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Jay Heinrichs's Powers of Persuasion


Jay Heinrichs's Powers of Persuasion

Photograph by Andrew Hetherington

To a classicist, Canary Wharf, London, might be terrifying. It’s a financial district of tightly packed glass towers that mirror the sky in chemical tints. HSBC (HBC), Citigroup (C), Credit Suisse (CS), they’re all here. Unadorned, gleaming, efficient architecture, a place without any nod to the past. But the past is here. The zone is built on the quays of the city’s old port, used since Roman times.

Jay Heinrichs is here, too, one of the world’s leading students of Aristotelian rhetoric. He strides down a windswept sidewalk in a simple silk sports jacket and polished cowboy boots, no scarf, no coat—it’s freezing—holding a steaming latte and keen to introduce a 2,400-year-old methodology to contemporary leaders. Today, in his second career as an American corporate consultant, he will bring the art of persuasion to one of the world’s masters of verbal manipulation: global ad agency Ogilvy & Mather. You know, one of the models for Mad Men. The firm that brought you “Schweppervescence” and “Don’t leave home without it.” According to Heinrichs, Ogilvy needs help.

The rhetorician in the mudroom of his New Hampshire homePhotograph by Andrew HetheringtonThe rhetorician in the mudroom of his New Hampshire home

“They’ve been tasked with a public service campaign to reduce binge drinking in England,” he says. “There seems to be an epidemic. In some parts of London on a weekend night it looks like a war zone. Women in short leather skirts sprawled on the sidewalk. The existing campaign is awful. It’s more likely to increase binge drinking.”

Part of what Heinrichs will be doing at Ogilvy is to help a team of planners and “creatives” fix the message. This is not the communication therapy fashionable in corporate leadership workshops. This is not assertiveness training or the “pre-persuasion checklist” offered by the American Management Association. This is a process invented by the ancient Greeks and tailored by Heinrichs to contemporary situations. He says it’s foolproof. “If you can follow the steps to the end,” he says, “you are guaranteed to get a tangible result. Engineers and scientists get it and love it because it’s a system. You can represent the whole thing in a flowchart.”

Heinrichs has worked with the U.S. military, ConocoPhillips (COP), and NASA. In each case, someone in the organization read his 2007 book, Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion. For a title that boils down millennia of scholarship into practical tools (“Try this in a meeting: If an argument bogs down, switch to the future tense. ‘You’re all making good points, but how are we going to …’ ”), it’s a surprisingly fun read.

With the Pentagon last fall, Heinrichs worked with a group of Milvax, or military vaccinator, officials. The challenge: persuading U.S. military personnel to submit to smallpox vaccinations. “The vaccination hasn’t changed since Cotton Mather in the 18th century. It’s scarification,” Heinrichs explains. “They scratch your arm, you wait for the scab to fall off. It’s disgusting. Male soldiers don’t like it because it ruins the artwork on their tattoos. And no woman likes a big scar.” So how do you get balky soldiers not only to submit to the procedure, but also make sure they are vaccinated? “Part of the process I teach is the classical concept of virtue, which has to do with people’s sense of their best selves—their values. In other words, how do they identify themselves? You can’t talk someone out of his personal identity.”

Heinrichs had the Pentagon officials make a list of service members’ values. “Service, self sacrifice, honor. Grin-and-bear-it stoicism. Then what you do is come up with language that simply summarizes what your point is all about. Like, ‘Yes, the vaccination causes a scar, but it’s worth it because it’s good for my country.’ Next, you drill down to a little piece of what you’re talking about, a microimage that represents those values. A trope. It became immediately clear at that stage that the perfect microimage was the scar. At that point one of the participants said, ‘Why don’t we do a social media campaign where people show off their scars and say who they’re for: my girlfriend, my country.’ So the scar turned from something bad into a badge of honor.”

At Ogilvy, the person who read Thank You for Arguing is a strategic planner named Sarah O’Farrell. She ushers Heinrichs through two split floors of what seems like a mind-control frat house. Beyond the receptionist, there’s a cafe, a full bar with a foosball table, floor projections that explode into bubbles when you step on them, production studios, and a section full of line writers whose sole job is to come up with snappy slogans. O’Farrell says that as soon as she came to the company last June she began planning to bring in outside expertise to help the firm adapt to social media. “The advent of social media threw the advertising industry into disarray,” she says. “We were used to broadcast media, the one-way message. But that was actually the anomaly. Now it’s fast feedback, interactive, the message chopped up, challenged. It’s a very disruptive form of communication. We’re back, if you like, to how we’ve been communicating for 10,000 years.”

