Innovators need to be persuasive

In my career in industrial R&D and innovation I spent a lot of time trying to persuade people to give me the resources I needed to execute my ideas, or to persuade them to try something new. Sometimes it went well and I clicked with the decision maker, sometimes no matter what I did I couldn’t make progress. I would try to explain the benefits of the idea as clearly and as simply as I could, but I couldn’t raise any interest.

When I moved more into leading teams of innovators working on a portfolio of ideas, I noticed that most of them struggled as well. We couldn’t understand what it was that distinguished the ideas that sailed through from those that couldn’t get traction.

Thinking that we needed to be able to communicate our ideas more clearly, I asked for help and was introduced to Alastair Grant, ex Royal Marine Lieutenant-Colonel, communications expert, and co-founder of the communications consultancy Grant Pearson Brown Consulting. They help all kinds of senior politicians and executives to get key ideas across to a variety of audiences, so I thought they must be able to help us.

I set up a workshop with Alastair and my team, and he took us through a lot of excellent material; much of it in his book Presentation Perfect. There was useful advice on pacing and how time gets distorted in a presentation. The strategic use of the “did you get that?” pause with eye contact, and many other useful tips. But right in the centre of it there was a blockbuster idea that unlocked our problem with persuading colleagues and decision makers.

It turns out that different people like to receive information in different ways and follow different paths to decisions! We could tweak and improve our presentations and pitches as much as we wanted, but until we were prepared to stop telling the story our way and focus on presenting the idea to match the thinking style of the person we wanted to influence, we were unlikely to be more successful.

The Social Styles Matrix

Even better Alastair introduced us to a simple tool that can be used to understand your own preferred way of working, that of the people you are trying to influence, and how to adjust your pitch to have maximum impact. The Social Styles Matrix.

With the Social Styles Matrix you can rapidly decide someone’s preferred style through conversation and observing behaviour, and figure out how you can flex your own style to get onto their wavelength and maximise mutual understanding.

Unlike some other approaches social styles is a tool you can use live in real-time, and it is simple enough to carry in your head.

This transformed our success rate. My techie colleagues still grumbled that they were scientists and technologists. The ideas should stand for themselves and should not need ‘selling’, but things clearly worked better if we took the time to position our story to match the styles of the target decision makers.

The concept of social styles was originally developed in the 1950’s and 1960’s by psychologists David Merrill and Roger Reid as method to improve interpersonal relationships in the work environment.

It starts from the assumption that everyone displays a set of behaviours that are their default ‘style’; their way of working and interacting. This ‘style’ is a reflection of who they are.

A style is not good or bad, they just vary and are more or less appropriate to the task in hand. Instead of trying to change style, they talk about learning to work with your own style and that of others.

Merrill and Reid could group descriptions of the way people behave along two axes:

  • Assertiveness – also known as Ask / Tell
  • Responsiveness – also known as Open / Closed

People at the ‘ask’ end of the assertiveness axis are questioning. They seek information from others and may withhold their own opinions. At the other extreme, people at the ‘tell’ end of the spectrum are always in transmit mode. Confident and direct.

People at the ‘open’ end of the responsiveness scale wear their hearts on their sleeves and have no problem sharing their thoughts with you. At the ‘closed’ end they are more reserved and hidden, holding their thoughts and cards close to their chest.

Four core styles

According to the tendency they show on each axis, people can be grouped into four main styles

  • Analyticals – ask/closed – also known as Thinkers and Owls
  • Drivers – tell/closed – also known as Directors and Hawks
  • Amiables – ask/open – also known as Relators and Doves
  • Expressives tell/open – also known as Creators and Peacocks

People who show each style gather and process information and make decisions in different ways. They have specific ways of interacting with other people and need to be influenced in different ways. An understanding of social style can really help you work effectively with other people.


  • Analyticals appear logical and reserved. They want to think things through carefully and get it right. Analyticals are information sponges and like to consider an idea from every angle. You need to be prepared to keep delivering information until they feel comfortable.
  • Drivers are forceful and determined. They are action oriented and want results. Drivers need a clear list of options with a recommended course of action, but they will always make the final decision.
  • Amiables are about people and relationships. They appear relaxed, informal and easy-going. Amiables want to know the impact of an idea on the company and the team. They are not quick to decide and you need to let the discussion breathe. Trust is important.
  • Expressives are imaginative, visionaries, spontaneous and opinionated. To influence an Expressive you need to engage their imagination with exciting possible futures, and be prepared to dream with them. It is often a case of “light the blue touchpaper and stand well back”.

I am sure that you can already see some of the people you know in these descriptions, and perhaps to place yourself on the matrix.

Using the matrix

I am an out and out Expressive. I have the most fun working with other Expressives, although we often forget to write down and action all the great ideas we develop. Some of my most effective work was done with an Analytical colleague who was happy for me to generate ideas, but then forced me to think through what I was proposing. He needed patience to tolerate my flights of fancy, and I needed patience to wait whilst he created a logic chain for my intuition. I had a Driver boss whose constant mantra was “don’t bring me a menu without a pricelist!”, and the best mentor I ever had was a clear Amiable.

The great thing about social styles is that you can get an insight into someone’s preferred style by observing the way they talk, tone of voice and body language. What Alastair Grant called “the words, the music and the dance”. That means you can understand their style quickly and adapt quickly.

More details of how to assess someone’s preferred style and how you might tell your story most effectively to different types are in these notes, and in Merrill and Reid’s book.

Do I always remember to use social styles in my work? No. Sometimes it does not seem appropriate or I forget.

Do I adjust my style to match the people I am talking to for maximum impact? Sometimes. I am still prone to getting excited and heading off over the horizon and so losing my audience.

Has it helped me to be more effective in influencing? Yes. Over the years, it has proved an extremely useful tool.

Check it out.


A Technologist Learns to Win Friends and Influence People
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