Harvard MLD342 Persuasion – The Science and Art of Effective Influence


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Course description

Persuasion lies at the heart of our personal and professional lives. Whether the goal is to convince one person in a face-to-face encounter, influence a group in a meeting, sway an entire organization, or win over the public, the capacity to persuade is key to effective leadership. This course extracts from our knowledge of human behavior proven principles and techniques of effective persuasion. These powerful tools apply not only to public speaking and written communications, but also to one-on-one and small group interactions where most persuasion takes place every day. Students will hone their practical skills in persuasion through case studies, video examples, exercises, and role-plays. Students also will assess their personal strengths and weaknesses in persuasion, informed by the confidential assessments of others who have observed them closely in persuasion situations.

Related presentations by Gary Orren, accessed 29 December 2015.


Gary Orren, Spring 2015


http://www.hks.harvard.edu/degrees/teaching-courses/course-listing/mld-342, accessed 28 December 2015.

Link to syllabus uploaded to the Atlas


Additional material from the syllabus

“What is distinctively human at the most fundamental level is the capacity to persuade and be persuaded.” Philosopher Bertrand Russell’s lofty claim for persuasion may or may not be true. But what is certainly true is that the capacity to persuade is a key to effective leadership. It is challenging enough to lead those who agree with us. But inducing others to willingly follow us when they are initially skeptical or opposed to our goals – persuading them – is the greatest challenge facing aspiring leaders.

This course investigates persuasion – how we can convince others to voluntarily change their attitudes or behavior in order to accomplish our cherished goals – by extracting from our knowledge of human behavior proven principles of effective influence. The course also explores two philosophical, yet utterly practical questions: what constitutes unsavory, unethical persuasion and whether persuasiveness (and leadership ability generally) can be learned or whether it is really an innate, natural born talent.

This is not a course in public speaking. The principles of persuasion certainly apply to public speaking, and the course examines that application closely. But the principles also apply to written communications and to one-on-one and small group interactions where most persuasion takes place everyday.

The course uses a variety of pedagogical methods to develop students’ practical skills in persuasion, including lecture/discussions, narrative case studies, videos, role-play simulations, and daily classroom exercises.

The course is designed to help students become:

  • Better persuaders—better at recognizing and weighing opportunities for influence, and better at employing effective strategies for building support.
  • More effective at persuading superiors, peers, or subordinates within an organization, as well as people outside an organization.
  • More effective at using a wide variety of communication channels: written memos and reports, face-to-face conversation, speeches before groups, messages through the media, non-verbal expressions, and communications using statistics.
  • Better at determining–prospectively in the trenches–when a persuasive message is ethically acceptable and when it is ethically unacceptable.
  • Better able to answer the critical question of whether we can realistically hope to become better persuaders. Simply put, is persuasiveness (and leadership ability generally) mostly an innate, natural born talent?

Students often ask how this course compares with courses in negotiation. Negotiation and persuasion are two key skills for influencing people. They are not the same. Indeed, a central topic in MLD342 involves contrasting the two skills, identifying their relative strengths and weaknesses, and determining when one approach is more appropriate than the other. For course selection purposes, the bottom line is that scores of students who have taken both Persuasion and Negotiation report that the two courses are not redundant, and are in fact extremely complementary.

Students also ask how MLD342 compares with other communication courses at the Kennedy School. Naturally, it is difficult to predict the specific content of other courses. In previous years, MLD342 has focused more than other communication courses on the underlying principles and techniques of persuasion. The emphasis in MLD342 is on gaining a deep understanding and facility with these principles that then can be applied in all kinds of contexts using virtually every type of communication tool. Also, while MLD342 applies the principles of persuasion to public speaking, it emphasizes public speechmaking less than some other communication courses do. Far more attention is given to one-on-one face-to-face encounters, personal conversations, and small group interactions where most persuasion occurs day-to-day. Finally, since persuasion takes place not only through words but also through deeds, MLD342, unlike these other courses, highlights the key role of actions and non-verbal behavior in influencing other people.

Topic-by-topic listing of topics and assigned readings

Note: This course is in compressed format, delivered in several sessions per day. The major topics are noted below.

Topic 1: Introduction – The Science and Art of Persuasion

Aristotle, Rhetoric and Poetics, translated by W. Rhys Roberts (Modern Library, 1954), pp 24-25.

Gary Orren, “Gore vs. Bush: Why It’s All Greek to Me,” Kennedy School Bulletin, Autumn 2000, pp.36-39.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), pp.19-30.

Viewing the film “12 Angry Men”. Instructions will be sent by email. The film is 90 minutes long.

