Super bowl Sunday.

Finally, a half day or so where we take a break from the political battles. Food, fun and football make the day a blast. Going to a neighbor’s party rather than hosting one yourself makes it even more enjoyable. Bring a dish. Leave whenever you want. The house stays clean. Perfect.

People love the Super Bowl for three reasons:

  1.      The game
  2.      The commercials
  3.      The food

I love all three. It’s one of the few days I gorge myself on life shortening crappy foods.

Normally, I’m a healthy eater. I rarely eat desserts or fried foods. Super bowl Sunday is an exception. I eat whatever the heck I want. Eating crappy food goes against my food snob self-image. I obsess about it. I’ve gone hungry on business trips when I can’t find a decent salad.

On Super Bowl Sunday I make an exception. I eat whatever I want with zero regrets.

See, a lot of us strive to eat healthy. Then, we succumb to temptation. We eat something disgustingly delicious and regret it later. That happens to me sometimes too. I’m by no means perfect.  What makes Super Bowl Sunday different? I give myself a logical justification to act in opposition to my core values and beliefs. The little voice in my head says:

Barry, take a punt on the healthy eating today.

Instead of:

Barry, you fool that shit will kill you

Quiet That Little Voice In Their Head

In copywriting and persuasive writing, we call it reason why justification.

Junk laden foods tempt us with their addictive flavors. We often succumb to that temptation even if we desire to avoid them. The “reason why justification” makes us okay with it. It’s how we explain to ourselves (and others) why it’s okay to act in opposition to our ideals, beliefs and values.

The same holds true in our writing. We can come up with a zillion benefits of why our product or service is so amazing. We can tout all the emotional reasons why they should own it, believe us or just take the next step.

Emotional Hot Buttons Are Nearly Enough

Those emotional buttons may bring our prospects to the very edge of commitment. Sometimes it’s enough. Often, however, they need just a little bit more. They need to satisfy that little voice in their head.

How will I explain this to my colleagues, friends, spouse, etc…?
How can I justify this to myself when in the past I’ve done [insert reason]?

They need that reason why justification to solve that riddle. They need to dot the “I’s” and cross the “T’s”.

My Super Bowl justification for eating whatever crap I want rested on the fact that I only do this a few times a year. Also, I promised myself to eat nothing but the good stuff on Monday. Those two reasons were enough to satisfy my own discomfort from acting against my values.

The emotional hot buttons still rule your sale, but the reason why justification ties up the loose ends and clears a path for your call to action.

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Persuasion and Manipulation. Is There A Difference?

Persuasion versus manipulation. Is there a difference? Here’s a quick story to give you some perspective.

The last few nights I’ve been the victim of manipulation. My younger son refuses to eat dinner. He claims he’s full after two bites of food. Later, when it’s time for bed,  he complains he’s hungry and needs something to eat. Despite our protests that he should have eaten dinner, he continues to complain. At some point he devolves into an all out meltdown.

Eventually, we give in and let him eat something. How can we let our kid go to bed hungry, right? This is a typical attempt by a four year old to manipulate his parents. Any parent can relate.

Why do we give in? Because we feel backed into a corner. We feel forced to act. I call that manipulation. It’s frustrating, but he’s four and that’s what a four year old does.

You probably know some adults who act that way too. They may exploit more stealthy tactics but the basics are the same. These are the manipulators.

Manipulation Vs. Persuasion

As persuaders, we strive to lead our audience to arrive at a desired conclusion without feeling forced. They come to the conclusion we seek all on their own. They act because they want to act not.

The manipulator asks you a series of questions (often rhetorical) that boxes you into a corner where you feel like you cannot say no. You feel trapped. You buy and somehow justify it to yourself later.

The persuader leads you down a path while the manipulator forces into a corner.

Never Ask For The Order?

Back when I was doing face to face sales many years ago, a mentor told me never ask for the order. Instead, get your prospect to ask you to sell to him. Do that and he’ll never blame you for selling him.

I don’t agree 100% with never asking for the order, especially in writing. Without a call to action it’s difficult to make a sale.

I do agree with the core concept. If we lead our audience to the point where our call to action merely acts as a formality, then we’ve done our jobs. The manipulator uses his close as a trap. Say yes? Great. Say no and you’ve contradicted yourself. Now you feel like you caught yourself in a lie. 

