What Whispering In A Library Teaches Us About Persuasion

Do you whisper when you walk in a library? Most of us do. Why? Because it’s a social norm. Social norms are behaviors ingrained in our society that we follow and expect others to follow. Taken a step further, it can be used as a powerful persuasion strategy.

Whispering in a library is  common across the United States. I’m not sure about other countries but I’m taking a leap and guessing it’s the norm elsewhere too. Believe it or not, it reveals something about us that you may not want to admit. You care about what other people think of you… more than you suspect.

When we violate acceptable library behavior, we invite evil stares from other visitors and a reprimand from the local librarian. The reverse holds true too. If you’re in a library and the person sitting next to you is carrying on a loud phone conversation you get annoyed.

WTF, doesn’t this person know you’re not supposed to talk loud in a library?”

You may never stop to think about this but social norms guide a significant chunk of your daily behavior. Whispering in a library is one example. When we’re at a urinal in a public bathroom, we men always look straight ahead and avoid eye contact with others. Even the simple act of offering someone a drink when they walk in your home is a social norm considered as common courtesy..

This isn’t news to you, but here’s where it gets interesting:

Social norms not only apply to our society but a wide variety of groups like local communities, ethnic and religious groups and even markets. Ah, you see where I am going, right?

Your target market has their own social norms. The more you drill down into a market, the more powerful your message becomes when you tap into these social norms. It shows you are part of that group. It shows you are one of them.

Here are some examples:

Instead of targeting investment advisers, target investment advisers in NYC over the age of 55 with more than 25 million under management. You might find that a lot of them play golf, go out to a specific bar every Thursday night or have a favorite show they talk about.

Instead of targeting engineering consultants, target engineering consultants in Los Angeles that deal with government agencies. They could have their own social norms for greeting bureaucrats when they’re trying to win a contract.  They might go to church every Sunday or they might be hardcore anti-religion and have their own lingo to describe it.

If you dig down deep enough you will  find social norms that are unique to any group. Use their lingo. Follow their customs. Talk about what they talk about. The more you show you are “one of them” and understand them,  the better chance you have at winning their trust.

Don’t force it if it’s not there. You can’t always drill deep enough into a market. Not every strategy fits in every situation, but if you can target your message deep enough, learn and take advantage of their social norms. It’s worth the effort.


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When You Write Something Mildly Offensive

You’ve done it before, right? An attempt at humor. Maybe something just didn’t come out right. Then you get back a hurricane of angry responses. How could you? What’s wrong with you?

At first we’re taken aback by the disproportionate response. Why such an angry response? It doesn’t make sense.

It’s actually quite predictable and fits right in line with typical human behavior. We jump to conclusions too often. There’s a term psychologists use to describe this quirk but it sounds too “science-esque.” I prefer the following definition:

We confuse the outcome of someone’s behavior with their intent

Here’s why I bring it up:

Last week, a big company in the online marketing world sent out an email. This email received huge blowback and prompted a tail between the legs apology from the CEO. The writer of the email tried to make a joke (almost always a bad idea) and in the process, insulted a huge segment of their audience.

Some commenters, who I know personally, cried that these were evil people and they will never buy from them again. Others derided their lack of empathy and unsubscribed from their list. All these people automatically assumed the outcome of this joke was the intent.

A select few recognized it for it was, a bad joke that slipped through the editing process.

When we’re dealing with the written word we run a greater risk of offending our audience. Editing checks, a second pair of eyes help but stuff slips through the cracks.

Sometimes it can be helpful to be offensive as it can strengthen the resolve of your core followers (story for another day).

When you’re unintentionally offensive is when we need to address it. Here is what never works:

“You people are overreacting”

“Can’t anyone take a joke anymore?”

“Did I mess with your pretty little feelings?”

There’s a time and place for these type of comments but if you’re looking to diffuse the situation, here’s what works best:

  1. Admit your screw up. Do it in a straightforward manner. Don’t try and deflect the blame by saying it was blown out of proportion
  2. Write that you can see why they would conclude it was your intent
  3. List out the actual cause or intent of offensive writing. If possible add more detail to increase the plausibility. For example, instead of writing “I tried to make a joke and it didn’t come out the right way”… you can write… “I tried to make a joke and it didn’t come out the right way. My blood was boiling from an argument I had just had with a colleague and my emotions got the better of me.” Of course, the extra detail should be true
  4. Agree that the effect and impact of the action is real even though the intent was different
  5. Explain how it will be prevented in the future (if applicable)

Not everyone will accept it but many will. With a little luck you’ll avoid the tipping point of customer anger.

