Sun Tzu said, “Every battle is won before it is fought.”
You probably fight many small battles in your life. Battles when you need to persuade or negotiate with people.
- Maybe you want to convince an important person to work with you on a business project.
- Maybe you want your partner to agree with you on how to raise your kids.
- Maybe you want more people to pay attention to your marketing so you can grow your business.
The science of persuasion will help you do all these things more easily. And Dr. Robert Cialdini is the world’s top expert on persuasion and influence. He wrote the incredible book Influence many years ago, which many people still consider THE book on persuasion. (My summary of that book is coming soon.) And Pre-suasion is his new book.
1. What does Pre-Suasion Mean?
Most people know that “persuasion” means getting someone to say YES. It means getting someone to believe something or do something you want them to.
But what does PRE-suasion mean? I’ll let Professor Cialdini tell you in his own words…
Pre-suasion—the process of arranging for recipients to be receptive to a message before they encounter it. (…)
The highest achievers spent more time crafting what they did and said before making a request. (…)
They didn’t rely on the legitimate merits of an offer to get it accepted; they recognized that the psychological frame in which an appeal is first placed can carry equal or even greater weight.
So Pre-suasion is learning what to say or do BEFORE making a request from someone. There are ways of making people more open or willing to say yes to you… before you make a request, offer or proposal.
Doesn’t that sound useful?
Here’s a real-life example from Cialdini to show how this works…
Cialdini had a colleague who was doing very expensive consulting work for large companies. His colleague complained that the companies he consulted for always argued about his prices and tried to make him lower his fees.
Then one day his colleague stumbled on a technique that made the companies stop arguing about his prices. He shared the technique with Cialdini:
After his standard presentation and just before declaring his ($75000) fee, he joked, “As you can tell, I’m not going to be able to charge you a million dollars for this.”
My colleague claims that this tactic of mentioning an admittedly unrealistic price tag for a job doesn’t always win the business–too many other factors are involved for that–but it almost always eliminates challenges to the charges.
His colleague accidentally discovered that mentioning one million dollars–even as a joke–made companies stop complaining about his real price. It made his $75,000 price for consulting feel cheap by comparison.
This actually isn’t a new trick at all. It’s called “price anchoring” and you can people using it everywhere.
Steve Jobs used this technique in his presentations. When he was announcing the first iPad, he first put up a price of $999 on his powerpoint, saying that a thousand dollars was the price most people expected. Then he said the real price was only $499, which suddenly felt really cheap by comparison. You’ve probably seen this technique used on lots of infomercials in this way, too!
Another way of anchoring a high price in the customer’s mind is to show them your most expensive product first. Salespeople are often trained to do this so the less expensive products suddenly feel like a great value. A $500,000 house feels pretty expensive. But if you’ve just been shown a few million dollar homes, then it suddenly feels very reasonable.
Price anchoring is just one example of how you can set up a psychological frame or first impression.
Notice that it’s not about arguing with people that your price is fair. Instead, you put a large price in your customer’s mind at the beginning, which makes your real price feel small IN COMPARISON. This means that what you do BEFORE you show your price to customers has a huge impact on how they perceive your price. That’s the power of Pre-Suasion.
2. Attention = Importance
Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics and was a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. A few years ago he was asked what is the biggest idea he could give to regular people like you and me to make better decisions. And he said:
“Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.”
Think about that for a second and read the quote over again. Remember this is one of the world’s top scientists and professors giving his best piece of advice to all of us.
“Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.”
What does that mean?
Here’s an example Cialdini talks about in his book: Most people believe that if you suddenly couldn’t use your legs then you would be miserable for the rest of your life. Yet studies have shown that paraplegics are about as happy as the average person.
Right now when you imagine being a paraplegic, you are focused on the ONE big negative of not being able to use your legs. The thought makes most people feel terrible.
But most real-life paraplegics are NOT thinking about their disability most of the time. Most of the time they are focused on other things, like a conversation with a friend, a tv show or a hobby. The same things you are focused on day-to-day. There’s a big lesson here.
