Ask for What You Want

How many times a day do you ask judges, clients, or co-workers to do something or to give you something?  During any given week, you probably make hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of requests.  You ask your co-worker to work on a project, you ask your assistant to handle a client issue, you ask your kids to help with the dishes…  The number of requests that you make each week is staggering.  But how many of those requests are actually granted?  Have you ever had a problem with someone not doing not what you asked?

Why?  You’re a lawyer.  Shouldn’t you be the master of persuasion who can get what you want, when you want it, and how you want it, every single time?

Unless your name is “Svengali the Master Manipulator,” chances are that many of your requests are not being granted, or at least not being carried out exactly the way you’d like to see them handled.  But it’s not because your requests are falling on deaf ears.  In fact, your listeners are probably hearing exactly what you’re saying.  The problem is that you’re asking for the wrong thing.

That’s because when most people make requests, they don’t ask for what they want.  Instead, they actually ask for what they don’t want.

For example, has your boss ever asked you to work on an important client issue?  Many bosses will say something similar to, “This is our most important client, so whatever you do, don’t mess this up!”

But look at the embedded command in that request for help: “Mess this up.”  Rather than asking you to do a great job or to help the client, your boss is telling you to do the exact opposite of what he really wants done.

The reason he’s telling you to do the opposite of what he wants is because our brains aren’t wired to hear the word “Don’t.”  Our minds think in images.  When you hear the word “Orange,” you don’t think of the letters “O-R-A-N-G-E.”  Instead, you think of the fruit, the color, or maybe even a bottle of orange juice.  When you recall information, your mind pulls up the pictures that help you “see” the memory.

This phenomenon makes it difficult to see the negative of something.  If I ask you to think of “Not an Orange,” your brain has difficulty following my request, because it doesn’t have a readily available picture for “Not an Orange.”  Instead, your brain reverts back to your picture for “Orange,” because that’s the only picture it can pull up.  Rather than thinking of what I hoped you would think about, you actually began thinking of the exact opposite.

The same thing happens when your boss tells you “don’t mess this up.”  You don’t have a readily available picture for “Not Messing Up,” but you sure have a great picture of “Messing Up.”  Your picture for “Messing Up” may include the image of you fumbling and bumbling your way through the presentation, missing an important legal development in your research, or maybe even an image of you sleeping through the filing deadline.  Whatever your picture of “Messing Up” looks like, that will be the image that jumps into your mind when your boss tells you not to mess up.

That’s why it’s important to ask for what you want, rather than what you don’t want.  Rather than telling you “not to mess this up,” your boss would get better results from you by saying, “This is our most important client, so I know you’re going to do an exemplary job.”  Rather than embedding a negative command into your head, now your boss is embedding a positive command, “Do an exemplary job.”  Your brain can absorb this positive request and put it into action, because you know (hopefully) what an exemplary job looks like.

If you’d like to get better results when you ask others to do something, take a moment to rephrase your request in a positive format before you make your request.  Anytime you feel yourself getting ready to say, “Don’t,” ask yourself, “What do I want this person to DO?”  Rephrase your question positively, so that the listener is given a positive command and clear direction for what to do next.  Here are some examples of how changing the phrasing of your request can change the outcome:

  • Rather than: “These are our most expensive dishes, so whatever you do, don’t drop them.”
  • Ask for what you want:  “These are out most expensive dishes, so whatever you do, hold onto them carefully.”
  • Rather than: “The game is on the line, so don’t drop the ball.”
  • Ask for what you want: “The game is on the line, so protect the ball.”
  • Rather than: “The statute of limitations has almost expired, so don’t miss the filing deadline.
  • Ask for what you want: “The statute of limitations has almost expired, so file these pleadings by Friday.

By changing the picture in your listener’s mind, you change the outcome.  Rather than urging them to focus on the negative outcome, you shift their focus towards the positive outcome that you desire.  Eliminate the word “don’t” from your request vocabulary, and ask for what you want.  When you do, your presentations and your requests will become dramatically more persuasive.

Don’t Tell Your Jurors… SHOW Them!

Closing argument is your final chance to sway jurors.  This is the last time you’ll be able to address the jurors and show them why your client deserves to win.  If any of the jurors are sitting on the fence, this is your last, best chance to move them to your side.  So why do so many lawyers squander this opportunity?  Many lawyers spend their entire closing argument making arguments like this:

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, there’s no doubt that we have proven this case.  We have proved that the Percolam X1000 Chicken Baster is faulty and that it caused over $287,000 worth of damage to Ms. Psalgraf’s kitchen.  We also proved to you that she suffered emotional damages and will never be able to look at a chicken again without thinking about this tragedy.  We’ve proven to you that her pain and suffering is significant, and that she is entitled to $200 million in additional damages.”

All of those statements may very well be true, but so what?!?  Why should anyone care?  Those conclusory statements aren’t persuasive.  Arguments like these fall upon deaf ears because they ignore one of the basic guidelines of persuasion.  Think about it…  Do you like to be told what to think?  Do you like to be told what to do?  Do you like people forcing their opinions and beliefs upon you?

