The Persuasion Secret Hiding In Sports, Politics and Consulting

Politics and sports offer us beautiful opportunities to learn what makes us tick. The examples would fill a book, but there’s one key lesson we can use to build our persuasive power. This power can be exploited for evil or noble use.

It’s not the politicians or athletes this time. It comes from the ones who talk and write about politics and sports. Yes, the media controls most of it but everyone with access to an internet connection is guilty at some point.

I refer to hindsight bias.

The Wikipedia definition states it as the inclination, after an event has occurred, to see the event as having been predictable, despite there having been little or no objective basis for predicting it. In sports we like to use the term Monday Morning Quarterback.  We use the benefit of hindsight to criticize decisions made in the game as if they were predictable.

In politics, we hold elections. Someone wins. Someone loses. Soon after the results are tallied, we’re swimming in analysis. Here’s why he won. Here’s why she lost. By cherry picking certain events, actions and moments in time we draw conclusions. We should’ve seen it coming, they tell us.

We know that people fall for it all the time. Pundits earn vast sums of money from the benefit of hindsight. Nobody seems to question it.

Why We Fall For It

When we hear or read these things they make perfect sense. We play connect-the-dots in our minds. We hear a few tidbits of information, connect them together and create a story. It fits nice and neat into our brains.

Many a consulting businesses thrive on hindsight bias. Here’s how it often goes:

“Mr. client may I see what you’ve done?”
“Here you go. It hasn’t been working”
“Ah, I see what you’ve done. This makes perfect sense. I see why you’ve failed. You could use our help”

Of course that’s grossly simplified but you get the point.

The Truth About Hindsight Bias

Is hindsight bias a bad thing? I struggle with that one. After all, I’m guilty of it myself. One thing I like to do is observe social situations and then ask myself questions. Why did it unfold the way it did? What did I learn about human behavior? How can I apply it to my writing? The answers I come up with involve some sort of hindsight.

Here’s my take on the whole thing. Using hindsight bias positions you as an expert. It makes you look like you know what the hell you’re talking about. If you use it as a means to assess the cause of some outcome and then use that learning to apply to future events then it’s a good thing. It allows us to test and prove or disprove our conclusions.

Cherry picking a few pieces of information and then drawing larger conclusions seems a bit underhanded. Articles like, “The exact moment Hillary threw away the election” ignores a nearly infinite number of data points that all contributed to the loss.

The pundits who make big sweeping conclusions from their Monday morning quarterbacking make all the headlines but yield little in wisdom. Like other persuasion tools, it’s not the tool that is good or bad. The intent and purpose determine the value.

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One Simple Tactic To Expand Your Persuasive Power

I caught myself just in a nick of time. I nearly committed one of the persuasion pet peeves that makes my skin crawl. Someone thanked me by email for some assistance I gave them. I responded and asked if he could write a two sentence testimonial.

Thanks Steve. Glad it worked out for you. Could you write a two sentence testimonial for me? That would be awesome… if it’s not too much trouble

Did you catch that? Me being a wuss? The deadly qualifier that added a tinge of desperation to my simple request:

“If it’s not too much trouble

Qualifiers like this give your writing an apologetic feeling. It’s almost like you feel undeserving of whatever you’re asking for. The recipient of your message senses that. They feel the desperation. If not desperation, they at least feel the lack of urgency to respond to your request

The Qualifier Temptation

It feels natural to add these qualifiers to our communication. We don’t want to come across as too strong or too demanding. The qualifier softens the request. It translates to:

I’m too uncomfortable to just ask something of you so I’m giving you an out. Hopefully, this request won’t give you a negative opinion of me.”

Of course you wouldn’t explicitly write that but that’s how the recipient reads into it.  Compare the same request with and without the qualifier. Which one are you more likely to comply?

“Hi. Glad it worked out so well. I’d be honored if you would reply with a short testimonial for me”


“Hi. Glad it worked out so well. I’d be honored if you could write me a short testimonial. No rush. Whenever you get a chance. If you’re too busy or don’t feel comfortable I totally understand. No pressure.”

