Jon Stewart Gave A Master Class in Persuasion

If you want people to do something, they must first feel something.

Comedian and former “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart shredded congress to pieces yesterday when he spoke before the House Judiciary Committee on the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. This fund must be reauthorized and extended to pay for the health care of those who risked their own lives responding to the 9/11 attacks. Many First Responders have contracted serious illnesses breathing in the toxic fumes from the “pile”, and have since developed respiratory and pulmonary diseases, and cancers. An absolutely outraged Jon Stewart, at times pausing to hold back tears, left no question as to the disgust he felt for a congress who repeatedly equivocates when it comes to reauthorizing the pile of money it takes to pay for the medical bills of these heroes. Stewart has a long relationship with the 9/11 First Responder community and he heaped a whole mountain of shame on members of congress both present, and absent in that room.

The judicial committee, some of whom where missing during the hearing, unanimously passed the bill out of committee a short time after Jon Stewart dressed them down.

A day later, I found myself still thinking about Stewart’s testimony. I teach professionals and executives how to be more persuasive. Persuasion is the lifeblood of business, it is in every facet. Even though persuasion is of critical importance, most business people rely on the wrong tools to achieve it. Jon Stewart gave a master class in persuasion. Here’s what business people can learn from it:

1. Emotion trumps data every time. Stewart could have relayed the percentage of First Responders who have died, or whom suffer serious illnesses today. That figure would have, no doubt, been staggering. But he gave no statistics. Instead, he tapped directly into emotion to remind congress of their vow to never forget the men and women sitting behind him.

“There is not a person here, there is not an empty chair on that stage that didn’t tweet out “Never Forget the heroes of 9/11. Never forget their bravery. Never forget what they did, what they gave to this country.” Well, here they are. And where are they? And it would be one thing if their callous indifference and rank hypocrisy were benign, but it’s not. Your indifference cost these men and women their most valuable commodity: time. It’s the one thing they’re running out of.”

The executives I work with love to rely on data to make their points, believing that the humans they address are rational beings, carefully weighing the pros and cons and making decisions based on evidence. We like to think that, but it isn’t true. Humans are creatures of emotions. We are ALL driven by feelings of fear or vanity or shame or sympathy. If you want someone to do something, they must first feel something.

2. Use imagery. Stewart highlighted the plight of the First Responders by choosing to share a vivid human detail about two of them. In a few short sentences he created a mental picture of the suffering of these men that could not easily be dismissed or forgotten.

“Lou (Alvarez) doesn’t want to be here. None of these people want to be here. But they are, and they’re not here for themselves. They’re here to continue fighting for what’s right. Lou’s going to go back for his 69th chemo. The great Ray Pfeifer would come down here, his body riddled with cancer and pain, where he couldn’t walk, and the disrespect shown to him and to the other lobbyists on this bill is utterly unacceptable.”

You would have to be made of stone to not feel compassion for a man enduring his 69th round of chemo. Sometimes images are pictorial and sometimes they expressed in language that is so vivid it creates a mental image. This too, is pivotal to persuasion.

3. Use Analogies. With thoughtful analogies that compare one thing to another, you control the mental associations made by your listeners. Stewart:

“I would be so angry at the latest injustice that’s been done to these men and women. Another business card thrown our way as a way of shooing us away like children trick-or-treating rather than the heroes that they are and will always be.”

“Children trick or treating” is fleeting and trivial. By using this analogy, Stewart captures the undeserved dismissiveness directed at the 9/11 heroes in a single well-chosen phrase, again evoking shame.

4. Mean it. Many of the executives I train are so used to conducting themselves with a certain stoic grit, they feel uncomfortable and awkward displaying emotion in their communication. Granted, emotion is a powerful tool that needs to be applied with precision and care. When you do use emotion, mean it, and show others that you mean it. Jon Stewart’s long relationship with the 9/11 First Responder community is deeply personal. No one watching him could doubt the authenticity of his emotions, it is evident within the first 30 seconds of his address. So too, when executives and professionals convey emotion, their audience has to ‘see’ it and feel it.. Telling folks you are excited about an initiative in a monotone or a flat affect will do no good at all. If you are excited- sound it. If you are moved, look moved. Same with happy, disappointed, regretful, and proud. Your countenance must align with the emotional content of your words for you to be genuinely persuasive.

Jon Stewart is clearly a pro at presenting ideas and does these things instinctively. Persuasion can also be learned. Professionals can up their persuasion quotient significantly by learning how to deploy emotions, imagery and analogies in high-stakes communication situations.

© 2019 Leslie Gold All rights reserved.


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