Imagine your brand new customer sitting on the corner of his bed the night after he bought from you.

“I can’t believe I let that scumbag convince me to buy that worthless widget.”

That’s a customer who is defeated. Someone talked him into buying. Someone backed him into a corner he felt he could not escape.

Everyone has experienced this at least one point in their lives. It’s why we guard ourselves against sales and marketing attempts.

Now imagine a different scenario.

It’s the night after you sold him on your $2,000 widget. She is sipping some wine, maybe cooking a fancy dinner and listening to music. She’s excited. She did her homework and bought the best widget in her budget. She even got the salesperson to throw in some extras.

We have all experienced that too. We buy something that fulfills a desire. Nobody strong armed us or backed us into a corner. We made our own decision. It was 100% free-will.

The difference between the first scenario and the second is the difference between manipulation and persuasion.

The persuader in the second scenario led his prospect down a path. She came to a conclusion on her own to buy, preserving the self-esteem and dignity of the customer.

The manipulator strong-armed his customer. He backed him into a corner where a “no” would have been a contradiction.  He got the sale. Fine, but he stripped dignity out of the exchange.

Alternate Paths To A “Yes”

There are many ways to get to a yes.

In Zig Ziglar’s “Secrets Of Closing The Sale,” he makes a casual reference to persuasion. I’m paraphrasing here.

“Persuasion leads someone to change their mind while preserving their dignity.”

I’ve listened to that audio book several times over the years. I never noticed that profound comment until yesterday.

It’s an important distinction from manipulation. Manipulation is convincing someone to change their mind by stripping them of their dignity.

You can have a customer sitting on the edge of his bed sulking in regret, cursing you for tricking him. You can have a customer enjoying a glass of wine and fancy dinner, happy about her decision.


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Has it been six months since experiencing this level of angst? With the passage of time, you forget the negative feelings and remember only the positive. It’s human nature. Every few seconds I inched up a bit further. The color coded signals and lane assignments require laser focused attention.

Every few seconds I inched up a bit further. The color coded signals and lane assignments require laser focused attention.

Stay focused on “purple.” That’s what I told myself. Failure to heed your assignment disturbs the herd behavior. It invites a harsh tongue lashing. It’s something I’ve experienced once before.

Failure to heed your assignment disturbs the herd behavior. It invites a harsh tongue lashing. I experienced this once before. The crowd gets some perverse enjoyment from the public humiliation.

Finally, it’s my turn. I see the purple color flash with a number. I hurried my way over to the assigned station.

Of course, I refer to the checkout line at the Whole Foods near the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan.  I was in the neighborhood and decided to go there for lunch. At the checkout, there are six or seven aisles. A color coded board hangs from the ceiling. Each color flashes the cashier assignment. The numbers range from one to thirty.

If you miss your cashier assignment or go to the wrong one, customers waiting behind you let you know of your mistake. And they do it in a snobbish, scornful manner. I’ve seen powerful, rich, meat eating men in suits cut to shreds for paying more attention to their cell phone than their register assignment.

I get it. It’s lunchtime. People are hungry and want to eat. That feeling creates tension. It leads to irritable behavior.

The Power Of Angst

Nobody likes to feel angst, anxiety and tension. Like any feeling, you can exploit for positive or negative results. When you face scorn from your fellow customers for missing your check out assignment, there is no positive spin. In other cases, it gets us past inertia that keeps us from taking positive but uncertain actions.

In other cases, it gets us past inertia that keeps us from taking positive but uncertain actions.

It may sound evil to some but creating angst, anxiety and tension may do your audience some good.

Here’s what I mean.

I know all the logical arguments for eating healthy. I know I should do it. Here’s the reality. Knowing the facts isn’t enough to push me past my primal urges to gorge on cake and ice cream.

I need to feel the fear of eating unhealthy. I need to feel angst about the damage that will occur if I eat that piece of cake.

That’s how you get someone to take a painful, yet life-changing action. Create angst, anxiety and tension about their current, damaging behavior. Build it up to the point where their current path feels like a road to hell. Only then will she push past the natural inertia that craves the status quo.

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“Today marks my 46th year on earth. Holy crap!

46 years ago today James Taylor had the number one song in the U.S.A with “You’ve Got A Friend.”

To celebrate the day, my wife and I went out for a nice dinner. It’s an important story because it represents one of the few lessons I’ve learned in all these years.