Maybe I exaggerated the second version a bit but you get the idea. It feels apologetic,almost like the requester feels unworthy.  In the first version, I make a simple request. The recipient will either accept or decline. What if he declines? That’s fine. He can decide that himself. It’s a rejection. I’ll live.

Do You Fear Rejection?

The qualifier makes rejection easier to handle because we structure the offer as an afterthought. Do this for me if you get around to it. If not, no big deal. Telling your recipient it’s okay to say no means you win with either answer. It protects you emotionally from feeling rejection but you give up a lot of yes’s in the process.

Here’s a quick exercise. Go through some emails and look for ones which ask something of someone. Do you use qualifiers? Here’s a short sample of offending phrases. When you find one, edit ruthlessly.

If you can’t do it, no big deal
If it’s not too much trouble
I don’t mean to be pushy
When you get around to it
Ignore or decline this if you’re not comfortable
I understand if you [don’t have time, not interested, etc…]

Those nasty add-on’s weaken your message. Cut them out and watch your persuasive power grow.

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How To Persuade The “Obnoxious Driver” Type

Already running late I hit traffic at a tollbooth on the New Jersey Turnpike. It took me 8 minutes to drive the first eight miles and twenty minutes to drive the last two. So frustrating but nothing you can do. There’s always a temptation to pull out of the lane and into the wide open shoulder. Tempting? Sure, but I risk getting a ticket. More than that, it seems unfair. Why should I get to cut all these other cars?

After several minutes of inching up I spotted a car in my passenger side mirror. He went for it. I still couldn’t bring myself to do it. A few seconds later another car ventured into the shoulder. A third car then took the plunge. Within a minute there was a steady stream of cars.

“Screw it. I’m going” I said to myself

By the time I made that decision the traffic backed up in the shoulder. The advantage vanished.

Examples like this remind me that some of us fall under the rebellious label.  Others land in the follower column. Followers often yield to social norms. Rebels often break social norms when they feel it’s in their best interest. In reality, most of us fall somewhere on a continuum.

The old gods of persuasion listed social pressure as one of their commandments. It’s still found in just about every book on influence and persuasion… and with good reason. It usually works.

When Social Pressure Backfires

When I write a sales letter for a new audience this is something I spend a good teal of time researching. A lot of experts tout social pressure as a powerful persuasion tool. In most (but not all) cases that’s true.

When you craft your persuasive message getting this wrong could unhinge all your efforts. In my traffic example today, one driver took the more rebellious approach. He broke the ice by becoming the first car to ride on the shoulder. The second driver, feeling a jolt of confidence from someone else going first, reached a point where he felt comfortable. The third driver saw two other cars and then figured “I guess it’s ok to do this”.

After a dozen or so cars passed by I felt a comfort level too. I bet a few drivers decided they would avoid driving in the shoulder under any circumstances. I respect those fools.

Where Does Your Audience Land

When you write for persuasion, know where your audience falls on the continuum. Are they more likely to break a taboo? Maybe they prefer to follow the crowd and wait until that taboo becomes acceptable? Or, will they hold to their principles no matter how extreme the social pressure?

My own experience tells me that most people lean towards the follow the crowd mentality. We need some sort of indication that a taboo, illegal or ill-favored action feels socially acceptable. That cue often comes from someone else going first.

A select few operate at the rebellious end of the spectrum. These are the ones who feel no qualms about  being the lone driver who dares to ride on the shoulder of a highway. 

The Key Takeaway

Before you write, do your homework. Learn about your audience. Does your product appeal to those who follow the crowd? Or, does it appeal to the rebellious type?  Once you understand your audience you can position your product or service accordingly.

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Could Fake News End The World? How A Crooked Ad Set Off A Firestorm

Persuasion and influence often presents us with gray areas. Should I do this? Does this go too far? Ethical marketers and copywriters refuse to cross the line of decency. Shady ones employ lies, deception and predatory tactics to compete.

Something disturbed me and I need to share it. While scrolling through Facebook today I came across what I thought was an editorial by Marc Cuban. I clicked.

