About the Author
Robert Cialdini is recognized worldwide for his inspired field research on the psychology of influence. He is a New York Times bestselling author. His books, including Influence, have sold more than three million copies in thirty-three languages. Dr. Cialdini is Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University and the president and CEO of Influence at Work, an international company that provides keynotes and influence training on how to use the lessons in Dr. Cialdini’s books ethically and effectively.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
PRE-SUASION: An Introduction
As a kind of secret agent, I once infiltrated the training programs of a broad range of professions dedicated to getting us to say yes. For almost three years, I recorded the lessons taught to aspiring automobile salespeople, direct marketers, TV advertisers, frontline managers, charity fund-raisers, public relations specialists, and corporate recruiters. My intent was to find out which practices worked time after time. So I answered the organizations’ ads for trainees or otherwise arranged to be present in their classrooms, notebook in hand, ready to absorb the wisdom born of long-standing experience in the business of persuasion.
In these programs, advanced trainees were often allowed to accompany and observe an old pro who was conducting business. I always jumped at those opportunities because I wanted to see if I could register not just what practitioners in general did to succeed but also what the best of them did. One such practice quickly surfaced that shook my assumptions. I’d expected that the aces of their professions would spend more time than the inferior performers developing the specifics of their requests for change: the clarity, logic, and desirable features of them. That’s not what I found.
The highest achievers spent more time crafting what they did and said before making a request. They set about their mission as skilled gardeners who know that even the finest seeds will not take root in stony soil or bear fullest fruit in poorly prepared ground. They spent much of their time toiling in the fields of influence thinking about and engaging in cultivation—in ensuring that the situations they were facing had been pretreated and readied for growth. Of course, the best performers also considered and cared about what, specifically, they would be offering in those situations. But much more than their less effective colleagues, 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.
Besides, they were frequently in no position to tinker with the merits of what they had to offer; someone else in the organization had created the product, program, or plan they were recommending, often in fixed form. Their responsibility was to present it most productively. To accomplish that, they did something that gave them a singular kind of persuasive traction: before introducing their message, they arranged to make their audience sympathetic to it.
There’s a critical insight in all this for those of us who want to learn to be more influential. The best persuaders become the best through pre-suasion—the process of arranging for recipients to be receptive to a message before they encounter it. To persuade optimally, then, it’s necessary to pre-suade optimally. But how?
In part, the answer involves an essential but poorly appreciated tenet of all communication: what we present first changes the way people experience what we present to them next. Consider how a small procedural difference has improved the bottom line of the consulting business of a Toronto-based colleague of mine. For years, when bidding on a big project, it wasn’t unusual to get price resistance from the client, who might propose a 10 percent or 15 percent reduction. That was frustrating, he says, because he never felt comfortable padding the budget to cover this kind of potential pushback on costs. If he did agree to the cut, his profit margin became so thin it barely paid to take the business. If he didn’t acquiesce, he either lost the job or produced partners who were initially disgruntled because he wasn’t willing to work with them on price.
Then, during one proposal meeting, he accidentally hit upon a maneuver that rid him of the problem forever. It wasn’t a step-by-step attempt to specify or justify each of the expenses involved in his services; he’d long since given up on that approach, which only brought scrutiny to the bill. Instead, after his standard presentation and just before declaring his ($75,000) fee, he joked, “As you can tell, I’m not going to be able to charge you a million dollars for this.” The client looked up from the written proposal he’d been studying and said, “Well, I can agree to that!” The meeting proceeded without a single subsequent reference to compensation and ended with a signed contract. 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.
Although he stumbled onto it, my friend is not alone in experiencing the remarkable effects of merely launching a large number into the air and, consequently, into the minds of others. Researchers have found that the amount of money people said they’d be willing to spend on dinner went up when the restaurant was named Studio 97, as opposed to Studio 17; that the price individuals would pay for a box of Belgian chocolates grew after they’d been asked to write down a pair of high (versus low) digits from their Social Security numbers; that participants in a study of work performance predicted their effort and output would be better when the study happened to be labeled experiment twenty-seven (versus experiment nine); and that observers’ estimates of an athlete’s performance increased if he wore a high (versus low) number on his jersey.
What’s more, the potent impact of what goes first isn’t limited to big initial numbers. Other researchers have shown that just after drawing a set of long lines on a sheet of paper, college students estimated the length of the Mississippi River as much greater than those who had just drawn a set of short lines. In fact, the impact of what goes first isn’t limited to numerics at all: customers in a wine shop were more likely to purchase a German vintage if, before their choice, they’d heard a German song playing on the shop’s sound system; similarly, they were more likely to purchase a French vintage if they’d heard a French song playing.2
So it’s not one particular experience that guides what’s done later. It can be exposure to a number, the length of a line, or a piece of music; and, as we will see in later chapters, it can be a brief burst of attention to any of a variety of selected psychological concepts. But, because this book is mainly about the things that enhance persuasion, those chapters give special treatment to the concepts that most elevate the likelihood of assent. It’s important here to take note of my choice of the word likelihood, which reflects an inescapable reality of operating in the realm of human behavior—claims of certainties in that province are laughable. No persuasive practice is going to work for sure whenever it is applied. Yet there are approaches that can consistently heighten the probability of agreement. And that is enough. A meaningful increase in those odds is enough to gain a decisive advantage.
In the home, it’s enough to give us the means to get greater compliance with our wishes—even from that most resistant of all audiences: our children. In business, it’s enough to give organizations that implement these approaches the means to outpace their rivals—even rivals with equally good cases to make. It’s also enough to give those who know how to employ these approaches the means to become better, even best, performers within an organization.
