There’s an old expression — “when everyone shouts, no one listens” — that certainly rings true today. From politics to social media and even in grocery store aisles as much of the world still battles COVID-19, the prevailing approach to discourse is to shout down or vilify those who disagree.
It seems to me that the art of persuasion has fallen out of favor to confrontation. But as internal auditors know well, to effect positive change in our organizations, we must make those on the receiving end of our recommendations and reports open, comfortable, and amenable to what we have to say.
Put another way, to be agents of change, internal auditors must embrace the art of persuasion. I wrote about the importance of persuasion in the chapter on “Dynamic Communicators” in my second book, Trusted Advisors: Key Attributes of Outstanding Internal Auditors, a few years ago. The lessons remain relevant today. We do not enhance value until management implements our recommendations and they produce a desired outcome. And that won’t happen without effective communication.
Persuasion doesn’t require flashy eloquence, an arcane vocabulary, or a dramatic presentation. It’s actually fairly simple: Phrase your recommendations in ways that incentivize listeners to embrace them, because doing so will make them more successful. But it’s also not just a matter of phrasing. There must be sincerity behind your words. You must truly want to help and be sincerely interested in making the audited area or enterprise better.
I have found that one good approach is to position your message in terms of risk. For example, if the audit reveals an outdated policy on how to evaluate potential contractors, internal auditors must convey the risks that could arise if the policy isn’t kept current. A focus on risk eliminates finger-wagging and, instead, directs attention to how mitigating the risk will make the area more effective and efficient. That, in turn, can elevate shareholder value.
Good managers will almost always respond to opportunities to improve their area and the company. I should note, too, that self-preservation will instinctively cause their ears to perk up when risk is being discussed.
From my experience, persuasion is more easily accomplished through direct conversations with management, rather than through written communication. It is during the course of an audit and “exit” or “wrap-up” meeting that we have the greatest opportunity to persuade. Don’t underestimate the power of human interaction in effecting action.
Amid the COVID-19 crisis, with limited opportunities for face-to-face interactions, influencing decisions by those we audit has gotten more difficult. When we do deal directly with our clients, it is often through far less personal platforms, such as Zoom, WebEx, or GoToMeeting. We may still see their faces and hear their thoughts and reactions, but the technology creates a barrier.
As I was doing research for this blog and a video I recently posted, I came upon some excellent advice for overcoming COVID-shrouded communications by an organization called Thrive Global. In an unsigned blog titled “The Art of Persuasion While You Are Working From Home,” several valuable tips were presented for being persuasive on impersonal videoconferencing platforms.
Successful techniques for effective persuasion are well-known and have been taught for centuries. They impart a bit of salesmanship, some evangelism, and even arm-twisting. But effective communication is more than just bringing out your inner used-car salesman. Indeed, it requires a disciplined and intellectually honest approach to our work.
In almost 45 years in the internal audit profession, clients have disagreed with my findings and recommendations on many occasions — sometimes vehemently. I found it most productive to take the time to step back and genuinely consider their points of view, and to even compromise when I found value in what they had to say.
As the Thrive Global blog noted, “The art of persuasion is different, and the same, when you’re working from home and persuading over Zoom or your videoconferencing tool of choice. It’s different because you’re not physically there. It’s the same because persuasion is about your words, your body language, and your attention. The art of persuasion is the art of effecting change, and effecting positive change is the ultimate goal in our profession.”
As always, I welcome your comments.