When your attention become narrow, you overestimate the importance of that ONE thing you’re paying attention to.
Here’s one way the mainstream media takes advantage of this idea…
Have you ever heard of Agenda-Setting Theory?
The central tenet of agenda-setting theory is that the media rarely produce change directly, by presenting compelling evidence that sweeps an audience to new positions; they are much more likely to persuade indirectly, by giving selected issues and facts better coverage than other issues and facts.
This quote is saying that the news and media usually can’t change people’s minds using facts or evidence. (If you have relatives that are very right or left wing, then I’m sure you know how difficult it is to change anyone’s mind!) But what the media CAN do is change what people are paying attention to. They can change what is being talked about most of the time.
If an issue is being given a lot of attention and coverage, then people will automatically assume that it’s important. Other issues sort of fade into the background.
This means being able to capture and direct people’s attention is one of the most effective ways to persuade them. (That’s what the next ideas are about.)
3. How to Create “Attention Tunnels”
Your attention is limited. You can only really pay attention to one thing at a time.
We are said to “pay” attention (…) when attention is paid to something, the price is attention lost to something else. Indeed, because the human mind appears able to hold only one thing in conscious awareness at a time, the toll is a momentary loss of focused attention to everything else.
Here’s why this is so important…
Usually, we try to persuade people by arguing with them, convincing them or giving them reasons. But that’s the hardest way to change someone’s mind.
It’s a lot easier to change what someone is paying attention to. If you can change what they are thinking about at this moment, then you can usually change their decision at this moment.
For example, when a reporter asks Donald Trump a difficult question, one of his favorite techniques is called “shifting the ground.” If a reporter asks about the negative effects his new construction project will have on the neighborhood, Trump instead talks about all the jobs and other positive effects his building is creating. This technique allows him to turn a negative question into a positive answer. It’s not about answering the question directly. You talk about something closely related to the question that is positive.
You can learn more of Donald Trump’s sneaky tricks in my summary of his book “The Art of the Deal.” I highly recommend it.
Here’s a different example from Cialdini:
“Are You Happy With Your Social Life?”
There was a Canadian study where people were asked one of two questions:
- “Are you happy with your social life?” or
- “Are you unhappy with your social life?”
These questions sound like the same thing, don’t’ they? But the results will surprise you.
The people who were asked if they were unhappy were 375% more likely to say they were unhappy!
What’s going on here? Cialdini says each question creates a different “attention tunnel.” Here’s what this means.
Imagine what happens when someone is asked: “are you unhappy with your social life?” The word “unhappy” makes them search their recent memories for unhappy experiences. And since that’s what they’re looking for, that’s what they find! They remember the times they felt lonely.
But when someone is asked “are you happy with your social life?” they search their recent memories for the happy social experiences. Even if there are only a few memories, those are the ones they are thinking about at that moment.
This tiny change in how the question is asked totally changes what people remember and ignore at that moment. Cialdini says this is like sending people down a psychological chute or “Attention Tunnel.” And that’s why the people who were asked if they are unhappy with their social life were 375% more likely to say they were!
This clearly shows that asking specific questions is a powerful way of focusing people’s attention exactly where you want it.
Here’s another interesting study…
Asking This Question Made People TWICE As Likely To Fill Out a Survey…
Scientists were asking people to take a survey in a shopping mall. About 29% of people agreed to fill out the survey. Not very many.
But if the scientists first asked people the question “Are you a helpful person?” and THEN asked if they would fill out the survey, 77.3% said yes.
From 29% to 77%. That’s huge!
Why did the question work? Well, almost everyone thinks they are a helpful person. And right after saying you’re a helpful person, it would feel weird to refuse to help with the survey, right?
It’s a perfect example of Pre-Suasion. The “helpful” question caused a little shift in attention which made people a lot more likely to say YES to the next request.
In fact, this is a big problem with many polls and surveys. If someone asks people “are you happy with the president?” they will get very different answers than asking “are you unhappy with the president?” The way they ask the question will change what people are focused on and how they respond!