In the upper left of the screen (on my mobile phone) I saw the familiar Forbes magazine layout. Surprise! The Forbes design was just a ruse. A peak at the website url proved this. I landed on some other website with a sketch “.io” extension.  They stole the Forbes intellectual property. I get it. They needed credibility. Since they had none, they stole it. That was a clear signal me that something was off. Unfortunately, it was not a signal to the vast majority.

The Big Lie Revealed

Still curious, I read through the ad. It was a blatant pitch to sell some kind of money making info product. It was written as if Cuban wrote it himself. The piece was filled with grammatical errors and typo’s. The writer talked down to the reader (a big no-no in copywriting). In short, an amateur effort. Anyone who’s ever watched Shark Tank knows Cuban would never give his stamp of approval on such work.

What bothered me more than the lies and deception were the comments. At the time of this writing there were about one thousand comments. I scrolled through most of them. I would estimate that at least 95% of the commentors believed this was the real thing. They believe Cuban himself penned this article to sell his $99 money making product. Comment after comment trashed him for pushing some snake oil like money making crap. Others blasted him for squeezing regular people for $99 when he’s already worth billions. A few intelligent souls saw the ad for what it was, FAKE. Few paid attention. Many of the comments that blasted Cuban evolved into more back and forth conversations about Cuban and billionaires constantly fleecing the middle class.

Fixing Fake News

So, what do we do about it? I felt it was my duty to report what was not only fake news but obvious false advertising and misrepresentation. When I opened the options window in Facebook I saw that I could hide this ad and all future ads from this sponsor. There was no option, however, to report this as an obvious fraud.

Although not exactly fake news (just fake advertising), you can see the danger lurking. This post clearly stated “sponsored ad” in full view of the reader. The slightest bit of research would have uncovered the fraud. Still, at least 95% of the people who read it thought it was legit.

Sure, this company was just peddling some $99 money making crap. The harm may be minimal here. How easy would it be to do the same thing to motivate someone to do something worse, even violent?  I don’t have an answer to this threat. Urging vigilance to the billion people on social media is impractical. Making the the sites that host these ads more accountable may help but there’s danger in that too.

A few hours after writing this article I noticed the ad disappeared. Justice, right?  Not so fast.  A few hours later when I scheduled it on Medium I noticed it was back… under a new website.

I know you might be curious to see this ad for yourself. I thought about posting the link but then that would provide this site with undeserved exposure.

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Kitchen Sink Persuasion

Becoming a more persuasive writer takes practice. The multitude of tools and techniques feels overwhelming when you decide to take on the challenge. You can put aside all those tools for now. I’m giving you one tip that will automatically make you more persuasive, even if you decide to never learn any other technique.


Remove the clutter. Focus on a single BIG IDEA. So often when we write we feel the need to squeeze in every argument, every idea, every possible nugget of information that supports our position. It’s the kitchen sink approach to persuasion. Let’s throw all the shit we can think of and see what sticks.

What happens? The reader feels overwhelmed, confused and lost. One big idea provides focus and clarity for your audience. Your readers may be the smartest people in the world. That doesn’t mean they’ll read, re-read and analyze your writing. They need to “get it” right away.

Don’t Litter Your Writing

The kitchen sink approach runs rampant in the corporate world. When “experts” put together presentations they’re often cluttered with multiple big ideas and a host of supporting ideas. Managers get their grubby hands on them and add the final blow. They litter the rest of the writing with obscure points nobody really cares about.

These presentations receive polite accolades from the audience. Nobody’s quite sure what it was about.

“Were they trying to sell us something?”
“I think so, but I’m not sure what”

Don’t laugh, those are real conversations. Avoiding the “kitchen sink” approach challenges our self-control. Despite my awareness, I still fight the urge to throw in extra shit that muddles my writing. Think of it like connect the dots, the game you played as a kid. Give them a few dots to connect. They draw a few lines and construct a story.  Give them dozens of dots and it gets confusing. They can’t connect them. They can’t connect that story in their minds.

The One Big Idea System

Before you begin your writing, ask yourself what the one big idea you want to get across to your audience. If you have three big ideas then write three articles. Each article will be more persuasive if it just focuses on a single big idea.