Opposing Customer Mindsets

The manipulator makes you think:

“Geez. I’ll feel like an idiot if I don’t buy now. I feel kind of obligated”

The persuader makes you think:

OK. I don’t need anymore sales talk. Just take me to the order page. I want this.”

The persuader leads you to a place where you decide on your own to say yes. You get excited, psyched to buy what she sells. You come to the conclusion on your own before you get to the order button. The close is the final nudge to get you past that last bit of inertia. The manipulator’s close traps you into feeling like you can’t say no.

They may both get you the sale but only the persuader gets to keep the customer for the long term.  And that’s the real victory.

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Bad Parenting Persuasion

The kids begged us to go to their favorite museum. Neither my wife nor I wanted to go. The sheer volume of kids that go through this place make it a germ infested breeding ground for stomach viruses and colds. Being out of the way and overpriced (around $50 for a family of four) didn’t help their cause either.

Of course, we caved and took the kids there anyway. When we pulled in the lot we realized my older son forgot his jacket.

Yeah, a big problem when it’s thirty degrees outside. I dropped them off right in front of the entrance. He was outside for about two seconds. Aside from a few odd looks from other parents, no damage done.

What Caused Our Bad Parenting Moment?

My wife and I each assumed the other one took his jacket. Neither of us bothered to make sure. We just assumed it was taken care of. Our assumptions caused our bad parenting flub. The world is filled with stories about plans gone awry due to faulty assumptions. Nothing new here. We make assumptions unconsciously. We rely on our intuition to guide us. This happens in persuasive writing too.

We make assumptions about our prospects and customers. We often base these assumptions on intuition, not hard facts. Sometimes it’s unavoidable. Often, just a bit of extra research can validate or disprove your assumptions.

One Helpful Assumption

A good rule of thumb is to speak to the lowest common denominator of your market. Write to that person. By lowest common denominator I mean a real prospect. You want someone who could realistically buy, but knows the least about you, your product and the problem you solve.

For example, let’s pretend your market is investment advice for white collar professionals who recently started a family. The lowest common denominator is a couple who came from a modest upbringing. They claim zero investment experience. Their parents lacked experience too, so it’s completely foreign to them.  Sample a few people who fit that mold and find out what they know.

In some cases it might make sense to craft different pieces to different segments of your market. That makes it even more important you validate your assumptions. Otherwise your piece can totally miss the mark. So, how do we find these killer assumptions?

The Five Common Assumptions In Your Copy

  1. Does your prospect know who you are?
  2. Is your prospect familiar with your product or service?
  3. How aware is your prospect of the problem or opportunity?
  4. Do you use any jargon that your prospect might not understand?
  5. Do you use any references (pop culture, industry experts) your prospect won’t recognize?

This list should cover 80% of assumptions in your piece. I use these questions as part of my pre-writing and post-writing checklists. I don’t think about these while I write. It interferes with the process.

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The Hidden Power Of “Almost” Persuasion

It was my normal Thursday night routine. One that I hate. Only this time I applied one of my persuasive writing tools to my everyday life. Sometimes I just need to persuade myself. It works well on others too even when they’re just as aware of what you’re doing.

On Thursday night I typically prepare our recycling for pickup. We get a lot of boxes. Regular Amazon deliveries plus deliveries for my wife’s business pile up in the garage. The rules demand we break down all the boxes and stack them neatly on the curb.

I do my best to comply. Breaking down the boxes is a pain the ass. Looking at a pile of boxes and knowing I have all that work to do. Plus, it’s now the dead of winter. It’s like kicking a man when he’s down.

The Power Of Almost

I exploited a persuasive writing principle to reframe my hatred of this routine activity. I call it the Near Completion Bias. Is it a real official bias recognized by PHD’s? Doubt it, but I need to give it a label.  It states:

Never frame a goal or end result as something where your prospect starts from zero. Frame it as if they’re already halfway there (or some reasonable percentage).

We’re more likely to complete something if we feel we’re closer to completion.

I applied the same thing to my recycling routine. Instead of breaking down the boxes and bringing out everything to the curb I do something different. Now, I take out all the easy stuff to the curb first. That includes the bottles, cans, paper bags and empty cat litter boxes. Getting that out of the way makes me feel like I’m 40% of the way there.

With my old routine I broke down all the boxes first and then took stuff out to the curb. That process failed to give me a sense of progress. All that work breaking down boxes and I still had nothing to show for it. Here’s a contrived example that demonstrates it a bit clearer:

Who is more likely to run 5 miles?