Take, for instance, one such best performer (we can call him Jim because, what the heck, that was his name) who worked for a firm whose training program I had entered to study. The company made expensive, heat-activated fire alarm systems for the home, and Jim was its top salesperson. He didn’t win every sale, of course, but the likelihood that he would emerge from a sales call with a signed contract was, month after month, better than his counterparts’. After an initial period of classroom instruction, I was assigned to spend the next several days accompanying various salespeople, to learn how they approached the selling process. This always involved an in-home visit to a family that had scheduled an appointment for a presentation.
On account of his star status, I looked closely at Jim’s technique. One practice stood out as central to his success. Before beginning his sales effort, he established an aura of trust with the family. Trust is one of those qualities that leads to compliance with requests, provided that it has been planted before the request is made. Despite the mountains of scientific reports and scores of books that have been written making that point and suggesting ways to achieve trust, Jim accomplished it in a fashion I’ve not seen in any of them. He did it by pretending to be a bit of a screwup.
The sales sequence taught to all company representatives was fairly standard to the industry. After making small talk to build rapport, the prospects (usually a couple) were given a timed ten-minute written test of fire safety knowledge designed to reveal how little they knew about the actual dangers of a home fire. Then, at the completion of the test, representatives began the active sales pitch by demonstrating the alarm system and walking prospects through a book of materials documenting the system’s superiority to all others. Everyone else brought the book into the house from the start and kept it close by, ready for use. Not Jim, though. He would wait until a couple had begun taking the knowledge test, when 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.
I watched Jim make three presentations. Each time, his “forgetfulness” surfaced in the same way and at the same point. On the drive back to the office later that evening, I asked him about it. Twice, he wouldn’t give me a straight answer, annoyed that I was pressing to discover his selling secret. But when I persisted, he blurted, “Think, Bob: Who do you let walk in and out of your house on their own? Only somebody you trust, right? I want to be associated with trust in those families’ minds.”
It was a brilliant trick—not an entirely ethical one, but brilliant nonetheless—because it embodied one of the central assertions of this book: the truly influential things we say and do first act to pre-suade our audience, which they accomplish by altering audience members’ associations with what we do or say next. In chapter 7, I will forward the argument that all mental activity arises as patterns of associations within a vast and intricate neural network, and that influence attempts will be successful only to the extent that the associations they trigger are favorable to change.
Jim’s tactic provides a good illustration. To become a top salesperson, he didn’t have to modify the features of the alarm system he was selling or the logic, wording, or style of how he portrayed it; in fact, he didn’t stray from the standard presentation at all. Instead, he only had to first become associated with the concept of trust, the (intensely positive) other associations of which would then become linked to him and his advice. Even Jim’s unorthodox method of connecting himself to the concept of trust was purely associative. He didn’t claim to be the sort of individual—a close friend or family member, perhaps—that people let have open access to their homes. He just arranged to be treated in way characteristic of trusted individuals of this sort. It’s noteworthy that this tactic was the only real difference I registered between Jim’s presentations and those of his significantly less successful coworkers. Such is the strength of mere association.
All told, there are any of a number of first steps, besides establishing trust, persuaders can take that will make audiences more receptive to the case they intend to present. The steps can take multiple forms, and, accordingly, they’ve been given multiple labels by behavioral scientists. They can be called frames or anchors or primes or mindsets or first impressions. We will encounter each of those types in the remainder of these pages, where, throughout, I’m going to refer to them as openers—because they open up things for influence in two ways. In the first, they simply initiate the process; they provide the starting points, the beginnings of persuasive appeals. But it is in their second function that they clear the way to persuasion, by removing existing barriers. In that role, they promote the openings of minds and—for would-be persuaders like Jim—of protectively locked doors.3
THE BIG SAME
There’s a joke I’ve heard influence practitioners tell about the difficulties of persuading prospects to move in a desired direction. It tracks an exchange between the sales representative of a marketing firm and a potential client who wants to bring out a new brand of frozen spinach.
Client: Do you have experience marketing new food products?
Sales rep: We have quite a lot of experience there.
Client: Does that include experience in selling frozen food?
Sales rep: Yes, it does.
Client: How about frozen vegetables?
Sales rep: We’ve brought several types to market over the years.
Sales rep: Actually, yes, spinach too.
Client [leaning forward now, voice straining in anticipation]: Whole leaf . . . or chopped?
At business conferences, the joke produces knowing, derisive laughter from the influence professionals who hear it. Of course it was never funny the times the joke was on them—when they’d lost a contract or sale because a prospective customer, caught up in some detail of a difference, missed the big picture of what they had to offer. The contemptuous reaction to the joke’s punch line always struck me as odd, because I had found persuasion practitioners guilty of the same kind of narrowness—not in meetings with a customer or client but in the training sessions designed to prepare them for those meetings.
It wasn’t long after I began operating undercover in the training classes of influence practitioners that I encountered something curious: participants in the sessions were nearly always informed that persuasion had to be approached differently in their particular profession than in related professions. When it comes to swaying people, advertising works differently than marketing; marketing works differently than fund-raising; fund-raising works differently than public relations; public relations works differently than lobbying; lobbying works differently than recruitment. And so on.
What’s more, distinctions were stressed even within professions. Selling whole life insurance is different from selling term insurance; selling trucks is different from selling cars; selling by mail or online is different from selling in stores; selling products is different from selling services; selling to an individual is different from selling to a business; selling wholesale is different from selling retail.
It’s not that the trainers were wrong in distinguishing their own bailiwick from those of their professional neighbors. But this steady referencing of their uniqueness led to a pair of lapses in judgment. First, they often detoured into distinctions of little consequence. Worse, in their emphasis on what’s different among the successful persuasio...
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