We weren’t sure if we’d find a babysitter for the evening. Because of that, I avoided making a reservation – forgetting I could have just canceled it.

That morning, my dad said he could watch the kids. I looked up the restaurants in the area but none had availability at the time we needed.

I ended up booking a nice but boring restaurant. It’s in a shopping mall. There’s no ambiance at all. The food is good but forgettable. It’s also full of shoppers and their kids.

I told my wife where I made the reservation. She gave me a blank stare. I explained my reasoning. I want seafood and someplace new. Why not experiment on your birthday?

I thought about it for a minute. Then I said:

“You’re right. This is a bad idea. Let me try a few other places.”

We ended up going to a familiar restaurant. I wanted to eat a  new restaurant. I had to give up that desire. Instead, we ate somewhere familiar. But we sat outside surrounded by a garden, other adults and an attentive staff.

If I hadn’t admitted I made a mistake, we would have eaten at an overpriced, stodgy, loud restaurant in a shopping mall. Hardly the experience I crave for a birthday dinner.

My Goal For The Next Year

Admitting to your mistakes is a lesson (skill) some people never learn. There are other personal growth challenges I have yet to conquer.

In the next twelve months my focus is on one – overcoming part 2 of this equation:

Ignoring sunk costs and correcting mistakes.

What is the sunk cost fallacy? Here’s the thumbnail definition:

When your decisions are tainted by the accumulation of emotional investments. The greater the investment,  the harder it becomes to abandon it.

Here is how we typically verbalize it:

I’ve invested so much into this [job, project, relationship, etc…]. I can’t just walk away from it.

I have ten years of experience in this field. If I quit now it will all be for nothing.

Yes, I course corrected on my poor choice of restaurants. That was a low risk, low stakes change.

Here is where it gets high stakes. How do you overcome accumulated sunk costs? These are the ones we hang onto for months and years.

This is why I spent ten years in a career that didn’t suit me. It’s why I continue projects that serve no purpose or face no realistic shot at succeeding.

Sunk cost is an evil demon that hijacks good judgment. Here is my goal for the next 365 days. If I make it the entire year without saying these words or any of its first cousins, I’ll consider it a success:

…But I’ve already put in so much effort. I can’t quit now. That would kill me.

No, it won’t. I can quit. Let’s see if I will.


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It’s the kind of summer work day where you feel compelled to go out for lunch. A friend of mine arranged the whole thing. Six of us met up at a local spot for a two-hour “lunch.” I knew three of the people there. Two of them I met for the first time.

We started with drinks. I settled for a coffee. The guy sitting next to me boasted about being a coffee expert.

I happen to know a thing or two about coffee. Him? Not so much. He knew nothing about bean quality, roasting or preparing coffee. He rattled off a few fancy terms but in a nonsensical way. Think of a musician combining random musical notes without any thought behind it.

“Okay. Maybe he’s nervous. He just wants to impress. Nothing unusual,” I thought.

The lunch comes to an end and I walk to the subway with a friend of mine. This friend is an active investor in distressed real estate. He buys run down properties, fixes them up and sells them.

On our way to the subway, he mentioned he had a conversation about this with the same guy who feigned expertise in coffee.

No surprise, he claimed expertise in distressed property investment too. My friend said he claimed to invest in several distressed properties that were all money makers. When he heard him describe how he made money he said it was obvious he’d never done anything like this before.

Now, it was obvious. He’s one of those guys. We all know someone like this.  He thinks he knows everything. You will never upstage him. He boasts about his successful exploits which turn out to be lies.

Superiority Gene

He feels the need to be superior to anyone on any subject. Fine. I can deal with that. They’re easy to spot. Once you figure them out, they’re somewhat amusing.

The truth is, we all crave a touch of superiority fever every now and then.

Here is the difference between us and this guy.

We like to feel superior in the skills and subjects where we know we possess expertise.

Superior Persuasion

Violation of that rule undermines many persuasive writing efforts – especially newbies. They position themselves as smarter than their audience in things their audience prides themselves. Sure, if you’re an expert, present yourself as one. Here’s the key. Leave something for your audience to hang their hat on.

Let’s suppose you’re an expert in social media marketing. You present yourself as an expert – and hopefully you are. Your audience respects the word of an expert but they also prefer their hero to show a modicum of humility. Be sure to reveal a struggle, something that still challenges you.