Topic 2: Key Methods of Influence – The Three P’s Framework; Persuasion and Negotiation

Robert B. Cialdini, Influence: Science and Practice, entire book.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, entire book.

Read one of the following three options:

Robert B. Cialdini, “The Science of Persuasion,” Scientific American, February 2001 pp. 76-81, OR

Robert B. Cialdini, “Compliance Principles of Compliance Professionals,” in Mark P. Zanna, James M. Olson, and C. Peter Herman, Social Influence: The Ontario Symposium, vol. 5 (Laurence Erlbaum, 1987), pp. 165-184 (posted on Canvas), OR

Robert B. Cialdini, Influence: Science and Practice (Allyn and Bacon/Pearson Education Inc., 2009)

NOTE from Atlas Editors: Cialdini’s Influence at Work centre has published the following 6-minute video to YouTube on 26 November 2012, entitled Science of Persuasion, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cFdCzN7RYbw, accessed 29 December 2015.

Recommended: Excerpts from Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (posted on Canvas)

Topic 3: The Principles of Persuasion – Simplicity and Clarity; Knowing the Audience, Developing Empathy Skills

Topic 4: The Principles of Persuasion – Salience, Analogies/Metaphors, Storytelling

Topic 5: The Principles of Persuasion – Counter-intuitive, Reciprocity/Concession

Topic 6: The Principles of Persuasion – Authority, Conformity

Stanley Milgram, “Behavioral Study of Obedience,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, vol. 67, 1963, pp. 371-78; Adam Cohen, “Four Decades After Milgram, We’re Still Willing to Inflict Pain,” New York Times, December 28, 2008

Jerry M. Burger, “Replicating Milgram: Would People Still Obey Today?,” American Psychologist, vol. 64, January, 2009, pp. 1-11

Topic 7: The Principles of Persuasion – Similarity, Contrast, Specificity, Scarcity

Owen Harries, “Primer for Polemicists,” Commentary, September 1984, pp. 57-60

Recommended: James Traub, “Harvard Radical,” The New York Times Magazine, August 24, 2003

James M. McPhearson, “Team of Rivals: Friends of Abe,” The New York Times Book Review, November 6, 2005, pp. 1, 10-11; excerpts from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals (posted on Canvas)

Topic 8: The Principles of Persuasion: Reciprocity, Liking; Assertiveness and Empathy: “Steel and Velvet”; Emotional Intelligence

David Brooks, “The Arduous Community,” The New York Times, December 21, 2010, p. A31;

Malcolm Gladwell, “The Talent Myth: Are Smart People Overrated?,” The New Yorker, July 22, 2002, pp. 28-33;

Daniel Goleman, “What Makes a Leader?,” Harvard Business Review, November-December, 1998, pp.93-102;

Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee, “Primal Leadership: The Hidden Driver of Great Performance,” Harvard Business Review, December 2001, pp. 43-51

Topic 9: Are Intimidating Leaders More Effective?

Roderick M. Kramer, “The Great Intimidators,” Harvard Business Review, February 2006, pp. 1-9

Thomas L. Friedman, “Why Mandela Was Unique,” The New York Times, December 10, 2013, pp.1-2

Topic 10: Gender and Persuasion

Ken Auletta, “A Woman’s Place,” The New Yorker, July 11 and 18, 2011, pp. 55-63

Brad Stone, “Why Facebook Needs Sheryl Sandberg,” Bloomberg Businessweek, May 12, 2011, pp. 1-6

Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (Knopf, 2013), pp. 3-11, 39-51

Anne-Marie Slaughter, “Yes, You Can,” The New York Times Book Review, March 18, 2013, pp. 1, 12-13

Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook – View video of Sheryl Sandberg: “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders”

Malcolm Gladwell, “The Naked Face,” The New Yorker,” August 5, 2002, pp. 38-50

Malcolm Gladwell, “The New-Boy Network,” The New Yorker, May 29, 2000, pp. 70-72

“Donna Dubinsky and Apple Computer, Inc. (A),” pp. 1-14

Topic 11: Strategic Communication

Gary Orren, “Background Memo on the Nixon Checkers Speech,” p.1-2

Gary Orren, “The Decision to Launch the Space Shuttle Challenger;”

“Group Process in the Challenger Launch Decision (A),” pp. 1-13

“Vision and Strategy: Paul O’Neill at OMB and Alcoa” Abridged, pp. 1-16

Topic 12: The Principles of Persuasion – Commitment, Active vs. Passive, Repetition

“Institute for Healthcare Improvement: The Campaign to Save 100,000 Lives,” pp. 1-36

Erin McKean, “I Hate to Tell You,” The Boston Globe, November 14, 2010, pp. 1-2

Page created by: Ian Clark, last updated 31 December 2015