And Cult recruiters often ask questions like “are you unhappy?” which makes people focus on all the problems in their life. They become blind for a moment to all the good things in their life. So of course many people admit they are unhappy.
In the unfairly engineered instant after such an admission, the cult’s moment maker is trained to strike: “Well, if you’re unhappy, you’d want to change that, right?”
4. Win People’s Attention With Sex, Danger and Novelty
We’ve talked about how people assume that attention=importance. We also talked about how questions can powerfully focus people’s attention before you ask them to do something.
But how can you grab someone’s attention from the beginning? Cialdini shares 3 incredibly effective methods based in science and biology. He says people’s attention is attracted by sex, danger and the new or different.
Sex gets people’s attention.
Who would have thought, right? (I hope you can hear my sarcasm.)
Almost everybody in advertising and media understands this intuitively and takes advantage of our sex wiring. That’s why all the magazines have a sexy airbrushed person on the cover. You can’t help but look. And while you’re looking, you may notice their headlines too and buy the magazine.
Most advertising has a model–by definition an unusually attractive person–holding and using a product. The model grabs your attention, then the advertiser tries to shift that attention onto their product.
Studies have shown that using sex to grab attention is especially effective if you’re selling a product that is meant to help people be more attractive or find a mate. Cologne, stylish clothing, sports cars, etc. Studies have also found using sex as an attention grabber for unrelated products like bread is not as effective. Which makes sense.
Why is the news always full of violence, attacks and murderers? Because those stories get the most views.
Many psychologists believe that people’s deepest instinct is to survive. Our brains are wired for survival. That’s how over thousands of years your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents all survived. They were always on the lookout for danger.
And that’s why news of danger or threat is such an attention magnet. Your brain wants to keep an eye on anything dangerous so it can’t kill you. Here’s what Cialdini says about this:
Certain cues seize our attention vigorously. Those that do so most powerfully are linked to our survival. Sexual and violent stimuli are prime examples because of their connections to our fundamental motivations to reproduce on the one hand and to avoid harm on the other–life and death, literally.
With a little creativity, you can use danger to promote almost any type of business. Here are a few examples:
- A personal trainer can talk about how belly fat is not only unattractive but actually dangerous because of all the deadly health problems it causes.
- A lawyer can talk about the danger of not having a proper will and having your life savings go to the government instead of your kids.
- An accountant can talk about the danger of making a mistake on your tax forms and getting audited.
Cigarettes became popular because of powerful marketing. Big companies used icons like “The Marlboro Man,” a rugged cowboy, to make people associate sticks of tobacco with masculinity and strength. Later Edward Bernays designed a propaganda campaign to make women smoke by labeling cigarettes as feminist “Torches of Freedom.”
But the percentage of smokers has dropped dramatically since 1950. What happened?
People became aware of the dangers of smoking, for themselves and their kids. And the governments of many countries used aggressive education and advertising to help people become aware of the dangers. For example, now when you buy a cigarette pack, you have the privilege of seeing a black lung on the package. And a message saying that this is how your lung will look if you continue to smoke.
Cialdini says studies have shown that if you first scare people a bit, then show them practical steps of how to avoid the danger, then you will persuade them.
3. The New/Different
When you walk into a home with a dog, what happens? The dog will always run over to sniff you. In science, this is called the “investigative reflex.”
All animals, including humans, want to investigate whatever is new or different in our environments. (Probably to make sure it’s not dangerous.)
So if you are creating advertising, contacting potential clients or sending out your resume–you will grab people’s attention from the beginning if you DON’T do the same thing everyone else is doing. How can you be new, different and unexpected?
For example, imagine you’re an accountant sending out a sales letter to 100 local businesses. In the letter, you talk about why they should hire you. But the reality is that most people hate junk mail and they will often put anything that smells like advertising right into the trash.
So how can you grab their attention and make them open your letter?