Even when we decide to focus on one big idea, irrelevant stuff still sneaks in. In copywriting and sales, there’s a question we ask ourselves in the editing process. This questions can help you edit out the clutter from your writing:

Does this sentence advance the sale?

If the answer equals no, remove it. Even if you’re not selling a product with your writing, you’re still selling an idea. As you go through your editing process, ask yourself this question after each sentence. You can replace the word “sale” with something more appropriate for your form of writing.

This process results in a stripped down piece of writing. You’re left only with words that support your one big idea. There’s no guarantee that you’ll be persuasive with just one big idea but at least you give your audience a chance to agree or disagree with you.

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Persuasion Ain’t Just For Sales And Marketing

One of the benefits I get from writing about this stuff everyday is that I remember to use these techniques when opportunities arise. A few days ago I wrote about making your customer or prospect the hero of your sales and marketing campaign. You can find that article here.

Yesterday, a client found some problem with our software. He raised hell just like all clients do when something frustrates them. I know the software fairly well. I know the clients business well. More important, I knew of a work-around that would solve their problem. The obvious next step would be to tell the client the work-around so we could all move on with our lives. That would have missed a golden opportunity to make this client the hero.

Persuasion For Everyday Communication

I usually write about persuasive writing techniques from a sales and marketing point of view. This example shows that persuasive writing benefits you in support roles and everyday communication.

First, instead of hitting reply-all I hit reply. Then, I wrote that there may be an alternate way of doing what you need to get done.  I then laid out the possible work-around. Plus, I also added that it may not take any additional effort. Next, I wrote that if their business met these three criteria then this will work. Finally, I wrapped it up by asking him to do a quick check and see if it will work. If so, bring it to his boss as a suggestion.

Let’s unpack that a bit.

I knew in advance it would work. I also knew it would require zero additional effort on their part. So, why not just mention that and be done with it? Simple, I wanted to make this guy the hero. I gave him a few simple tasks to figure it out himself. Those small tasks gave him ownership of the solution. Then, he could take it to his boss and say that he found a solution. Voila, he looks like the hero who saves the day.

Your Payoff

What kind of benefit does that do for our working relationship going forward? Unless he’s a total narcissist or sociopath, he’ll feel a sense of reciprocation. He’ll feel that need to repay me in some way. Even if I never need his help, I made his day. I’ll take that as a payoff.

See how persuasive writing pays off even when you’re not in a sales and marketing scenario? How many emails a day do you write? Each one holds the potential to make your recipient the hero in some way. Get in the habit of asking yourself this question before you email someone:

How can I make this person the hero?”

Help someone look good in front of others. Make someone feel important by entrusting them with critical task. Tell others how something she did saved the day. Spend a minute thinking about it. You won’t find an answer all the time but when you do you may uncover golden opportunities to grow your relationship capital.

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The “Other” Story Behind The Most Persuasive Book In History

What’s the most influential self-help book of all time? Most of you would answer: How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. The wisdom of Carnegie’s words still hold relevance after all these years. What can I say that hasn’t already been said? The virtues he preached still prove their power today. Since I focus on written persuasion, I’m going to reveal another reason for the success of the book.  One that may surprise you.

Are Carnegie’s brilliant teachings the only reason the book succeeded? No. There were others who played pivotal roles. The publisher deserves credit. He refused to take no for answer and convinced Carnegie to write the book. Ironically, he exploited Carnegie’s own techniques to get him to agree.

Perhaps a man by the name of Victor Schwab deserves more credit. Schwab was one of the most influential and successful copywriters of the first half of the 20th century. 

He wrote the ad that shot the book into stardom. The book sold one million copies in three years. All those sales were mail order. Yes, customers clipped a coupon and mailed it in. Impressive when you think about it.

Legend holds he also wrote the chapter titles to the book. Do you recall the article I wrote on writing  bullets? Schwab’s titles are a virtual lesson in writing compelling, irresistible, heart pounding bullets. Notice how powerful they remain, eighty years later. 