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Demonic Possession And Persuasion

I sprinted downstairs to the garage. I was in a mad rush to get to the store and pick up some stuff we needed for a barbeque we were hosting. When I got to the car I noticed that all the windows (and sunroof) were open.

What happened? Was it the kids? Did someone come into our garage and f*ck with us? Demonic possession? We immediately ruled out our kids as they have no idea how to open the sunroof.

My next guess was that a kid from a neighboring house came in and played a joke. To test my theory, I left my keys in the house and tried to open the windows and sunroof. Neither the windows or sunroof would open without the key fob being present in the car.

Now I was really confused. My next thought was that maybe I was sleepwalking the night before and I walked into my car and opened the windows and sunroof. I had never had any experience like that before so I ruled it out.

My final theory was that someone had hacked into my car and remotely opened the windows and sunroof. I had heard stories about this in the news. Maybe there was something to it? Then there was my demonic possession theory. Absurd? Yes, but fun to think about.

After an hour of racking my brain, a quick google search revealed the following feature in Acura cars:

Hit the unlock button on the remote

Wait 5 seconds

Hit the unlock button again and hold it down

The windows and sunroof will open

I tested this process myself and it worked. Mystery Solved.

What does this have to do with written persuasion? It shows two common, conflicting thought processes our prospects struggle with.

Accommodation – Changing our beliefs or opinions based on new information. Unfortunately, this almost never happens. It’s opposing concept is what usually occurs. That concept is called: Assimilation – Bending and re-interpreting new information to fit our current beliefs.

Most of us think we operate from an “accommodation” mindset but in truth we almost always operate from an “assimilation” mindset and that includes your prospects.

In the example of my car, I used accommodation.  I accepted the new information and changed my belief about why the windows and sunroof were open. There was no risk involved in accommodating my belief since I wasn’t invested in any of my initial theories, even the one about evil demons possessing my car.

Why do we naturally choose assimilation over accommodation and what are the implications in sales and persuasion? When we come across information that challenges or refutes our beliefs, it challenges the certainty we have about ourselves and our worldview… and hence our well being.

We see this all the time in politics. Hard core followers never lose faith in their candidates no matter how much information to the contrary surfaces about their nefarious behavior.

Armed with this information, the question becomes:

How do we make use of these principles in our attempts to sell or persuade?

First, know your audience. If you don’t do your homework up front, you’re just throwing darts at a dartboard with a blindfold.

Next, avoid challenging their core beliefs by throwing conflicting proof at them. No amount of proof will convince someone who has already decided they will not believe it. The recent presidential election is proof enough of that. Here’s one alternative strategy you can try:

Embrace their belief and frame your argument around it. So if you sell design services and your prospect thinks design is for suckers you can write that design is for suckers, when your designer [fill in the blank]. You start by agreeing with him and then build around his objection.

I won’t guarantee it always works, but I guarantee you’ll have a better chance than attacking them with proof.

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When They Just Don’t Get You

You write an email, letter or article and someone responds with a nonsensical answer.

“He just doesn’t get me.” That’s the thought that swimming through our minds.

It happens to all of us. You say or write something. The response makes it obvious they have no idea what you’re talking about. It’s frustrating. You feel like you’re speaking one language and the recipient may as well be listening to jibberish.

Who’s to blame?

Here’s a simple persuasion rule I was taught twelve years ago by a sales mentor:

It’s always the communicator’s responsibility to ensure the recipient(s) of his or her message understand what is being communicated

That was an important lesson when I was in sales. it’s even more important in the written persuasion world. I avoid the excuse that they’re too dumb, not paying attention or they don’t care. That’s just a way shifting blame.

Here’s how I reframe it to put the responsibility back on me:

  • If they don’t understand it, I need to find a simpler way to say it. (Ignore the voice in your that blames your audience).
  • If they’re not paying attention, then I need to say or write something that gets their attention.
  • If they don’t care then I need to tie it into something they do care about

Once you accept responsibility, it’s easy to fix. These strategies allow you to overcome each challenge:

They don’t understand

There’s a saying among Copywriters that you should write at a 6th grade level. I couldn’t agree more. Trying to sound smart, using big words that half your audience won’t recognize or understand causes your audience to tune out. Simple straightforward language always wins…. even if you’re communicating to PHD’s.

They’re not paying attention or lost attention

We’re all guilty of this as communicators. We go off on a tangent or drag on a talking point longer than the topic merits. If you find people lose attention there are two ways to straighten up their backbone.