There’s a cool technique I learned from direct marketing expert Dan Kennedy called “lumpy mail.” From sending out thousands of sales letters, Kennedy found that adding a small object inside the letter is very effective. People can feel something in the envelope and they become curious. They will usually open the letter to see what is inside. As an accountant, you could put a small toy calculator inside the letter or even a rolled up one dollar bill. This will surprise people and they will start to read your letter to see what it’s about.
5. Hold People’s Attention By Making It About Them
Now we know how to quickly grab people’s attention. But if you want to be a successful persuader, you have to also KEEP their attention.
If you can’t HOLD people’s attention, then you can’t persuade them because they won’t hear your full argument. You can’t sell a product because they won’t stay for your whole sales pitch or advertisement. And they won’t come back to your website or Youtube channel.
That’s why knowing how to hold people’s focus where you want it is so important.
The most interesting thing in the world to most people… is themselves! This means if you want to hold people’s attention, then make your message all about them.
The easiest way for you to do this is by adding the word “YOU” in your communications. Advertising studies have found adding the word “you” into an ad will increase its effectiveness tremendously. So keep this in mind next time you’re speaking with a client, writing an advertisement or putting together a presentation. Don’t use impersonal words like “people” or “they”… use the word “YOU.” It will help you hold someone’s attention because they’ll feel that you’re speaking directly to them.
Another effective technique is to mention some personal detail about your target audience, like their age, sex or a problem they have. How many times have you heard an ad on the radio that started with: “Attention women over 40 who want to lose at least 15 pounds.” or “Attention people who have embarrassing dandruff.”
If you want to hold someone’s attention, always talk about THEIR interests, problems and worries instead of talking about yourself.
As the self-help giant Dale Carnegie said: “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
6. Hold People’s Attention With Unfinished Stories and Mysteries
Have you ever noticed that many popular TV shows finish each episode with a cliffhanger?
In the last minute of the episode, a big crisis happens (like a gun being pulled on the main character) and they leave you in suspense until next week. Why do they do this? Because it works!
You’ll watch the show next week because you NEED to know what happens next.
The scientific word for this is “The Zeigarnik Effect.” Scientists have found that unfinished tasks or stories are remembered, while finished ones are quickly forgotten.
People have a strong desire for closure. We don’t like unfinished stories, unanswered questions, unresolved problems and unachieved goals. We want to resolve and finish things. Yet as soon as we do get closure about something, we tend to forget about it quickly and move on to a new problem.
So if you want to HOLD someone’s attention, don’t give them closure right away!
For example, many advanced speakers will start their speech with a story. They don’t finish the story right away. Instead, they talk about something else. People want to hear the end of the story, so they keep listening. Finally, near the end of the speech, they complete the story. The audience gets closure and they can relax, which means they stop paying attention.
And here’s a related technique:
Tell A Mystery
Professor Cialdini is an academic who has the great challenge of making dry scientific subjects interesting for the general public. How does he do it?
Before he wrote his first book “Influence” (which became a bestseller), Cialdini went to the library and studied many popular science and psychology books written in the past. He read them carefully, trying to understand why some books were interesting and others weren’t. He also tried to understand why some sections of a book were interesting and other parts were not.
And here’s what he found:
The most successful of the pieces each began with a mystery story. The authors described a state of affairs that seemed perplexing and then invited the readers into the subsequent material as a way of dispatching the enigma.
Cialdini saw that the best popular science writers were actually mystery writers! They described a mystery, then slowly unfolded the scientific explanation for the mystery. This pulls people into the book and makes them engaged because when they understand the mystery, they want to know the solution to the mystery.
7. Mental Associations Can Be Secretly Used to Persuade
The way your brain works is fascinating. All your thoughts, memories and ideas and linked together. No thought exists on its own.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the famous experiment of Pavlov’s dogs. There was a scientist called Pavlov who rang a bell every time before he gave his dogs food. Later, he noticed that when he rang the bell, the dogs would already start to drool and salivate at the sound, even when there was no food.
Pavlov had created a new association or link in his dog’s minds. He had linked the bell sound to food. So when he rang the bell, the dogs instantly imagined food.