When I was in sales, a mentor gave me this advice time and again:

“People feel better about themselves when compared to someone who’s worse off. Show your expertise but make sure they get a moral victory too.”

It was timely inter-personal advice.  Let your reader, prospect or audience feel superior to you in some way. It goes a long way to making you likable.

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We just finished a big dinner at a local restaurant. My family and I walked around town, enjoying the summer weather. We live in a smallish town with about 12,000 people. Despite being only forty minutes outside New York City, we’re pretty laid back. The big difference I notice is when we cross streets. Cars go out of their way to allow you to cross. They’ll stop at intersections. If they see you approaching an intersection, they’ll stop in anticipation of you crossing the street.

There’s one subtle, but telling difference between suburban and city life. Crossing the street is safer. Cars go out of their way to allow you to cross. They’ll stop at intersections. If they see you approaching an intersection, they’ll stop in anticipation of you crossing the street.

That’s a far cry of what I experience in city life. Crossing the street in the city requires a leap of faith and razor sharp alertness. The people aren’t meaner. They’re the same people. It’s the context and circumstances that alter their behavior.

We like to believe that we act according to our principles and beliefs regardless of our external circumstances. The truth is, context and external situations influence our emotions and behavior.

Context Matters

Accounting for context is an important piece of building that connection and trust with your audience. Take this situation as an example. You’re appealing to men who want to get rid of their pot bellies. Sure, tell him about how great he’ll look with his six pack abs. Don’t forget the context in which they live. Touch on what it’s like to be at the beach and face the embarrassment of taking off your shirt.

Let’s pretend you appeal to men who desire to rid themselves of extra weight around the gut. Sure, tell him about how great he’ll look with his six pack abs. Don’t forget the context in which they live. Touch on what it’s like to be at the beach and face the embarrassment of taking off your shirt.

Preaching a health food that prevents disease? Talk about the indignity of walking around in a hospital gown, being poked and prodded like you were someone’s medical experiment.

“Wow, that’s exactly how I feel.”

If your audience thinks that, you’ve won the first half of the battle.

Think about the world in which your audience lives. That gives you the context and understanding in which your audience sees and interprets the world.

The Two Sides Of Context

The two sides of context give you the understanding to empathize with your audience.

What is the setting or circumstances your reader finds himself in right now?

What is his perspective on why he faces his current problem or cannot capitalize on an opportunity?

Keep in mind most of us attribute our failures or challenges to external influences. You may think your audience is struggling to succeed because of their effort. They likely attribute that struggle to the economy, lack of opportunity or pesky regulations.

Make sure your views align with his thinking and you’ll have a better shot at winning his support.


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The kids ran into the restaurant like they owned the place. A stern voice from me calmed them down, at least for the moment.

The hostess greeted us with a smile. An interesting conversation followed:

“Hi, three people today?” she said


“It’s a beautiful day to eat outside. If you’ll follow me you can have your pick of tables.” 

Without thinking I agreed and she ushered us outside.

Like she said, we had the outside to ourselves. It wasn’t until later I realized what happened.

Planting A Seed

Did you notice she didn’t ask if we wanted to sit outside? She led us. There were a few big crowds inside, including a party. No doubt, she saw my kids and decided they might be a nuisance to other guests.

Telling me they didn’t want us inside would have been insulting. Instead, she used a subtle technique to lead me to that conclusion.

First, she made a simple comment about how nice it is to dine outside. That was the setup.

Next, she presupposed we wanted to eat outside. Instead of asking if we wanted to eat outside she said:

“If you’ll follow me you can have your pick of tables”

She never asked if I wanted to eat outside. She assumed the answer would be yes. Of course, I could have interrupted the flow and requested to eat inside.

It happened so fast I didn’t have time to think. My brain operated on auto pilot. In fact, it wasn’t until writing in my journal that I realized what happened.

Presupposition Power

That’s the power of a well-crafted presupposition.  The receiver never notices. They simply go with the flow.

Presupposing is not just a tactic for crafty restaurant hosts.

Copywriters, political writers and media use and abuse this tactic all the time. Unless you’re looking for it, you never know what’s really going on.

Putting it into practice is simple. The hard part is remembering to do it.

You assume at the beginning of the argument that the answer to the first question aligns to the second question.

The formula looks like this:

1. A question with a yes or no answer

2. If the answer is yes, then ask the follow up (why, how, how much, what)

That represents a typical line of questioning.

