Whether you’re trying to persuade someone to agree with your position on a topic or to get him/her to buy your used car, the power of your message isn’t all that matters. A growing body of evidence suggests that what people see and hear just before you try to persuade them can have a dramatic effect on the outcome. There’s no need to leave this to chance—there are “pre-suasion” tactics you can use before making your pitch that can set the stage for success.
These tactics are worth knowing even if you rarely need to persuade anyone of anything—knowing them will help you defend against them when other people try to use them on you.
Here’s how to “pre-suade” people before you even try to persuade them…
Ask a question that alters how the answerer sees himself. In one experiment, when people were approached by a stranger and asked to participate in an unpaid survey, only 29% said yes…but if they were asked, “Do you consider yourself a helpful person?” before being asked to participate, 77% said yes to participating in the survey.
When you ask people whether they think they have a particular quality, it encourages their minds to reflect on prior times when they exhibited that quality—and that greatly increases the odds that they will exhibit that quality in the moments that follow. Thus, asking about helpfulness encourages helpful behavior such as participating in a survey. Similarly, research shows that initially asking about a person’s adventurousness encourages risk-taking.
Make someone believe that he already trusts you. All the salespeople at a company that sold home fire alarms worked from the same sales script when they visited the homes of prospective customers, but one salesman added a twist—a twist that helped him record the company’s highest sales totals every year. After starting his presentation, this salesman told clients that he had to retrieve something from his car and said, “Do you mind if I let myself out and back into your home?”
We typically let people enter our homes unescorted if we trust them, so when the customers agreed to this, at some level they convinced themselves, I trust this man. Once trust is established, it becomes much easier to move others in your direction.
Make a buyer think of a very large number…or make a seller think of a very small number. Perhaps you’ve heard of the “anchoring” negotiation strategy. It works like this—a seller starts negotiations by quoting a very high asking price. He knows he won’t get this price, but starting negotiations very high tends to “anchor” the ensuing back-and-forth near this high number, resulting in a higher final sales price than would have been reached if negotiations had started at a lower amount. Buyers can do the opposite and make a very low initial offer. But there’s a drawback—opening with a very high (or low) number could offend the person with whom you are trying to negotiate, damaging the chance of making a deal.
Solution: It turns out that you can use anchoring without making an extreme and potentially anger-inducing opening offer. Simply make the other party think of a very high number (or very low number) related to what you are negotiating about just before you begin negotiations. After thinking of a very large number, even a high asking price doesn’t seem so high. Example: You are selling your used car and are hoping to get $20,000 for it. You are about to begin bargaining with someone whom you suspect wants a much lower price than that. You could say first, “This car has only 50,000 miles on it.”
Create an emotionally moving metaphor. Ben Feldman was the greatest life insurance salesman of his era. In the 1970s and 1980s, he personally sold more insurance than many insurance agencies. When Feldman suffered a debilitating cerebral hemorrhage, his employer, New York Life, honored him by declaring it “Feldman February” and offering a prize to the agent who sold the most insurance that month. The prize was won by…Feldman himself. The 80-year-old closed $15 million in new policies from his hospital bed. Feldman’s secret? Before he began his sales pitch, he would say, “When you walk out of life, your insurance will walk in.” “Walking out of life” was a powerful metaphor for dying—it stirred listeners’ emotions and created the image of death leaving a gap. If something we do leaves a gap in our family’s protection, then we clearly have a moral responsibility to fill that gap—by buying insurance.
To craft an effective metaphor that will help you persuade people, find a way to equate whatever it is you are proposing with something that is widely considered desirable or correct…or to equate the alternative to what you are proposing with something widely considered frightening or incorrect. Example: If your goal is to encourage your listeners to accept a change, you might preface your remarks with novelist L. P. Hartley’s famous line, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” People often avoid change because it seems frightening. This metaphor instead makes the way things were done previously seem like the foreign and frightening option.
Ask for advice. When we ask people for their advice, it encourages them to see themselves as members of our team, increasing the odds that they will support whatever cause we ask for advice about. But be sure to use the word “advice.” When you ask people for their “opinions,” it tends to have the opposite effect, encouraging them to see themselves as separate from you, decreasing the odds that they will support the cause you mention.
Play music. There’s an adage in the advertising industry: If you can’t make your case to an audience with facts, sing it to them. The advertisers are right—if you play music just before a group weighs a potentially divisive idea, that group will become more likely to unite behind the idea. Music gets everyone present into the same rhythm, inspiring them to act as one. Helpful: Choose songs that are familiar and inoffensive to the entire audience. Playing the latest hip-hop hit to a group of staid businessmen is unlikely to make them feel in step with your message.
Use an easy-to-pronounce name. An analysis of 10 large law firms found that the more difficult an attorney’s name was to pronounce, the lower that attorney tended to remain in the corporate hierarchy. (Don’t blame ethnic bias for this—the finding held true even after researchers accounted for whether difficult names sounded foreign.)
Things that are difficult for people tend to be questioned, while things that are easy often escape deep scrutiny because they “just feel right.” This applies even with something as basic as the name of the person presenting the idea.
If you are promoting a cause or product that has a long, challenging name, come up with a simpler name to use in conversation. If you have a hard-to-pronounce name, pick an easy-to-pronounce nickname and ask people to call you that. Examples: “Just call me Chuck”…or “Just call me Mr. Z.”