Do this and you’ll be welcome anywhere
An easy way to become a good conversationalist
A simple way to make a good first impression
A sure way of making enemies – And how to avoid it
How to criticize – And not be hated for it
Six ways to make people like you
How to change people without giving offense or arousing resentment
How to win people to your way of thinking
12 ways to win people to your way of thinking
Making people glad to do what you want

The Secret Behind The Compelling Titles

Notice how each one combines curiosity with a benefit without any wasted words.

For example, six ways to make people like you

Tell me that simple sentence fails arouse some curiosity in you. Aren’t you just itching to find out what those are? Schwab put all the chapter titles as well as the section titles in his original ad. 

When you look at these chapter and section titles, there’s two important lessons to grasp.

First, persuasive writing comes from simple, easy words that a child could understand. Your goal is not to win literary awards, but to persuade someone to take action (buy something) or change an opinion. You don’t find any big words in the titles. You don’t need to read a title twice to catch the meaning (a surefire sign something is wrong). Every word earns its place.

Second, it shows the importance of curiosity in persuasive writing. Schwab included all of these titles in his ad, but he never gave away the secrets. It created such a high level of anticipation readers felt compelled to buy the book just to satisfy their urge. Your audience may ignore big promises, especially if they’ve heard it before. Curiosity, however, still gets us.

Schwab focused on arousing curiosity and combining it with promises. That combination ignites anticipation. Think of it like pouring gasoline on a fire. The longer you sustain that feeling in your writing, the more likely your audience accepts your call to action.

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Value In ClickBait? Yes, Really

Victimized by clickbait. One minute of wasted time I’ll never get back. Scrolling through headlines on Yahoo this morning and they suckered me into one of those pseudo articles. Of course, I did not realize it until I actually read the article.

As a big Game Of Thrones fan, I read all the articles that hint at clues to the upcoming season. I could not resist the headline about a character that

…CANNOT return for Season 7 and we’re very bummed.” 

Shit. who are they killing off now?”  I thought

Underneath was a picture of one of the main characters, Sam. As you read the article and endure the phony buildup, you learn that it’s actually the brother of Sam not returning. The brother had about two minutes of screen time in the last season. Even die hard fans don’t remember him. The headline was textbook clickbait.

When I hear people lament the rise of clickbait they neglect to praise its entertainment value: The comments.  The comments fall into two categories. First, there’s the angry reader. The ones that use profanity, pissed that they were duped. Then, there’s the good sport. Think of someone playing a joke on you and you think: “ah, good one. You got me.”

Here’s some of my favorites from this article:

“OK. I’m the first sucker to be clickbaited by the pic of Sam”

Bummed. Where did the real journalists disappear to?”

WTF… a whole article to tell us someone with 5 seconds of screen time won’t be returning. $%&# %&#”

The Real Value of ClickBait

Aside from the entertaining comments, audiences generally resent these articles. I predict the effectiveness will fade over the next year or two.  The major sites will get better at filtering out the trash.  The public’s recognition of them also improves over time. Clickbait ads will lose power.

The power that drives the success of clickbait will remain. This hidden power existed long before these trashy articles. Do you know what it is?

Curiosity. The power of curiosity to grab our attention won’t disappear. The best marketers and copywriters tap into the power of curiosity to attract attention. Once you attract someone’s attention, anything is possible.

Some marketers argue big promises offer a stronger appeal. Is it big promises or curiosity? Audiences get numb to big promises. How often have you seen an ad to lose weight fast? A big promise entices you at first. The more you see it, the less powerful it becomes.

An Even Better Weapon Than ClickBait Muscle

Wanna know what the smartest ones do? They combine big promises with curiosity. So, instead of losing weight in thirty days it becomes losing weight in thirty days on a chocolate cake diet. By the way, I made that up. I know of no all cake diet but it adds curiosity to the promise.  Assuming there’s real facts behind it, you’d at least want to know what it’s all about.

I’ll miss the angry, self-loathing comments on clickbait ads when they finally disappear.  I could read them all day. The critical lesson remains. The engine that makes these work will keep on chugging.   Curiosity will remain a potent tool to attract attention.

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The Persuasion Deadly Sin

Imagine visiting New York City for the first time and you’re aimlessly searching for some destination. Google provides zero clues. So, you’re forced to go old-school. You  ask for directions. In a city famous for its rudeness, what happens?