Instead of that pattern, assume the answer to the first question is yes and only ask the second question.

Here’s an example. Let’s pretend I have these two questions

  1. Does this program work for all types of businesses?
  2. If yes, then ask: why does it work for all types of businesses? Or, what makes it work for all types of businesses?

Instead, skip the first question. Assume the answer is yes.

Ask: What makes this program work for all types of businesses?

Presuppose In Mass Media

Here’s a typical example you hear in the media.

If I ask you this question:

“Why is the mayor so averse to change?”

That question presupposes the mayor is, in fact, averse to change. You’re asked to defend why without being asked if you agree with the original premise.

Try this exercise. Watch your favorite news channel. Take note of all the presuppose questions. The frequency will surprise you, no matter what your political persuasion.

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There’s a famous line from the 19765 movie, Network. The character Howard Beale goes on air and goes off script. The famous line from his rant:

Go to your windows. Open them and stick your head out and yell – ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!’ Things have got to change. ’ 

Some days you hit crisis after crisis. Ten people come at you ten different ways. They may all want different things but they share one thing in common. They demand your most precious resource – your time.

Customers, co-workers and everyone in between huddled up in the morning and decided to attack. At least, that’s what it felt like. I gave in without complaining. I held in my feelings and played along.. Just before 1 PM I hit my breaking point. I couldn’t take it any longer.  I fought back.

Just like Howard Beale in Netowrk, I gave my own rant.

I stated

I’m going to lunch. I’ll get to it later

It doesn’t sound like much. In fact, it sounds mundane. But understand the context. It was in the middle of a crisis. Of course, it wasn’t a real crisis but everyone acted like they were in crisis mode.  Going out to lunch while everyone else is in crisis mode rubs people the wrong way. They think you don’t care.

At that point, I didn’t care and I didn’t care what anyone thought. I reached a breaking point.

The Breaking Point

The breaking point is where the fun begins. Before the breaking point, we feel comfortable going with the flow. We stay in harmony with the crowd even if it goes against our desires. All the while anger swells. When it reaches a tipping point, we lose control.

That’s exactly what you want as a persuasive writer. You want to build up the emotion to a point where the audience reaches their breaking point. It doesn’t matter if it’s losing weight, mishandled customer support or working in a job they hate. You want your audience to say

Damn It. I’m sick of this. I need to do something about it.

Bringing your reader to the breaking point gets them past inertia. Inertia is what hinders us from taking action.

The Three C’s Of Unbridled Emotion

There are several tools to create this kind of emotion. This is not a complete list but these are three common techniques. You’ve seen them used (abused) in everything from fiction to politics.

Conflict – Any kind of conflict generates emotion. Wars, arguments, struggles allow us to picture ourselves in the middle of the action. We may even root for one side to win.

Conspiracy – Who doesn’t love a good conspiracy theory. The government is monitoring you. We all have our conspiracy theories we cling to. When you confirm someone’s conspiracy theory and they think “Ah. I knew it!” – instant emotion.

Conceptual Victim –  I call this conceptual victimization to distinguish between the real victimization tyrants have abused throughout history. Here’s how it works.

Tell a story about how your enemy takes advantage of vulnerable victims. It can be a conceptual enemy. Transform scientific information into something visceral.Explaining the deep science behind DNA and weight gain generates zero emotion. Instead, tell a story of how rogue DNA forces your brain to send you uncontrollable hunger signals. Victimization generates emotion, almost always anger.



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It seemed like a good idea at the time. It was a beautiful summer evening. We readied ourselves for a night out for dinner by ourselves.

“Why don’t we go to a restaurant with outdoor seating?” I asked when we got in the car.

“Yeah, great idea.” she responded

We went to a local restaurant with a nice outdoor patio. We sat down at a great table. I ordered a glass of wine. That was the peak of the experience.

My wife put on jeans. She thought she’d be cold in air conditioning. We decided on the outdoor place after we left the house. The heat and humidity made her uncomfortable.

The server brought out our appetizers. In an instant flies swarmed around us. Every few seconds one of us was swatting away flies.

The decision to eat outside turned into one of regret. We both admitted it was a bad decision.

It’s easy to admit you made a mistake in these kinds of situations.  There’s little at stake.

In other situations, it’s not so easy to admit you made the wrong choice.

The Bad Commitment Cycle

In sales and marketing, we often come across prospects trapped in the bad commitment cycle. 