Neither do your jurors. 

As sales authority Jeffrey Gitomer describes it, “People don’t like to be sold, but they love to BUY!”  If you try to tell your jurors what conclusions they should reach or tell them what they should think, you will encounter resistance.  Sometimes the resistance becomes so strong that you’ll find them actively arguing against you and thinking of new reasons why your conclusions must be wrong. 

To be more persuasive during closing argument, don’t tell the jurors what to think.  Instead, show them why your conclusions are correct.  Help the jurors reach the conclusion on their own.  They will cling to the conclusion much more strongly if they reach it on their own.  Jurors are proud of their own ideas.  They will tightly hold onto those ideas and refuse to let them go.  When you let the jurors put the facts together for themselves, they’ll sell themselves on the outcome.  When it’s “their” idea, they will believe it and reject any contrary explanations. 

In your next closing argument, evaluate your statements to the jury.  Are you trying to force an idea down their throats using conclusory language?  Or are you leading the jurors in the direction of your conclusion, but then allowing them to take the final steps on their own?  Find a way to present your ideas so that the jurors think it’s something that they came up with (rather than you), and your closing arguments will immediately become more persuasive.

Closing Argument Conversations

Recently I was helping a friend draft a cover letter.  If you’ve ever spent much time reading resumes and cover letters, you know that most of them say something along the lines of, “Me!  Me!  Me!  I’m awesome!  I’m amazing!  I’m the best!”

But here’s the problem…  Employers don’t care about you.

They don’t care how awesome you are, how smart you are, or how skilled you are.

What they really care about is what you can do for them.  They want to know if you can successfully handle the job, whether you can help make them more profitable, or solve the problem that they need fixed.

That’s why good letters start off by entering the discussion that’s already going on in the employer’s mind, and position the prospect as the solution to the employer’s problem.  For example, here’s something you might want to read if you were hiring a receptionist:

“When you hire a new receptionist, one of the biggest concerns you have is whether or not that person is qualified to handle your QX-4700 AT&T phone system.  Dropped transfers and misrouted calls are not only annoying, they cost you business.  That’s why you want a receptionist who is an expert on the QX-4700.  For the past 7 years, I’ve worked exclusively with the QX-4700 and have trained 14 new attorneys how to set-up their voicemail and use the QX-4700 system.  My experience with the QX-4700 will ensure that your calls are routed properly and that your business operates at peak efficiency.”

That letter will probably generate a lot more interest than the typical, “I’m awesome, you should hire me” cover letter that most prospects send out.  More importantly, the better that the prospective receptionist can define the employer’s problem, the more likely he is to hire her.  If he picks up her letter and thinks, “Wow, she really understands the problems my office is facing,” then he’s probably going to assume that she’s the perfect solution to his problem.

brainThe same technique applies when you’re trying to persuade jurors and win trials.

If you can get inside their heads and understand what they’re thinking about, you’ll do a much better job of structuring your closing argument and addressing their needs.  To persuade jurors, you need to enter the conversation that’s already going on in their minds.  So ask yourself,

  • “What are they thinking about?”
  • “What concerns do they have about the case?”
  • “What’s going through their minds when I stand up to deliver my closing argument?”

If you can answer those questions, your closing will be more valuable to your jurors.  They’ll see you as the guide they can trust, the person who will help them understand the evidence, and the person they can rely upon to help them through the case.

Some jurors will feel offended if you presume to know what they’re thinking, so rather than assuming that you know what they want, you might want to preface your arguments with a statement like, “One question that a lot of jurors ask is…” and then asking the question on behalf of your jurors.  For example:

“One question a lot of jurors ask is, ‘How am I supposed to fill out the verdict form?’  Here’s how you fill it out:  One of you will be selected as the foreperson.  You’ll be responsible for signing and dating the form.  At the end, that person will sign their name [here] and print the date [here].  You’ll also check the verdict form [here], finding the defendant not liable for Ms. Jones’ injuries.”

“One question that we often hear is, ‘I’ve heard all of the testimony and seen all of the exhibits, but what am I supposed to with it?’  That’s why the judge is going to read you special instructions about the law.  He’ll tell you exactly how to apply the facts you’ve heard to the law.  One of the instructions he’s going to read you will talk about the issue of expert witnesses.  Here’s what he’ll say…”

“One thing that you might be talking about in the deliberation room is, ‘What do we do if we think both parties are partly responsible?’  Here’s how to answer that question…”

Regardless of whether you’re applying for a job, talking to a judge, or addressing a jury, it’s important to get inside the mind of the person you’re addressing and enter the conversation that’s already taking place inside their minds.  If you can define the problem they’re facing and provide the solution, you’ll be far more persuasive than anyone else in the room, and you’ll be the person they can trust when it comes time to make their final decision.  Good luck!