That was the day we found out associations in people’s minds can be engineered. You can create a mental link, even between two totally unrelated things like the sound of a bell and dog food.
Many businesses now try to create associations in consumer’s minds. That’s what branding is all about. Creating links between positive ideas and a product. For example,
- What do you think when someone mentions Apple computers? I think about creativity or being different.
- What do you think when someone mentions BMW? I think about luxury and speed.
- What do you think when someone mentions Gucci or Armani? I think of super-rich people.
These associations are NOT by accident. They were carefully engineered by the best businesspeople and marketers in the world.
Advertisers have been using the tactic for more than a century: they present something that attracts their target audience–a beautiful vista, a good-looking model, a popular celebrity–and then link it to the product through nothing more than a simultaneous presence inside the ad.
These links or associations in our minds are very powerful and deep.
A scientific study was done in a wine store. They wanted to see if the music in the store had any effect on sales. The results were surprising. On days when they played classical German music, sales of German wine went up. And on days they played classical French music, sales of French wine went up!
This is a great example of how mental associations can influence us, even when we are not aware of it.
In the book “Contagious,” a Wharton business professor explains how building “triggers” into your ideas will help people remember them more often. It’s all about making a common everyday object into a “trigger” for your product. For example, one marketing campaign successfully turned coffee into a trigger for Kit Kat chocolate bars. As a result, sales of Kit Kat rose by over 33%.
8. Creating the Right Associations with the Right Words
The words you use are very important. Remember that everything in your mind is linked together. So every word you use will spark old association in people’s minds.
And you need to be careful because some words have unwanted negative associations.
Ciadini was a consultant at an award-winning hospital. He noticed they had strict rules about the words and language used in the hospital.
“As a health care organization, we’re devoted to acts of healing, so we never use language associated with violence. We don’t have bullet points; we have information points. We don’t attack a problem, we approach it.”
Most people think these little differences in language don’t matter. However, the smart management of this very successful hospital was convinced this was a key to their greatness.
In a scientific study, the employees of a call center were given work instructions. Half the papers showed a photo of a runner winning a race, the other half didn’t. And guess what? The half of employees who had received the paper including the photo of a winner raised 60 percent more money than others. Scientists believe the photo raised achievement-related thinking in the callers and caused them to work harder.
The same effect happens with words associated to winning:
Multiple studies have shown that subtly exposing individuals to words that connote achievement (win, attain, succeed, master) increases their performance on the assigned task and more than doubles their willingness to keep working at it.
I hope it’s becoming clear how small words can make a big impact. (And if you’ll excuse me, I need to go out and buy a big poster with the words “Achieve and Conquer” for my wall hahaha!)
Here’s a very practical way to use this new knowledge. Instead of telling customers the “cost” of something, say “investment” instead. The word “cost” is associated with loss, while “investment” is linked to the idea of gain. People don’t like costs, but they do like investments.
9. How to Create an Association of Trust
What is the most important idea for people to associate you or your business with?
- If people trust you, then they will believe you and listen to what you are saying.
- If people trust you, they can give you their money or credit card number.
- If people trust you, they can form a relationship with you. (And so many businesspeople say repeat customers are the key to success.)
On the other hand, you absolutely do not want people to associate you with dishonesty, lying and cheating.
Cialdini shares a technique he learned from a home alarm salesman named Jim. Jim used this technique to create an association of trust with potential customers. He said this technique allowed him to become the top salesperson in his company.
Jim would enter the home of a family that was interested in the alarms. He started his sales presentation and asked the family to complete a test to see how much they knew about home safety. Then every time he would do the same thing…
He’d slap his forehead and say, “Oh, I forgot some really important information in my car, and I need to get it. I don’t want to interrupt the test; so, would you mind if I let myself out and back into your home?”
The answer was always some form of “Sure, go ahead.” Oftentimes it required giving him a door key.
