What do you do if you have great ideas but repeatedly fail to carry the audience with you?   

It’s probably time to call Melanie Sturm.

Sturm is known as “the Win Coach.” She is the founder of Engage to Win, which helps clients master the art of persuasion. She has worked with assorted candidates and nonprofits, as well as business and movement leaders, to help them win people over to their ideas.   

“Margaret Thatcher was only partly right when she said, ‘first you win the argument, then you win the vote,’” Sturm tells IWF. “First you must win the audience’s trust.” Earning credibility by saying things that resonate with others is the basis for Sturm’s “Six Powers of Persuasion.” 

Before you get anxious that the Aspen-based Sturm wants you to turn your brilliant ideas into mush, she doesn’t. Instead, she shows clients how to make their voices heard “beyond the choir,” enabling them to attract “persuadables,” neutralize “hostiles,” and unite “friendlies.”

Even the pros consult Sturm. When Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers was Chair of the House Republican conference, she turned to Sturm for winning messaging on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, signed into law in 2017.  Then, when Rodgers was polling uncomfortably close to her opponent in 2018, Sturm coached the Washington state Congresswoman to a 10-point victory. 

Sturm is a Tufts University graduate in economics and international relations who enjoyed a high-powered career in international finance. Her resume includes the International Finance Corporation (private sector affiliate of the World Bank), Morgan Stanley (London), and Drexel Burnham Lambert (New York). She also has an MBA from INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France. 

So, how did the Win Coach become the Win Coach?

It started in 2011 when Melanie was approached by the editor of the Aspen Times about writing a column. 

At the time, Melanie was Vice-chair of Pitkin County Republicans, which includes Aspen, one of the most liberal places on the face of the planet. She’d led an effort prior to the 2010 midterms to publish point-counterpoint articles with a Democratic counterpart. The editor spotted her talent—but he was also after diversity. 

“No, it wasn’t because he needed a woman or a Jew,” Sturm jokes. “I hesitated. Despite believing that we have the morally superior formula for humanity, I was concerned about being labeled an uncaring, bigoted, extremist.  But I accepted knowing I’d have to adopt a readable approach. So, after studying communication masters Dale Carnegie, Stephen Covey, and Simon Sinek, I launched my column—calling it Think Again, You Might Change Your Mind. My goal was to expose readers to unconsidered facts and arguments. Trust me, they weren’t being considered here,” Melanie says. 

“My column’s premise was that to have a free and fair society, we must have an informed and thoughtful citizenry, which was my goal. To my surprise, I not only became the most-read columnist, I wasn’t perceived as ideological. That’s when I started to identify the tactics that made me readable, eventually distilling them into Six Powers of Persuasion which I now use to teach people to be hearable.”

Sturm’s primary insight is that persuasion is different from expressing an opinion or presenting a fact-based argument. “To persuade,” she explains, “you must meet your audience where they are by saying something that will resonate. From behavioral science, we know that you can find common ground with people if you show them that you care because people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. And you can demonstrate that you care by fighting for people—especially the most vulnerable—and using fairness and compassion appeals. For example, instead of opposing costly entitlements, we can argue for reform by saying it’s unfair that young people paying into the system now won’t get their benefits when they retire.” 

“My other big insight was to avoid turning on people’s tribal circuits. So, I rarely mentioned personalities or used labels which mean different things to different people.”

Sturm, who is a much-in-demand speaker, put these insights to use when she launched Engage to Win in 2014. “Engaging to win is not about winning debates or talking points,” the website explains. “It’s about winning people over to the common ground they instinctively share by engaging in meaningful conversations that transcend obstacles to agreement.” 

Not that anyone complains if E2W contributes to an electoral win. “Engage to Win helped me and my campaign team become more hearable by equipping us to connect with all constituents. In our hyper-partisan era, being able to open both hearts and minds is a real advantage, and a skill worth developing,” Rep. McMorris Rodgers says in a testimonial.

While Democrats humanize issues by framing them in terms of people’s lives, Republicans fight for or against things without explaining how they promote human well-being and a fairer society. “My son says I’m in the business of teaching Republicans to talk like Democrats,” Sturm says laughing. 

“I understand, negative advertising can discredit your opponent in a campaign,” Sturm tells IWF, “but if you’re trying to persuade, you shouldn’t fight against people. That’s how we come across as uncaring. Take Mitt Romney who said it wasn’t his job to worry about the 47% who are dependent, entitled, victims. He literally cast himself as uncaring, which was decisive in the 2012 exit polls. Romney beat Obama on vision, values, and leadership, but Obama trounced Romney on the question of who cares more about me—81 to 18.” 

