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Arlene Dickinson's Art of Persuasion

12/10/2011 11:40 EST | Updated 02/09/2012 05:12 EST
Christopher Wahl

The Indigo Non-fiction Blog is pleased to present a Q and A with Arlene Dickinson, as she discusses her new book Persuasion.

At work, at home, and everywhere in between, we need to persuade others every day. To give us a job. To award us the account. To give us the first available appointment. The problem is, no one ever taught us how to persuade. Until now. At 31, Arlene Dickinson was going nowhere, fast. Recently divorced, she had a high school diploma, no savings and no clue how she was going to feed four young children. But just one year later, she was a partner in Venture Communications. Ten years on, she was CEO, poised to grow the business into one of Canada 's largest independently-owned marketing firms. Today, as a co-star of the CBC hit Dragons' Den, she is one of the country's most sought-after female entrepreneurs. The secret of her journey from poverty to the corner office? The art of persuasion. Let her show you how it can change yours, too.

Indigo Blog:How does your book differ from the average business book?

Arlene Dickinson: Let's face it; a lot of business books are pretty dry. They tend to rely heavily on case studies and the people in them talk like robots. But that's not what the business world is really like. You see a wide range of personalities and many are colourful, to put it mildly.

I wanted to write a book that would help readers deal with real people in the real business world, and one way to do that is try to paint a realistic picture of some of the things that go on: pushy colleagues who try to elbow you out of the way during a presentation, people who ask you to do things that aren't ethical, job interviews where the people asking questions seem totally unengaged. Turning those kinds of situations around and winning over folks who aren't disposed to see things your way requires a set of practical skills that a lot of business books don't go into, because they're grounded in theory rather than practical realities.

The second thing that's a little different about my book is also connected to a practical reality: in order to persuade others that your way is the right way, you first have to persuade yourself of your own worth. Most business books start with the assumption that if you're turning the pages, you already have the confidence to use the techniques that are being prescribed. But for so many people, that just isn't the case. A lot of people are held back not by external obstacles, but by their own beliefs about themselves and about what success looks like -- and one thing I really wanted to do in this book was to show how to remove those internal obstacles so you're not standing in your own way.

IB: What is the most important rule of persuasion?

AD: Be honest, both with others and with yourself. If you persuade someone unethically -- making wild promises you can't actually deliver on, for example -- it will come back to haunt you. Business is a long-term game and your most valuable asset is your reputation. If you're dishonest or unethical you may win in the short-term, but there will be repercussions you might not even be able to imagine. There's always a day of reckoning.

IB: Who do you find it harder to persuade, men or women -- and why?

AD: I think gender matters a lot less than whether the person is secure, in which case he or she will tend to be more open to listening and will tend to be more of a team player. Persuasion is hardest when you're dealing with insecure people because they're more likely to be territorial and to view others' ideas as direct threats.

IB: In terms of book sales, who would you rather outsell, Kevin O'Leary or Robert Herjavec? Is there any competition between you yet?

AD: Who? I'm sorry, I'm not familiar with either author.

IB: We're struck by your idea of principled persuasion -- you refine the idea to having a discipline in your approach. Is this part of your personal belief system, and for our readers, can you expand on this?

AD: I can't pitch something if I think it's going to be good for me, but will somehow hurt or take advantage of someone else. I'm just not a good actress is the truth, and I was brought up in a religious family where we were taught that exploiting other people is basically the worst thing you can possibly do. But aside from anything else, I don't want to trick people into doing things I know they'll regret later, because I dislike conflict and I don't want the negative fallout that you can count on when people figure out they've been tricked. A lot of people view business as this dog-eat-dog, crush-before-you-get-crushed world. But to me business is all about relationships, and as with any relationship if you play head games, or take but never give, or exploit the other person, it won't end well. You should conduct yourself professionally pretty much the same way you do personally. And the best way to insure that you're going to have good relationships that stand the test of time is to act in a principled fashion that's true to your own beliefs, regardless of what temptations are put in front of you.

IB: A lot of us are familiar with Getting To Yes -- as you are tackling the same topic, how does your book differ?

AD: I think my understanding of persuasion is different. I start from the premise that in order to convince others, you have to understand what they actually want. It's not about ramming your agenda down someone else's throat, it's about figuring out how what you want dovetails with what the other person wants, and delivering a win-win that works for both of you. Figuring out what someone else wants means you have to listen -- not nod and smile and think about what brilliant thing you'll say next when the other person stops to take a breath. Listening is hard for a lot of people, and it's totally underrated as a key business skill that you can improve on and should master.

IB: Besides your own, what are your three favourite business books?

AD: I enjoyed Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, because I agree with his core idea that people who succeed aren't necessarily more gifted or smarter than others -- success usually boils down to a willingness to work harder than others and feeling supported in our efforts, whether by parents or mentors.

I also loved Andre Agassi's memoir, Open, which isn't categorized as a business book, but which has so much to say about the mental toughness and emotional stamina you need if you're aiming for the top, as well as the importance of giving back if you're lucky enough to get there.

My third pick would be Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, which is all about the imagination you need to fight off demons, both your own and real ones -- believe me, there are plenty of both kinds in the business world.

IB: Can you tell us about the new Persuasion products you have in the offing, or any other new ventures?

AD: The Persuasion line is meant to accompany the book and I sourced all the products myself and use them myself (but please don't tell my trainer about the first two). There's a mellow, structured red wine because I love to have a glass when I read, and some really great chocolates because they go so well with wine (and, let's be honest, just about everything else). There's coffee, because I couldn't have written the book without it, and I really enjoy a good cup of coffee. And finally there are skin care products that I fell in love with while I was writing the book. I'm so tired of being sold stuff that promises to make us look younger. What we really need are products that help us persuade ourselves we look great the way we are, and that make us feel good because they smell fantastic and aren't packed with chemicals and genuinely make our skin feel better.

Thanks to our friends at Harper Collins Canada for facilitating this Q&A, and special thanks to Arlene Dickinson herself, for taking the time to discuss her work. You can follow her on Twitter here.