that they should take anything I say with a pinch of salt. The client obviously knows this already. But verbalizing it shows a kind of honesty that people rarely encounter.

An image of a to-do list
Image credit: EduBirdie

Be Willing to Show Weakness

We can sometimes be so desperate to make a point that we become unwilling to admit even the slightest weakness in our argument. Ultimately, though, we come across as pig-headed and inflexible.

People respond well when you admit you are wrong or are unsure of an answer. Be willing to say “I don’t know” or “I’ve messed up” if necessary. People will respect you for it. One of the best examples of this is Flickr’s blog post “Sometimes We Suck,” in which Flickr apologizes for performance problems. By taking this approach, it demonstrated its integrity and completely defused the anger of those who were complaining. Of course, being willing to show weakness takes a lot of confidence, and that trait is critical if you are to convince others.

4. Be Confident

As humans we are drawn to confident leaders. We follow those who have a clear vision and walk the path with confidence. Communicating your message with confidence, therefore, is important. Establish yourself as an expert, and speak with authority.

Bet Confident, Not Arrogant

Being confident also means having the strength to admit when you are wrong. A truly confident leader does not claim to have all of the answers all of the time. Being able to concede points and allow others to express their views is a key aspect of confidence. Only those who lack confidence fear opposing views.

You Do Not Always Have To Win

Pick your battles. Conceding some points to achieve the greater aim is okay. Giving ground does not undermine your position. Sometimes you have to be a little submissive to get people on board. Don’t allow your ego to get in the way. If someone feels good about having won an argument, then they will more likely be accommodating when you suggest an alternative. Compromising sometimes is okay. It is certainly better than constantly being negative and rejecting counter-proposals.

An image of an aim right in the middle of a target.
You don't always have to win.

5. Be Positive

Whether dealing with a demanding boss, difficult client or finicky users, you have to impress them with your attitude and service. Always be helpful and keen to leave a positive impression. In customer service, that sometimes involves going the extra mile. With your boss, it means seeing the benefits of their latest mad scheme. Whatever the situation, developing a reputation for being unhelpful and negative is the worst thing that can happen.


There are no Jedi mind tricks that will help you to always convince your clients that you are right. At the end of the day, the secret to persuading others is to show respect, listen to their opinions and present your vision in language that they understand.

Further Reading On Smashing Magazine

Smashing Editorial (al, il, nl)