Jim repeated this technique of pretending to be confused with every family. Each time pretending it was an accident. Finally, Cialdini asked him why he did it and Jim replied:
“Think, Bob: Who do you let walk in and out of your house on their own? Only someone you trust, right? I want to be associated with trust in those families’ minds.”
The salesman didn’t ask the family to “trust him” directly. That would be obvious and not effective. Instead, Jim made the families treat him like other people they already trust, by allowing him to walk out of and into their home on his own.
Pretty clever, isn’t it?
Right now, think of the people you want to persuade. It could be your boss, relative or prospects. Who do they already trust? What do they allow that person they trust to do? How can you get them to treat you the same way?
10. Unity: A Powerful New Influence Trigger
In Cialdini’s first breakthrough book, Influence, he revealed six influence triggers. If he was writing the book today, he would include a seventh trigger called Unity.
Unity is about making people feel that you are one of them.
The relationships that lead people to favor another most effectively are not those that allow them to say, “Oh, that person is like us.” They are the ones that allow people to say, “Oh, that person is of us.” For instance, I might have many more tastes and preferences in common with a colleague at work than with a sibling, but there is no question which of the two I would consider of me and which I would consider merely like me–and which, consequently, I would more likely help in a time of need.
Who do you feel closest to? Probably your family. You may have friends that you have more in common with, but you’re probably most likely to donate a kidney or risk your life for a family member.
Scientists have even measured that when you help a family member, your brain actually feels as though you’re selfishly helping yourself. Why? Well, it’s too complicated to get into here, but you can learn more in Richard Dawkin’s book “The Selfish Gene.” (His idea is that basically, you have evolved to make your genes survive.) But unity is not just about family.
Unity is also about shared groups, shared identities and shared worldviews. Let’s look at another quote:
It’s about shared identities. It’s about the categories that individuals use to define themselves and their groups, such as race, ethnicity, nationality, and family, as well as political and religious affiliations. A key characteristic of these categories is that their members tend to feel at one with, merged with, the others. They are categories in which the conduct of one member influences the self-esteem of other members. Put simply, we is the shared me. (…)
Around the globe, sports team championships stimulate feelings of personal pride in residents of the team’s surrounding zones–as if the residents had won.
A sure sign of unity is when people use the words “we” and “us.” Religious people don’t say “the church,” they say “our church.” Fanatical sports fans don’t say “the sports team won,” they say “we won” or “we lost.”
Eric Hoffer wrote an incredible book called The True Believer that demystified why people join large movements like Communism, Nazism, Fascism or Nationalism. He said, “the desire to belong is partly a desire to lose oneself.” People want to feel part of something bigger and more powerful than their weak individual self.
How to Create Unity?
One way to create feelings of unity in a group is using words and language associated with family.
Collectives that create a sense of we-ness among their members are characterized by the use of familial images and labels–brothers, sisterhood, forefathers, motherland, heritage.
Another way to make people feel at one is by making them act and move together. For example, studies have found people dancing or singing together feel more at one. One study found that young children who danced with each other later became more generous about sharing toys.
And that’s probably why every army has soldiers marching together, twirling their guns and chanting songs. These things have nothing to do with fighting, but they create a sense of unity, which makes the army stronger and soldiers more selfless.
We’ve reached the finish line. There were a lot of powerful ideas packed in here. How about we simplify it all into three words to make it practical?
Next time you’re trying to persuade someone, keep these three things in mind: Attention, associations and unity.
- Attention. Where do you need to direct their attention? What do you need them to think about and ignore right now? How can you ask specific questions to guide their focus?
- Associations. What positive associations do you want to link to yourself or your product? What words with unwanted negative associations do you need to avoid? Most importantly, how can you create an association of trust?
- Unity. How can you make them feel that you are one of them? This will allow you to influence someone powerfully.
If you enjoyed this note, then I highly recommend you read this one again in the future. Repeated reading or listening allows these ideas to sink more deeply into your mind.
Also, pick up the book! It has a lot more great stories and insights that you will love. Cialdini’s first book “Influence” is also an absolute classic and must read. Keep an eye out for my note on that book in the future.