O’Farrell might have called on a more famous corporate guru—Tom Peters, say, who wrote the seminal In Search of Excellence and Re-imagine! Business Excellence in a Disruptive Age, or John Kao, author of Innovation Nation. Kao offers training in “communication strategy for innovation,” among other topics. Others in her position may have opted for a corporate retreat. Melisa Gillis, president of Gillis Consulting in Danvers (Mass.), who leads one- to six-day leadership retreats that include a lot of communication training, says she charges anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 per day for a group of up to 20 executives. Heinrichs, who charges $10,000 for the type of seminar he’s leading at Ogilvy, says he is an industry of one. “There isn’t really anybody else bringing Aristotle to companies,” he says. “Corporations today are confused about communication. You can no longer control the message. So a corporation’s first response is to hire technical experts—people, say, who know all about Facebook. But that’s not the answer.”

Following O’Farrell, Heinrichs enters the so-called creative floor, a well-lit open space surrounded by offices furnished with beanbags and love seats. Sixty or so chairs have been assembled at one end, and every seat is full. Earlier he admitted he’s nervous because Brits don’t get his sense of humor. “Just so you know, I’m really funny,” he tells the crowd. “If you find yourself mystified, it really means that it’s funny.” A ripple of laughter. Aristotle said that the three most powerful tools of persuasion are: ethos, argument by character; logos, argument by logic; and pathos, appeal to the emotions. Heinrichs has opened with a bit of pathos, and if he doesn’t yet have them in the palm of his hand, he has at least persuaded them to listen.

Heinrichs, 56, has close-set eyes, sharp focus. When he talks to you, he has the intensity of a red-tailed hawk. He would be scary, except that usually he’s trying to make you laugh. Says Hal Espen, editor of Outside magazine when Heinrichs worked there as deputy editor in the late 1990s: “He’s the relaxed nerd on the flying trapeze. His interests are extremely cerebral—this punctilious concern for language, craftsmanship, history. I mean he’s so smart, but so funny. He brings the stress level down.”

Heinrichs lives in Greater Orange, N.H., along with 299 other souls. During deer season, so many residents sight in their rifles that the thick woods sound like Verdun. Mount Cardigan looms over the Heinrichs home, which has the rustic charm of a Christmas card: Shaker brick farmhouse built in 1810, a big meadow, a 150-acre woodlot through which Heinrichs cuts ski and running trails. He grew up in Main Line Philadelphia, graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont, did a stint as editor of Dartmouth’s alumni magazine, and went on to oversee five magazines at Rodale. He wakes at 4:30 a.m. and begins his day with a P90X workout, a high-tempo, strenuous home DVD exercise program led by a relentless coach. Afterward, in the half light, he might run outside and fix a log bridge on one of his trails. Then he has a hearty breakfast of salad. (He says he hates it, but minds eating it less before he’s fully awake.) For an hour he writes several pages of a novel in progress and updates the blogs on his two rhetoric websites, figarospeech.com and wordhero.org.

At 6:30 a.m., he kisses his wife Dorothy goodbye—she’s off to work as a fundraiser for Vermont Law School. Then he skis or walks to his cabin office across the meadow. Inside there’s a kerosene stove, a canoe paddle made by his daughter, and a stuffed bass on the wall. Here, he begins an entirely new workday—as a telecommuting publishing executive, magazine editor, and corporate consultant. Heinrichs is an editorial director at Dallas publisher Pace Communications, where he helps pitch new business and oversees a staff that produces Spirit magazine, Southwest Airlines’ (LUV) inflight publication.

While at Pace, he says, he’s trying to develop an algorithm that measures the effectiveness of communication with a numerical index. Feed the text into the program, and it tells you how persuasive the text is. (Heinrichs declines to share details of his work in progress, and Pace is keeping the proprietary program under wraps for now.)

Whether or not this algorithm works, scientists and engineers have been among the first to hire him as a consultant. Michael Driscoll, a senior drill-site petroleum engineer with ConocoPhillips in Alaska, who brought Heinrichs to Anchorage, says the Aristotelian approach “is sorely needed, especially by people who have come up through a technical background. There’s one correct answer!” Driscoll laughs, then conjures an effective trope to illustrate his point: “Imagine a Dilbert engineer, doesn’t like people, crosses his arms in a meeting. ‘I don’t need to say more. I’m the smartest guy in the room talking to idiots.’ That’s a rhetorical gesture.”