First, write something shocking or unexpected, something they would never expect. I was once giving a boring presentation and noticed my audience looking at their phones (literally, all of them). They lost interest and I knew it. I then made an ad lib remark that got everyone to put down their phones and pay attention. I don’t remember the exact words but it was something similar to this:

“The next slide is going to show sales results and all of these numbers are totally fabricated with no basis in reality.  I apologize. That’s not really the case. My presentation was getting boring so I made this up to get your attention”

Everyone laughed and I earned a second chance to make an impression.

Another option is to launch into a story. Everyone loves a good story. When you tell the story, start right in the middle of the action. No setup or setting the stage. You can do that for a novel but not when you write to persuade.

They don’t care

An acquaintance starts taking to you, telling  you about their day, week, job, vacation, whatever and you say to yourself: “Holy crap! When will this person stop? I don’t care about any of this.” We all know that guy or gal, right?

If you’ve done your research you should have a good idea of what they do care about and that gives you the opportunity to tie that into your topic.

For example, if you’re giving talk on term life insurance to people in their 30’s and married with no children, you might put your audience to sleep. Instead, find out what someone in that position does care about. Let’s pretend that they’re more concerned about saving money for a down payment to buy a house and starting a family. Structure your argument around building a “financial fortress.”  Later, build on that by showing how they can buy a house and start a family without worry and anxiety of an unfortunate event.

When you get that “blank stare email” and it’s obvious your communication was not understood, don’t just dismiss it or blame it on their stupidity. As the communicator, it is Always your responsibility to make sure your message is being understood.

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Guilty Persuasion

I trekked into the 7-Eleven store by my office and made eye contact with the owner. He’s a friendly guy and likes to talk with his customers. He looked at me with a small grin.

“Hello, haven’t seen you in a while” he said

I froze. He noticed that I had gone missing. I did what anyone else in my situation would have done. I lied.

“Yeah, I was on vacation for two weeks and then I worked from home for a few days”

The next day I went back to buy my midday snack…. And… I made sure he saw me when I was there.

Here’s the backstory:

For a few years I had gone to this store almost daily to get my midday snack. Usually a Kind bar or some nuts. For the past month, however, I realized that I could buy these things in bulk at my local supermarket and cut my cost in half. When I started doing that, I had no reason to go back to the 7-Eleven.

The owner noticed I’d gone missing and made the innocent comment that he hadn’t seen me in a while. I don’t think he had any intention of “guilting” me to start frequenting his store again but that is exactly what he did. Even though it would cost me twice as much as going to the local supermarket.

The lesson here is not how the owner “guilted” me to come back to his store. The lesson is how I figured out how he did it. Besides any technique or strategy, it’s the most powerful lesson in persuasion you can acquire.

I’ll reveal this power at the end, but first I’ll tell you how he persuaded me to come back as a customer.

First, the owner was super friendly. It was impossible not to like him. As you probably already know, if we like someone, we tend to care how they think of us. If I had always thought of this guy as a jerk, I would not have cared how he thought about me. That was one motivation for me to return as a regular customer but I easily could have pushed that aside by never returning to his store again. There was something else at play.

I have a certain image of myself. I like to think of myself as supporting the small business owner, supporting friends. And since this guy was always friendly to me, I thought of him as a friend and I didn’t want to violate that self-image I had of myself.

Finally, he was helpful to me. He would often ask if there was anything I was looking for that he didn’t carry. Once upon a time I was really into coconut water. He didn’t carry it. A few weeks later I noticed one of the refrigerators stocked with coconut water. I doubt I was the only customer who asked this but I felt like he did it for me and it spurred the desire to reciprocate.

These are all powerful lessons in persuasion but the real lesson here is something a bit deeper. Perhaps you noticed it already?

How did I figure out these lessons from this simple interaction with the owner of a 7-Eleven? It’s from a power I’ve been honing for a few years. If you practice it enough, it will become the most powerful bullet in your persuasion arsenal.

It’s the power of observation.

Sounds lame right?

Let me explain how it works and why it’s so powerful. We’ll use the same example from above:

For most people, if they went through the same experience they wouldn’t give it another thought. For me, when I walked out of that store I asked myself:
What just happened there? What transpired?
How was I feeling when it began?
How did my emotions and desires change as a result of what transpired?
What was the end result?

By asking myself those questions after the interaction with the owner, I was able to uncover how he persuaded me to come back to his store as a regular customer, despite the higher cost and without any “sales” tactics.

I go through this exercise at least three times a day. It has been the single biggest driver in my persuasion skills.

You can read all the books, take all the courses and become pretty good at persuasion… but build your powers of observation everyday and you’ll become a master.

Start practicing with even the most insignificant social exchanges.

You probably won’t find the answers immediately. Over time, your brain will make the connections.

Combine this practice with your study of the strategies you read here and you’ll piece together the answers even faster.

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