Book Box | A moving memoir offers six strategies to become a master persuader - Hindustan Times
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Book Box | A moving memoir offers six strategies to become a master persuader

Jan 20, 2024 08:43 PM IST

At business school, where young professionals learn persuasion, what better teacher than the real-life campaigner for a woman’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia?

Dear Reader,

Daring to Drive(Author) PREMIUM
Daring to Drive(Author)

Some stories won’t let you go. My year begins with one such.

Daring to Drive is a young Saudi woman’s journey. It begins in the congested streets of Mecca, where Manal al-Sharif grows up as a poor kid, the daughter of a Saudi father and an Egyptian mother.

Hers is an unforgettable story, full of twists and turns. We see Manal being indoctrinated as a teenager, turning fervently fanatic, yet studying computer science, making an independent life for herself, and finally fighting for the right to drive. For this, she is jailed and humiliated, but she fights on. Not long after this 2017 memoir, the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia is finally lifted.

Daring to Drive follows me to the business school, where I teach persuasive communication. We are studying persuasion in advertising, fundraising and campaigning, and reading Cialdini, Robert Greene and others. What better lesson for these young professionals than the story of this real-life campaigner for a woman’s right to drive?

But my students are in the final semester of their MBAs, they are interviewing for jobs, and will find it hard to read a whole book, I know.

Then Daring to Drive comes to my rescue, allowing itself to be adapted to a case study, a beauty of brevity, a ten-page primer in persuasion.

The students read this case study carefully. They are overwhelmed and emotional. They are admiring and analytical.

In class, we discuss Manal al-Sharif, her inspiring ability to deal with the pernicious power of propaganda, moving from conformist Salafist to a leader of a movement to persuade her family and her country that it is fair to allow women to drive. Here are six strategies this memoir demonstrates, to be a master persuader:

Connect with your audience

Before you put across your case, it’s important to connect with your audience, to get them to empathise with you. In Daring to Drive, Manal does this by introducing us to her childhood. Here is her description of her school -“It was always possible to distinguish the girls’ schools from the boys’. The girls’ schools had the look of detention centres. The only man visible was the guard standing at the entrance... Although we had a large outdoor courtyard in the middle of the school, there were no playgrounds, because girls should not run around or jump. The school door was opened in the morning so that the students and teachers could enter; then it was locked tight with a single key,” she describes. We picture her, we empathise, and we root for this young girl.

Establish your credibility

Manal knows her Quran, she says her prayers, and she is devout. “I am a Saudi.. proud to be Saudi. I love my country. I just want to change this custom”, she keeps repeating to anyone who attacks her for wanting to challenge the ban on women driving. These words and behaviour exemplify the ethos principle that Aristotle advocated over 2,500 years ago: For best results, establish your own personal credibility, knowledge, and good morals, before you embark upon the process of persuasion.

Use emotions

Share your feelings, fears, guilt and hopes. Aristotle refers to it as pathos, using feelings and emotions to convince people. From sibling fights to teenage guilt, to the insecurity of being a woman walking alone on a road, Manal takes us through the slices of her life, and we see what, metaphorically speaking, drives her.

Research the facts

Logos or the logical element is the third leg of Aristotle’s secret keys to persuasion. Find out the laws, speak to the legal experts, research the history of previous protests against the ban on driving and what were the learnings from them. We see all of this happening in this book.

Find allies and build coalitions

“I began in earnest to try to meet with anyone who had connections or had some kind of public profile and an interest in women driving. I knew that if we had supporters, especially if they were prominent Saudis, we had a greater chance of success,” says Manal. She makes contact with Maysa, a TV host and blogger, who is Saudi but lives in the United Arab Emirates. Maysa’s father had died before her eyes because when he fell ill, no other man was at home and Maysa couldn’t drive him to the hospital, so this journalist was a natural ally.

Tell stories

Stories activate centres of learning in the brain, they help you absorb more information. When you tell a story featuring a protagonist, you are persuaded to like them, their vulnerabilities and weaknesses notwithstanding. And when you are liked, your ability to persuade is so much more, a commonsensical conclusion compellingly explained by Robert Cialdini in his book Influence. Manal’s story has fascinating characters like her Egyptian mother, a vivid setting well described, lots of action, and conflict and a story arc that moves from adversity and obstacles to hope. If there is a single secret strategy to being a master persuader, it is this kind of storytelling.

Read Daring to Drive for all these reasons, to see the dark side of propaganda and conditioning, and also to read a human story of hope.

If you’d like more on Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, here are three recommendations for you.

Blood and Oil - Set in Saudi Arabia, this is a racy account of the rise of Mohammed bin Salman. It is a gripping book, with a geopolitical lens, and is set soon after the events in Daring to Drive.

Black Wave - A history of the people and personalities in the Middle East, this book traces the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini and the clashes between countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The Siege of Mecca - Manal al-Sharif refers to the siege of Mecca as being a key turning point in the history of her country- this book zooms in, to take us through this defining moment.

This weekend as the inauguration of a new Ram temple in Ayodhya dominates the news headlines, if you’d like to read something closer to home, read The Many Ramayanas. Next week, as celebrations begin in Delhi with the Republic Day parade, we too, head to the Red Fort to discover its many stories.

Until then, happy reading!

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at sonyasbookbox@gmail.com

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