Not only do you find someone willing to give you directions, you find people jockeying to give you their directions. Of course, everyone thinks their directions are superior to everyone else’s.

What’s going on here? Some say people in NYC are nicer than we think. I agree with that. I lived there for fourteen years. The “niceness” argument, however, loses steam in the many examples of rude, abrasive behavior.

The answer lies in one of the seven deadly sins. How’s that for a twist?

The Deadly Sin We All Love

When people talk about the deadly sin of pride, vanity often serves as an example. Vanity explains why normally distrusting people make an effort to push their directions on lost travelers. It appeals to our feeling of self-importance.

Decades ago the legendary copywriter Robert Collier mailed a sales letter with this opening:

“I wonder if you would be good enough to give me the benefit of your experience”

The verbiage shows its age, but wouldn’t that tickle your curiosity a little to see what he’s looking for? The campaign was a smashing success back in its day. Smart writers today still appeal to their audiences pride and vanity. Of course, you must show some subtlety. Done right, however, it still draws in the crowds.

Three Ways To Tap Into Vanity

  1. Give your reader the feeling that he or she has been specially targeted due to their unique qualities
  2. Target a specific experience or knowledge the reader has that plays to their desire for self-importance
  3. Only people with a specific knowledge, experience or values could understand, appreciate and benefit from the value you offer

Playing the pride card also feels good to your readers. Everyone likes to feel like they’re important. We all want to feel like we matter. Don’t be shy, show them just how much they do matter. It goes without saying, your appeal to their vanity must be of a genuine nature. Write something fake, and your reader thinks you’re full of shit. Best case scenario, they’ll think their the wrong audience. Either way, you lose. So keep it real.

The next time you find yourself in a strange place and in need of directions you can relax. Even in a city famous for rudeness, our primitive need to feel important ensures you a healthy choice of directions.

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The Power Persuasion Technique That Took Me 17 Years To Figure Out

At the end of a twelve hour workday my coworkers/friends gathered to head out to a local bar. This was my first job out of college working at a well known hotel. Don’t ask how my economics degree landed me in the hotel biz. That’s a story for another day. At twenty three years old I thought I knew everything. Of course, I actually knew nothing. A common problem for snobby College grads in the 90’s.

Excited to let loose after a long day of work, my manager came up to me looking like he needed help.

Shit. There goes my evening”

“A group of fifty rooms just arrived and two of our newer agents are checking them in. Can you act as Assistant Manager for a few hours and make sure everything runs smoothly? This group spends a lot of money. When something goes wrong they make us miserable. Everything must be perfect”

From “oh shit” to what then became my proudest moment as an employee. He entrusted me to make sure everything went perfect. There was no corny speech. No motivation tricks. He exploited the most powerful persuasion tool known to man.. A demonstration. He demonstrated that I was the hero by raising me a few pegs on the org chart, at least for the evening.

It wasn’t until seventeen years later when I read the book Resonate by Nancy Duarte where I made the hero connection.

The Hero Template

First, he shared his story. He had an important group checking in and it needed to go perfect. I was the hero who was going to make it happen.

By making me the hero of his story he inspired me to step up to the mantle and lead. Plus, my motivation to succeed could not have been matched some trite motivational speech. Did he intend it that way? Who knows. Who cares. My pride swelled as I took the reigns of the front desk. That’s what matters.

Making your customer the hero of your story perfectly aligns with written persuasion, more so than face to face communication. With the written word, we craft, shape and perfect our story.

Making the Hero Story Work

First, tell a story. Spitting out facts and corny motivational one-liners feels fake. Notice how my manager told me a story. That short story allowed me to visualize the importance of what he needed me to do.

Second, show them why they’re the hero. My manager never mentioned the word hero. He asked me to act as Assistant Manager. He then gave me a reason for granting me that title. The reason was that he needed everything perfect. A small taste of power, a reason why and I came to the conclusion all on my own. This was my moment to shine.

By the way, if you haven’t already read Resonate by Nancy Duarte, I highly recommend it.

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