Effectively persuading a potential new client, a jury, or an interviewer – and being able to do it time and again – requires a solid understanding of how people make decisions. Persuasion traditionally relies on three techniques, namely: to speak the truth (logos), be credible (ethos), and move your audience emotionally (pathos).  Unconscious (cognitive) biases can interfere with or bolster these techniques. With the right tools, your clients will be more likely to listen to you, take your recommendations, and refer you to more clients. This in turn will help make your practice more pleasurable and reduce your claims risk. Use these eight tips to make unconscious biases work for you.

Similarity bias

We tend to like and trust those who are similar to us. An elderly jury will tend to like an elderly lawyer. A client with a strong accent will tend to like a lawyer with the same accent. An interviewer who loves to golf will tend to like an interviewee who loves to golf.

If you find you are nothing like your client, this is an obstacle to communicating well with him or her. Finding even one way to be like your client will make it more likely that you will be heard. This is about cultural competence – understanding where others are coming from and finding a way to connect. See this LAWPRO magazine article for further insight on cultural competence.

1. Highlight similarities. Build rapport with your audience by understanding who they are, and emphasizing what you have in common. While you cannot change fundamental characteristics like your age and race, you can highlight other similarities and thereby make yourself more likeable.

2. Mirror your audience. Body positioning, pace and tone of speech, and even breathing rate have been found to help create bonds. Often this occurs naturally. We see this in our daily lives when we meet couples who finish each other’s sentences. Exact mirroring may look strange when done overtly. You can achieve mirroring simply by changing your behaviour so that you act and talk a little more like your audience. A wholesale change is not called for.

3. Speak the way your audience speaks. A highly sophisticated audience will appreciate complex concepts and advanced vocabulary. A simpler audience will not. Meet your audience at their level. A marker of speaking fluently is to use idioms familiar to the audience. If your audience hears what is familiar to them, they will see you as one of them and trust you.

4. Compliment your audience. A successful and popular lawyer I often see at conferences almost always begins with a compliment for those he meets. When he meets a mother-daughter combo he will say they look like sisters. When he begins a speech, he compliments the audience and the community where they live. He once told me that it doesn’t even matter if the compliment is not true – everybody loves to be appreciated.

 Authority bias

We tend to listen to those who we see as authoritative. The more authoritative you are, the more credible you are. It helps that as a lawyer you will already be seen as an authority. Your clients come to you because they do not have the knowledge, ability and experience you have.

Being authoritative will also help if you have a client that is a bully. If a bully sees you as the authority, he or she will give you the benefit of the doubt and will be more likely to follow your recommendations.

5. Be attractive. This does not mean you need a beauty makeover. Present yourself in the best possible way by dressing professionally and staying well-groomed. A prominent trial lawyer said to me that the jury looks at your face all day – your hair, eyes and teeth should look as good as possible.

6. Speak confidently & sit and stand tall. This is all about positioning yourself as an authority. Clients put their trust in you and need to know you can take care of their problems. If you do not speak with confidence, they will lose confidence in you. This does not mean that you need to have all the answers – you don’t know everything and you can say you don’t know. Simply deliver the news confidently and with a plan.

Scarcity bias

“Act now, supplies are limited!” Scarcity excites desire. A case in point is the growth of Facebook®, which began as a service available only for Harvard University students. Eventually it was made available only to university students in Boston, then the Ivy League, then all university students, and then the public. The scarcity of the product made it more desirable.

7. Teach your client the law. Your knowledge is a scarce commodity. Give clients helpful information they otherwise would not know. Feed them facts they care about, and teach them about the law. Make it clear that this is expert knowledge or knowledge they otherwise would not have access to. One of the top complaints clients have of their lawyers is that they are not properly advised of the law. Properly teaching your client the law has the benefit of reducing your claims risk.

Anchoring Bias

Anchoring occurs when we rely on one piece of information over others. This often occurs with the first piece of information, such as a first offer. The value of a second offer can seem like a big concession relative to a high first offer (the anchor), which may make it easier to settle somewhere in the middle. By contrast, anchoring at the wrong place can make it seem like the negotiation is not occurring in good faith.

8. Carefully choose the first piece of information you offer. The first important piece of information you give your client will anchor the client’s expectations. After building rapport with my clients I would often begin by asking them what was their most important concern. I could then address this most important concern and thereby set expectations for the life of the file. The anchor I set could be the value of a case, or the prospects of recovery, or legal knowledge. If I set a value to a case, I invariably set out an extremely wide range to communicate the fact that anything can happen at trial. Whatever key information is communicated to the client, make sure you set reasonable expectations with the very first thing you say.

Unconscious biases are opportunities for persuasion

Good communication is about listening to and understanding your audience. These tips are only as effective as your understanding. Where does your client come from? What language is he or she used to talking in? What is your client’s body language telling you? Pay attention to these cues and find a way in to your clients’ hearts and minds.