A prospect or customer trapped in the bad commitment cycle.  Avoid framing his previous commitment as a mistake. Instead, frame it as the right decision at the time based on available information. This frees them from their current commitment and opens them up to new ideas.

Here’s what’s odd about this tool. It works just as well when I use it on myself as when I use it in copywriting or marketing.

You see, awareness of making a bad commitment is never the problem. We know when we make bad commitments. The problem is admitting it to ourselves and others. We fear looking stupid in front of others. We fear shattering our own image of ourselves.

What we need is a cover story. A plausible reason why we made the bad commitment frees us of negative self-talk and protects our image.

Framing it as the best decision given the information available provides that necessary cover story.

I see other writers fall back on the “it’s not your fault” reasoning. I tend to avoid this. It comes across as condescending. Plus, most people think they’re intelligent. They feel they’re  not the sort who falls for deception.

Creating The Cover Story

Creating the cover story is simple.  Follow these steps

  1. Identify the bad commitment they need to break.
  2. What information was available at the time?
  3. What new information became available later?
  4. How did the lack of new information make the earlier decision the best available?
  5. Write out your argument

This technique works just as well on ourselves as it does on others. We know when we’re stuck in a bad commitment. We just need an excuse to break it without admitting fault.

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For months I had put it off. Every few years I call in the professionals to do some tree pruning. I live a neighborhood called Tall Oaks. As you can guess, there’s a lot of tall oak trees. I put it off because of the expense.

This morning I went out back to play some basketball. A brief gust of wind came through. I heard a loud bang. A huge branch fell off the oak tree and landed in front of our playset. After I caught my breath, I calmed down. I went inside and called a tree maintenance company.

“How soon can you come by?”

Sorcery Persuasion

My story is an example of absolute urgency.

It is the strongest driver that compels someone to take action.  In medieval times, they’d have thought it was sorcery

The cost of the tree service no longer mattered. The thought of one of my kids standing where that branch fell eliminated that concern.

Shoring up my trees is not only urgent but imperative.

Here’s a general example that anyone would identify with.

Imagine getting a letter from your doctor reminding you about your annual checkup. You put it off for a few weeks.

“I hate going to the doctor. All the pointing and prodding. Plus, it’s a few hundred out of pocket.”

You finally make your appointment and go for your checkup. A few days later your doctor calls you.

“Jim. Are you home? Is your wife with you? Good. Don’t be alarmed. I got your blood test results. Have your wife drive you to the emergency room right now. I’ll meet you there.”

You hear something like that and all other concerns disappear. Everything on your to-do list disappears. Does insurance cover it? Worry about that later.

That’s imperative urgency.

The Three Types Of Urgency

It’s a well-known fact. Urgency compels us to take action.

Urgency – Importance requiring swift action

What makes something urgent? According to the definition, it’s importance plus a deadline.

Here’s the problem. Importance is an abstract concept. That means we may not agree on what is or is not important. You see the problem, right? If you feel the action lacks importance you won’t agree that it’s urgent.

Fake Urgency

This is now pervasive in the online world. It happens when one side sets an artificial limit on a limitless quantity. Let’s pretend someone wants to sell you an ebook. They send you an email stating:

“Only 24 copies left. Buy now. “

Of course, there are no physical limitations on ebooks. You can sell a billion of them.  There are other variations on this. Artificial deadlines are attempts to create urgency. You know they’re fake when things open up a week later.

True Urgency

Moving up the ladder we come to real urgency. This occurs when there is a real limitation on a product or service. Printing one thousand books is an example. Suppose you have thirty-six left. Now, real urgency exists because once they’re gone, you’ve lost the opportunity – at least until the next printing.

“If they run out, they run out. It’s fine.”

True urgency exists when demand outpaces supply.

Here’s the limitation with true urgency. Desire is subject a cost-benefit analysis.

Expense, inconvenience and priorities impact true urgency. I may want the book you’re selling. At $20, I crave it. At $100, I lose interest.

Absolute Urgency

This is the top rung of urgency. Like real urgency, we demand something. We need to take swift action.

Here’s the difference.

Expense, inconvenience or other priorities are no longer a concern. We push everything else to the back burner. Like my tree situation, I called up the company to come in yesterday. With our fictional medical example, the patient drops what he’s doing and rushes to the emergency room.

If you’re in the business of satisfying imperative urgency you’ll never be short of customers.

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