Lead a Horse to Water, Then Persuade It to Drink

Humans are stubborn. However, they can be reasoned with, appealed to, inspired, and persuaded. Perhaps you can’t make that horse drink the water you led him to. You can, however, lead those around you to “water,” and persuade them to act and drink.

In previous posts I’ve introduced this idea of a “new” language—the language of leading. While the language itself isn’t new, examples of it in today’s leadership throughout the world can be hard to find. The ultimate purpose of the language of leadership is to inspire, persuade, and provoke change. There are many approaches one could take to accomplish this; let’s consider a method George Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham, took in the movie Up in the Air.

Persuasive Language That Provokes Action

Played by George Clooney, Ryan Bingham, a corporate downsizing expert, flies around the United States to fire people. He’s the kind of businessperson who feels more at ease at an airport than in his own home. In his quest to help these recently unemployed people find new jobs, Bingham delivers a speech called, “What’s in Your Backpack?”:

How much does your life weigh?

Imagine for a moment that you’re carrying a backpack. I want you to feel the straps on your shoulders. Feel ‘em? Now I want you to pack it with all the stuff that you have in your life. You start with the little things: the things on shelves and in drawers, the knick-knacks, the collectibles.

Feel the weight as that adds up. Then you start adding larger stuff: clothes, tabletop appliances, lamps, linens, your TV. The backpack should be getting pretty heavy now. And you go bigger. Your couch, bed, your kitchen table. Stuff it all in there. Your car, get it in there. Your home, whether it’s a studio apartment or a two-bedroom house. I want you to stuff it all into that backpack. Now try to walk. It’s kind of hard, isn’t it? This is what we do to ourselves on a daily basis. We weigh ourselves down until we can’t even move. And make no mistake, moving is living.

The character argues that commitments and possessions slow us down. Get rid of them, he says. We’re better off without them. He’s not only speaking about material things but also our backgrounds, prejudices, and past experiences. These can be more debilitating and make it even harder for us to move ahead.

Think about the language in his speech for a moment and what makes it so memorable. Instead of opening with a statement, he poses a thought-provoking question, “How much does your life weigh?” And then through the use of a metaphor—that brilliant symbol of a backpack—he provokes his audience to think about their lives in an entirely new way. Every member of his audience can relate to Bingham’s words on a personal level. He knows, even before he delivers his speech, that every person will answer the question he’s posing in a way that’s uniquely meaningful to them.

The effectiveness of his message provides insight about the way our brains work. He knows what an audience can absorb, and he’s setting the stage for what ultimately will be a strong call to action. The primary objective for anyone who delivers a message with the intention to lead is the same, regardless of the situation or objective. You strive to win the battle for the hearts and minds of your audience. That’s the responsibility of any speaker, presenter, or leader—to inspire, persuade, and most important, provoke change. Learn more about how you can improve your ability to speak the language of leadership by visiting, www.chuckgarcia.com.