Pre-Suasion Summary: 10 Best Lessons from Robert Cialdini

Quick Summary:

Pre-Suasion is a new side of influence: it's about everything that happens BEFORE you ask someone to say yes to you. Professor Cialdini has distilled hundreds of studies to show that how you FRAME a discussion from the beginning is crucial to success.

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…

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Get the book summary as a PDF here:

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.

[key-point]Pre-Suasion is what you 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.[/key-point]

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.)

[key-point]The more attention a person give to something, the more important they believe it must be. The media often influences the public not by changing their minds, but by making them pay attention to certain issues and not others.[/key-point]
tunnel example

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?”

[key-point]Your attention is limited. When you pay attention to one thing, you must ignore everything else. Asking careful questions is a powerful way to control what someone is paying attention to at this moment. And that will change what they remember, say and do at this moment.[/key-point]

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.

1. Sex

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.

2. Danger

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