Pre-Suasion: Strategies for Getting Customers in the Mood

Photo by  Elliot Sloman  on  Unsplash

Photo by Elliot Sloman on Unsplash

"The best persuaders become the best through pre-suasion—the process of arranging for recipients to be receptive to a message before they encounter it."

That’s the big idea from Robert Cialdini's bestselling book “Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade”: What you do before making a request can determine whether you get to Yes.

I’ve written about Dr. Cialdini’s groundbreaking work “Influence” (here), where he boils down key findings in the psychology of decision-making into six "weapons of influence” that we can either deploy to become more consistently persuasive or to protect ourselves from unscrupulous people who may turn these “weapons” against us at the expense of our best interests.

Now, with “Pre-Suasion,” Cialdini provides insights into how we can set the stage in a way that puts our audience in the mood to consider our story, idea, or proposal.

Here are two powerful strategies from the book that you can apply immediately to your business communications.

Strategy #1. Want to grab (and keep) attention? Master the art of mystery

“When presented properly, mysteries are so compelling that the reader can’t remain an aloof outside observer of story structure and elements. In the throes of this particular literary device, one is not thinking of literary devices; one’s attention is magnetized to the mystery story because of its inherent, unresolved nature.”

This is the cliffhanger effect. You’ve got the audience's attention because you’ve set up a story that’s unresolved. They're now more than curious; they’re completely engaged. They must find out what happens next.

But mystery doesn’t just apply to great fiction like in a novel or screenplay. It can also make our business communications—such as an investor pitch, sales presentation, “all-hands” employee meeting, TED Talk—more compelling and persuasive.

The idea is that when you give a presentation, build it around a question or conundrum where the answer is not obvious. That’s because our minds are wired to hunt for the resolution. In fact, we can’t help it. We crave resolution. We’re in a state of discomfort that keeps us alert and listening until the mystery is solved. 

What does this look like in practice?

A few years back, I came across a video on Youtube (which has since been removed) on a talk by Dr. Cialdini at the Stanford Graduate School of Business that is a great example of how to deploy mystery in a presentation. He opened his talk with these six “mystery” questions that correlate with the six "weapons of influence"

1. If you have two options to present to a client, which should you present first, the more costly or the less costly one?
2. Is it better to tell prospects what they stand to gain by moving in your direction or what they stand to lose if they don't?
3. If you have a new piece of information, when should you mention that it's new? Before or after you present this information to your audience?
4. If you have a product, service or idea that has both strengths and weaknesses, when should you present the weaknesses—early or late in your presentation?
5. After someone has praised you, your product or organization, what is the most effective thing you can do immediately after you have said thank you?
6. To arrange for someone to like you and want to cooperate with you, what is the single most productive thing you can do before you try to influence them?

I don’t know about you, but these questions—these mysteries—piqued my curiosity to the point where I’m thinking, “Yeah, actually, these things would be valuable to know.” I wanted the answers. And I was willing to listen intently until I got them.

Strategy #2. Want to win over a skeptical customer? Be upfront about your proposal’s risks.

“It turns out to be possible to acquire instant trustworthiness by employing a clever strategy. Rather than succumbing to the tendency to describe all of the most favorable features of an offer or idea up front and serving mention of any drawbacks until the end of the presentation (or never), a communicator who references a weakness early on is immediately seen as more honest."

A prime example of this strategy in action can be found in one of my favorite speeches: President John Kennedy’s “Moon Speech” delivered at Rice University in Houston, Texas, in 1962. (See full transcript.)

What we remember most from Kennedy’s speech is his bold proposal:

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

But what doesn’t get as much attention—yet is integral to the speech’s effectiveness—is Kennedy’s candor when talking about the challenges, costs, and uncertainty that come with pursuing his grand vision. Consider the brutal honesty with which he presents his case:

We’re not yet where we need to be to accomplish this mission.

“We have had our failures, but so have others, even if they do not admit them. And they may be less public. To be sure, we are behind and will be behind for some time in manned flight. But we do not intend to stay behind, and in this decade, we shall make up and move ahead.”

And this could get really expensive, with no guarantee of getting a return on our investment.

“To be sure, all this costs us all a good deal of money. This year's space budget is three times what it was in January 1961, and it is greater than the space budget of the previous eight years combined. That budget now stands at $5,400 million a year—a staggering sum, though somewhat less than we pay for cigarettes and cigars every year. Space expenditures will soon rise some more, from 40 cents per person per week to more than 50 cents a week for every man, woman and child in the United States, for we have given this program a high national priority—even though I realize that this is in some measure an act of faith and vision, for we do not now know what benefits await us."

In fact, what I’m asking you to do is kind of impossible by today’s standards.

“But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun—almost as hot as it is here today—and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out—then we must be bold.”

But we’re going for it anyway.

“However, I think we're going to do it, and I think that we must pay what needs to be paid. I don't think we ought to waste any money, but I think we ought to do the job. And this will be done in the decade of the sixties. It may be done while some of you are still here at school at this college and university. It will be done during the term of office of some of the people who sit here on this platform. But it will be done. And it will be done before the end of this decade.”

Therefore, hold on tight as we embark on this “most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure.”

“Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, ‘Because it is there.’ Well, space is there, and we're going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”

If Kennedy had simply shared his grand vision of a successful moonshot without being candid about what would be at stake and the challenges that lie ahead, we’d think, “Yeah, that’s a great goal, but is it really doable? I mean, the Soviets already seem to be winning this ‘space race.’ And, if our track record isn’t so hot, what makes us think we can succeed now by simply throwing more money at this? Is it really going to be worth the investment? Or, should we put that money toward building up our own infrastructure and nation here on earth?”  

But Kennedy disarmed the audience’s skepticism by addressing the doubts upfront. Now, we’re thinking, “O.k., he’s not just being an impractical dreamer here. He’s being realistic and honest. I’m willing to hear him out.”

The lesson is clear: If you have a big idea to propose, be candid about the risks that lie ahead. This approach will enable you to build trust with your audience so that they will believe in you and be inspired by you to join your cause.

The Bottom Line

This idea of Pre-suasion is nothing new. After all, we’ve all understood at an early age that we’re usually more successful at getting what we ask for when our parents or teachers are in a good mood before we ask. But what if there were certain things we could do to help that process along—to put those people in the right mood before we present our proposal? That’s where Cialdini’s “Pre-suasion” breaks new ground. 

Sean M. Lyden is CEO of Lyden Communications LLC, a Strategy and Storytelling consultancy that helps entrepreneurs tell their story in a way that grabs attention, garners trust, and grows their business. 

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