David Beals, a NASA engineer at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., had Heinrichs help his team become more persuasive in getting Clarreo, a climate detection satellite program, approved. Was Beals applying the Aristotelian method in his day-to-day work life? “Oh, yes,” he says. “I try to use it all the time to make my own writing and pitches more effective. Actually, logos is the least effective argument.” He pauses. The idea still seems incredible to him. “I lay out the logic. Why wouldn’t you agree, darnit?” He chuckles. “I have found that pathos and ethos come first. Add a dash of logos to work in your position, then bring it on home with a dose of pathos. You’re likely to win. I gave a presentation to the deputy director of the center the other day. Once I had him laughing, I knew he was paying attention. Then, son of a gun, he agreed with me. When you make a pitch to the second-in-command at the field, that’s how you want to walk away from it.”

The Ogilvy crowd has yet to be fully persuaded of Heinrichs’s persuasiveness. They eat Krispy Kremes, sip coffee, and look skeptical, if ready to be amused. He tells them how one morning at home he was just out of the shower, naked but for a towel, and realized the toothpaste tube was empty. The closest tube was in the freezing basement. He called to his teenage son, a guinea pig for his dad’s rhetorical obsession since he could walk.

“George!” he yelled through the door, “Who used all the toothpaste?”

“That’s not the point, is it, Dad?” his son yelled back with gleeful sarcasm. “The point is how we’re going to keep this from happening again!” Dang. Heinrichs had been teaching his son for years how the most productive arguments use the future tense, the language of choice and decisions. (Past is about blame and punishment, present about belonging, about bonding or separating.) “You’re right,” Heinrichs said. “You win. Now can you please get me some toothpaste?”

“Sure!” And George did, happy he’d beat his dad in an argument. The Brits must know all about freezing houses because they’re laughing.

But Heinrichs’s story isn’t over. His point is that he won the argument because he got George to do what he wanted. He had used a rhetorical tool called concession. Beside similar stories in his book are such practical tips as, “Try this in a meeting: Answer someone who expresses doubt over your idea with ‘OK, let’s tweak it.’ Now focus the argument on revising your idea as if the group had already accepted it.” Get them to bring you the toothpaste.

“OK,” Heinrichs says to the Ogilvy crowd. “What’s the current Drinkaware campaign?” “Don’t trade good times for bad,” says a planner in designer jeans and an untucked snap shirt. “Hmm,” Heinrichs muses. “And what’s the one you are proposing?”

“We have an idea we know will work, but the client [the U.K. government] won’t buy it. ‘Be a Threetotaler.’ ” The ad man explains that this means drink three days a week instead of seven.

“Great,” Heinrichs says without wincing. He puts up a picture of a stick figure with a halo. (He can’t draw.) “Let’s talk about the three big lessons in argument. The Greeks love threes. One: Change the tense to the future. Two: Find the pith of your message. Three: Create the halo, the killer image.” He calls it the halo because it’s the image that represents the best of how we see ourselves. He spends the next three hours running the advertisers through a Mach 5 primer on Aristotelian argument. He’s leading them to the realization that among the three most potent weapons—pathos, ethos, and logosethos, or argument by character, is the most effective.

The latest anti-binge drinking campaign is focused on 20-year-old women. In a series of exercises, Heinrichs has the marketeers call out how this audience self-identifies. He leads them to the possible conclusion that maybe this group wants to be bad for a few hours. That trading good times for bad is exactly what they’re after on a Saturday night. That being a Threetotaler, with its unabashed reference to teetotaling, might be repellent to them.

By now, the North Atlantic winter night is shuddering the plate windows. The Ogilvy team is at the last step of homing in on a microimage, the halo that might relate to their target audience of young women. The group pitches horrible images it hopes might deter the women from self-induced comas. One planner shouts, “Floor monkey! Don’t be a floor monkey!” Heinrichs’s hawkish face lights up. The floor—it’s a perfect image. The place, when you’re drinking, you don’t want to be. The closer you get to it, the worse off you are. He won’t spell it out to them, though. They’ll have to discover how to incorporate “the floor” for themselves.

On the tube ride back to his hotel in Bloomsbury, Heinrichs grins, “Better to teach a man to fish than give him the fish.” He laughs. “And by the way, clichés—we call them ‘commonplaces’—are among the most useful devices in rhetoric if you use them right.”

Heller is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor. His first novel, The Dog Stars (Knopf), will be published in August.

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