  1. The runner who hasn’t yet started her run
  2. The runner who’s on mile 5 of her planned 10 mile run

I would put my money on number two since she’s already halfway to her goal.

Reframing The Goal

Unfinished goals loom over us begging for completion. A goal yet to start holds no such power over us. The possibilities to exploit this quirk of human behavior extend not just to persuading others. We can even persuade ourselves just like I did with my recycling routine.

Since we’re 80% of the way there, let’s wrap this up with a simple and actionable plan. First, identify the action you want your prospect, audience or self to take. Second, think of ways to frame the action as being almost there. Finally, put your plan into words

An Example You Can Model

This simple example breaks down the process. Just plug in your own details.

  1. Goal – I want my customers to write me a business plan.
  2. My customers already operate a business and have an operating guide. That meets 80% of what they need to finish the plan.
  3. Dear Jane – To finish your application I would like to see your finished business plan. Don’t have one? Don’t worry. Eighty percent of the work is already done. Copy and paste the business summary you wrote last week. Then, copy in your operating guide. That should include all the information you need. Edit out the excess or repetitive pieces. Send me the results.

The truth is, we’re never starting from zero. You can leverage almost any prior experience to complete something new.

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When It Makes Sense To Go Big And Bold To Get Their Business

After a difficult morning, I sludged back to my desk at 3:12 PM. A meaty FED EX package sat next to my keyboard. I wasn’t expecting a package. A feeling of anticipation crept through my body. I ripped open the packaging and inside was a book along with a handwritten note. My mood improved. I was impressed. This stranger just got my undivided attention.

For all these  persuasion strategies to work you must meet one precondition. If you don’t nail this, nobody will ever know your awesome writing.


You could write the most persuasive, irresistible prose. What good is it if nobody reads it? A great hook can grab attention but this guy went BIG and BOLD. He sent a book delivered by FEDEX. That really sends a message to your prospect.

The sender of this package understood the importance of attention. He went big and nailed it. Sure, he spent a lot of money. Between the cost of the book plus FEDEX  he probably spent close to thirty dollars to get my attention. Was it worth it?

I don’t think so. I think he FAILED big time. It has nothing to do with cost. There’s a critical step you need to do before you launch any campaign.

Target Qualified Prospects Only

The generous gift was a book on Development Ops. Don’t expect me to explain what that is because I don’t know myself. I went to this company’s website and read some of their material. I still couldn’t figure it out. All I know is that it has something to do with technology. It also became obvious that I am not their market. He may as well have sent me breast feeding supplements.

As impressive as their attention getting methods were they only got it half right. They focused their time and effort on someone who has no use for their product. Plus, the book topped out at 426 pages. That might be okay for someone passionate about that stuff so I won’t criticize. The letter, however, ruined it. Even if I was the right target, the letter would rub me the wrong way.

Here’s what he wrote: “Several organizations we work with reaped massive savings and service improvement. Take a read through it and let me know if you’d want to implement this in your organization”

What? He gave me homework. Will I get tested on the material? Asking someone to read 426 pages tips the scale of reasonable requests.

How To Get It Right

Attention is key. Going big and bold gives you an advantage. Just be smart about it.

  1. Find someone in your market. Do your research and vet their qualifications. Only target people who are in your market.  
  2. Do something big and bold to get their attention.
  3.  Don’t give them homework. If you give something like a book include an actionable one-pager so they can get some benefit without investing much time.
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The Right Way to Convey Empathy In Sales And Marketing. (Hint, Ditch Your Empathy Map)

In today’s edition of The Onion (yes, I know it’s satire), the following article caught my attention:

“Trump Insists That Now, More Than Ever, Americans Must Stand Strong In Face Of Empathy”

The title is funny yet frightening for obvious reasons. Empathy became the rage of marketing and sales trainers a few years ago. On queue, the frantic responses came pouring in.

How do I show empathy?
I need an empathy tool
Does someone have experience with an empathy generator?

Providers obliged by creating such tools. Empathy maps and training courses appeared on the scene to rescue us from our ignorance and curb the hysteria.  Do grown adults really need tools and software to enable us to sell with empathy? I find the idea as laughable as the Onion article. Some of the copy that I see has all the markings of manufactured empathy.

Your concerns about user perception deeply move us”
“We know how it feels to be ashamed of our smile”

It feels so corporate and cold, right? That’s what happens when you rely on template generated empathy statements. It doesn’t feel like it’s one human being conveying a deep understanding of what his or her prospect feels.