While Democrats humanize issues by framing them in terms of people’s lives, Republicans fight for or against things without explaining how they promote human well-being.

“So, my second, third, and fourth powers of persuasion are: inhabit common ground, fight for people—not things—and use a fairness and compassion-framed argument.  For example, instead of fighting for a border wall or against illegal immigrants, we can ask, ‘How is it fair to put the interests of people who come here illegally before everyone else, especially our most vulnerable citizens?’ Notice I framed the argument as a question instead of making a declarative statement, which can cause the backfire effect. Asking questions helps people own the conclusion you want them to have. It’s one of the ways to pivot back to common ground, which is my sixth power of persuasion.”

As Sturm explains, “These persuasion strategies are rooted in the moral foundation theory of Jonathan Haidt who wrote the book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Of Haidt’s five moral foundations—the lenses through which people see society and policy—liberals are off the charts in terms of compassion and fairness and care little for purity, loyalty, and authority. Meanwhile, conservative morality rests equally on all five moral tastebuds. So, while liberals didn’t mind Miley Cyrus twerking, or Barak Obama not wearing a flag lapel pin, or kids crossing the border, conservatives did mind.”

To fortify a people-oriented fairness argument, Sturm’s fifth persuasion power is storytelling. “That’s why IWF is smart to promote Riley Gaines as an advocate for fairness in women’s sports,” argues Sturm, citing the champion swimmer who competed against male-bodied Lia Thomas.

Sturm has a favorite persuasion tactic to help people pivot to common ground, her sixth persuasion power. “Just start by saying I worry, which conveys that you care while prompting you to say who you worry about and why. It’s hard to call you uncaring when you’re expressing concern for people and fairness,” she says.

If you detect good old midwestern common sense in the precepts of Engage to Win, you’re not far off. “I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. I think that probably explains a lot,” she says. “I also credit my grandmother for influencing me. She lost family in the Holocaust and despised FDR for not saving more Jews, and she idolized Abraham Lincoln because he freed the slaves, and so did I.” 

Tufts was a different environment. “That was my first exposure to the Left,” Melanie says, “when I got involved in campus politics. With Midge Decter’s mentorship, I co-founded Students for Peace and Security, named to sound like SDS—the radical organization from the sixties. We fought for peace through strength by conducting symposia on college campuses. Then I co-founded a conservative journal of opinion at Tufts called The Primary Source which caused a backlash. It seems innocuous compared to today’s cancel culture, but someone stole the radio from my car and wrote ‘fascist’ on the windshield. Thankfully, the dean of students came down forcefully in support of campus free speech.”

“My first jobs were in investment banking in New York and London. Then I went to business school in France, where I was recruited by the International Finance Corporation. I hoped to use my background in international relations and economics, my language skills, and my MBA to promote growth where there was too little,” she continues. She left the big bureaucracy to help found a start-up that provided pharmacy services to assisted living residents, later selling it to Walgreens. 

When Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers was Chair of the House Republican conference, she turned to Sturm for winning messaging on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, signed into law in 2017.

She moved to Aspen in 2001. Soon after, while dining at the iconic restaurant Little Annie’s, she met the manager. He was Marc Zachary, a USC graduate with a business degree. Little Annie’s—“of blessed memory,” says Melanie—didn’t last, but Melanie and Marc were married shortly thereafter. They have one son, aged 20, and engage in various business ventures together though Melanie’s love is teaching the art of persuasion to those who share her values.  

She can point to strong signs that persuading works better than haranguing, including locally where she’s helped school boards fight the infiltration of radical racial and gender ideologies. 

“We’ve had several recent victories enabled by reclaiming fair-sounding words like diversity, equity, and inclusion, all corrupted by the Left to promote conformity, discrimination, and exclusion. Instead of fighting against DEI and getting labeled as bigots, we fight for the mainstream definitions of those words. They’re persuasive words because they resonate with people. Diversity means teaching multiple perspectives, equity is lifting differently talented students up from where they are to their full potential, and inclusion means involving parents in their kids’ education, which was the winning issue for Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin in 2021. 

“One school district board recently passed an initiative to promote family inclusion and parental partnership. Even leftist board members had to vote for it. When we reclaim the fair-sounding words, we win!”

Sturm certainly had IWF persuaded that her insights may be just what conservative leaders need.