The three most persuasive words to lead with Featured

8:01pm EDT March 31, 2011
Chris St. Hilaire Chris St. Hilaire

How much of your day is spent persuading people? Persuading prospects to become clients, employees to step up, customers to buy?

In all aspects of life, nearly every conversation involves some type of persuasion. Politicians, whose careers depend upon their ability to persuade, know that there are three magic words when it comes to convincing people: choice, fairness and accountability. If you know how to use those words, you too can tap their power.

To get a sense of just how potent those words are, consider any political message you’ve been exposed to. There are “pro-choice” campaigns for reproductive rights and “school choice” initiatives for school vouchers. There are countless organizations based on “fairness”: Citizens for a Fair Share, Fair Vote Count, Fair Trash Contract (really!) and many more. There are myriad legislative acts promising “accountability” in everything from leadership to education to presidential pardons.

The typical response to the words “choice,” “fairness” or “accountability” is almost Pavlovian. No matter what the topic, you can say, “I just want to make sure you have choices, and that in the end someone is held accountable so that we ensure the fairest result,” and the whole room will nod in agreement. Obviously, you’ll want to wield these words (and the concepts they stand for) with a bit more finesse than that. Here’s how:


Choice always evokes a positive response — we think of it as free choice, almost synonymous with freedom. For that reason, offering your clients a choice is an excellent way to present a plan. Give them two or three options, making sure you could live with any they choose. It’s fine to state your own preference while emphasizing that ultimately the choice is theirs. When I’m hired as a consultant, I always say, “I work for you, so this is your decision. Here’s my recommendation.” Nine times out of 10, they take my advice.

The same strategy works with employees. Instead of simply passing out work assignments, offer several viable options. Does this mean you should convert every task to a multiple choice question? No, but for important jobs you stand a better chance of enthusiastic buy-in if you ask, “We could do A or we could do B. Which do you think would be most effective?”


People’s definition of what is fair may vary, but everyone instinctively grasps the concept. We all passionately believe that things should be fair. Stating upfront that fairness is one of your top priorities will immediately get your listeners’ attention and make them more receptive to your ideas. You can also use words such as balance to suggest fairness. If you say, “It’s important to me that this is a balanced proposal,” you’re inviting other people to contribute their opinions — an equitable approach. Perhaps most important, talking about fairness builds trust, an essential element of any strong business relationship.


Accountability is a way to ensure fairness. It strikes the same emotional chord, but it’s more tangible. In a business setting, the most effective way to use accountability is to start with yourself: “The plan I’m proposing will have built-in checks and balances, so you can hold me accountable and we’ll all be working together.” Then you can take suggestions from the group about how to construct the checks and balances. The end result: everyone has agreed in public to take responsibility.

Choice, fairness and accountability are concepts you probably incorporate into your workplace without consciously thinking about it — and that’s why saying the words out loud is so powerful. You’re giving voice to basic human values, and by doing so, you’re creating unity.

The most effective leaders not only persuade, they also unite.

Chris St. Hilaire is the author (with Lynette Padwa) of “27 Powers of Persuasion: Simple Strategies to Seduce Audiences and Win Allies" (Prentice Hall Press). He is an award-winning message strategist who has developed communications programs for some of the nation’s most powerful corporations, legal teams and politicians. He is the founder, president and CEO of both Jury Impact and M4 Strategies consulting firms. Reach him at