What’s The Alternative?

Get out there. See, hear and feel what your customer experiences. If you’re a part of that market yourself,  you get a head start. If not, go out and observe. Here’s how to do it.

Let’s pretend you’re selling marketing services. That topics a bit too broad so we’ll drill down further. How about social media solutions for local home contractors.

Dive In There

First, you need to really drill down in order for this to work. The further you you dive into a niche the more specific the challenges, fears and desires will be to your customers. For example, my local kitchen contractor faces different challenges than Starbucks or Apple. That’s obvious. Even my local contractor and local pizza place face different challenges on social media. The deeper you go, the more effective your message.

Hit The Pavement

Now, let’s pretend I go out and talk to a bunch of local contractors. Over the course of my research I find out these local businesses distrust social media because they can’t convert those leads into paying customers. They think they’re being fed fake leads.  Ah, that’s my hook.

Write Your Story

“I have a love hate relationship with social media. I love it when I get a lead but I hate that they never become paying customers. Here’s the thing. Most social media companies cast too wide a net. It leaves you with lots of leads but few if any ever close. Your provider looks good by producing a lot of leads. You know the problem, right? Most of those leads suck. And then they make you feel like it’s your fault for not closing the deal. That was my experience when I jumped into social media. I finally stumbled onto a hard truth. It was painful to swallow at first, but now I close 3 out of 5 leads…”

That’s not really how I would word a real sales letter but that’s the idea I would convey. If your prospect also feels the frustration of lots of leads with few sales, he’ll immediately think:

“Ah, he went through exactly what I’m going through.”

That’s an example of conveying empathy through a shared story. You let them draw their own conclusion. Do it well and they’ll conclude that you understand them. It’s more powerful than jamming it down their throats.

In my example above I wrote as if I went through the same struggle as my prospect. That won’t always be possible. An existing customer with the same experience can be used as a case study. Or you can do a fictional story. Start with Imagine or Let’s pretend. Then you launch into the same story. Not as strong as first hand experience but nearly as effective.

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Bottom Up or Top Down Persuasion?

Cold emails. I get them all the time. Back in the day I ran a team of several people. Staffing companies shelled me with cold emails begging to meet me. Lunch, drinks, even sporting events were mine for the taking. I almost always declined. It was nothing personal. I just didn’t want to waste their time.

See, even though I had a team, I had no ability to hire other people. It was just one of those painful corporate quirks. Replacing or adding to staff required approval from two levels above you. Human Resources controlled the entire process. I had no power but they insisted on targeting me anyway. Maybe they knew something I didn’t.

What Did These Recruiters Do Wrong?

They targeted the wrong person. Not only could I not make hiring decisions, but my selection of recruiters came from  curated list controlled by  Human Resources.

The recruiters who coveted my attention were under an illusion. First, they tried to build a relationship with me instead of someone with power. Then, they banked on me to work my butt off and get them approved. Sure, I have nothing better to do.

That’s a bottom-up approach to persuasion. Target people on the bottom and hope that they influence those above them. That never works.  We know this intuitively but it’s so much easier and safer to go after people lower on the totem pole.  It’s easier to get their attention and they’re more likely to listen to you. The lower level employees can be useful but don’t count on them to do your persuasion for you.

Persuading Groups

In any kind of group dynamic, identify the leader as your first task. The leader is the one who can make things happen. The group impulse effect tells us that the rest of the group will consent to the whims of the leader in most situations. Think of your group as a single entity rather than a collection of different people. The leader represents the mind of that entity while the followers represent the body. Target the mind and the body follows. That’s more of a top-down approach.

Go ahead and reach out to the lower level employee. Find out who their leader is. If you can discover any insight about the leader that’ s great too. Once you acquire that information,  thank them for their time. Now, all your efforts go towards targeting  the leader. In a well functioning team the leader should be able to influence 80% of the team. There may be a few who resist for various reasons. You can always jump in to help persuade the remaining stragglers.

Here’s a breakdown of the process:

  1.      Identify the leader of the group. You can use lower level contacts to get this information
  2.      Identify what he or she wants and needs and desires
  3.      Persuade the leader of the group
  4.      Let the leader persuade the rest of the group
  5.      Add some extra firepower for any stragglers

The recruiters who flooded me with lunch, drink and sporting event invitations should have targeted Human Resources. They ran the show when it came to hiring.  They were the head controlling the body. The rest of us just followed their lead.

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