Pre-Suasion highlights the importance of the moment before delivering a message, rather than the message itself. In this crucial moment, persuasion and influence are most effective. Robert Cialdini suggests that your message can become significantly more influential if you are willing to prepare your audience in the right way. Optimal persuasion is achieved only through optimal pre-suasion. In other words, to change “minds” a pre-suader must also change “states of mind.” Cialdini provides scientific research to outline how you can start pre-suading so that you can become a better persuader.
About Robert Cialdini
Dr. Robert Cialdini has spent his entire career conducting scientific research on what leads people to say “Yes” to requests. Cialdini received his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, in June 1967. He then went on to graduate studies in Social Psychology at the University of North Carolina. He earned his Ph.D. in June 1970. Robert then received postgraduate training in Social Psychology at Columbia University. He has held Visiting Scholar Appointments at Ohio State University, the University of California, the Annenberg School of Communications, and the Graduate School of Business of Stanford University. Currently, Cialdini is Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University. Dr. Cialdini is also President and CEO of INFLUENCE AT WORK. His clients include: Google, Microsoft, Bayer, Coca Cola, KPMG, Nationwide Insurance, Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, and Harvard University.
“There’s a critical insight in all this for those of us who want to learn to be more influential. 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. To persuade optimally, then, it’s necessary to pre-suade optimally. But how?
In part, the answer involves an essential but poorly appreciated tenet of all communication: what we present first changes the way people experience what we present to them next.” – Robert Cialdini
Pre-Suasion – The Frontloading of Attention
Pre-suasion is a feature that sets the highest-achieving salespeople and marketers apart from the average. Instead of focusing all their efforts on what they will say, they spend considerable time introducing the core message to the audience before actually providing the message. Cialdini describes this as making the audience sympathetic to your message before you spring it on them. This approach can also be used to warn your audience about the price of your product. For example, you can reduce price resistance by making a joke like, “As you can tell, I’m not going to be able to charge you X dollars for this.” X should be an unrealistically high amount, such as ten times your actual fee, to prime your audience. Once they have heard this other fee, the price you provide later will sound far more reasonable. In essence, X forms a baseline for your later price.
As well as preparing your audience, Cialdini recommends changing the thought processes that are prominent in your audience’s mind at decision time. You can change someone’s behavior by simply asking them the right questions at the right time. They will agree and then feel like they need to act consistently with that description of themselves. Cialdini provides the following examples of questions you could ask:
- Generosity – Ask them, “Do you consider yourself helpful?”
- Investing – “Do you consider yourself adventurous, liking to try new things?”
Essentially, people will believe what they are paying attention to. Our values can easily shift, dependent on how we have been primed. Therefore, if you want something to seem more important in your audience’s minds, then make them focus on that.
Cialdini supports these claims through research studies. Naomi Mandel and Eric Johnson, two marketing professors, conducted a study to see if a furniture store website’s background could influence participants’ purchasing habits. They found that visitors who saw a website with a cloud background became inclined towards soft, comfortable furniture. Similarly, individuals who saw a website with a background of pennies chose the most inexpensive furniture. Essentially, our preferences and decisions are continually being influenced by primers in our environment. Hence, Cialdini recommends asking people to evaluate your products or services. This approach forces the audience to focus on your service, which automatically helps them think more favorably upon your service.
The associations attributed to concepts that are being focused on can be seen in many areas of business. For example, leaders are given more credit or blame than they should be attributed. Additionally, this is why police can get innocent people to confess to committing a murder. If you get them to focus their attention on it long enough, they will believe in the cause. It’s also why CEOs in America make more than double what the next person in command makes. They are visually prominent and psychologically salient, which means they are assigned an exaggerated causal role. This effect is linear, with more prominence leading to greater salience. Therefore, Cialdini suggests that business owners should emphasize the distinctiveness of their business compared to competing options. Doing so should attract attention to the distinguishing factor, which means the audience is paying more attention to your business than competing businesses.
Another approach that can be adopted to attract your audience’s attention is to always start your message with cues relevant to the audience. For example, using the word ‘you’ or referring to the audience’s age, sex, or other defining characteristics. Doing this will make each individual feel like they are being spoken to directly. Subsequently, you are more likely to grab their attention.
The final approach suggested by Cialdini as a way of attracting attention is the use of mystery stories. Mystery stories encourage the audience to pay attention so they can solve the mystery themselves. Behavioral scientists have reinforced the importance of mysteries by identifying something called the next-in-line effect. This effect was first identified when viewing people’s recall during conversations just before speaking and just after. Essentially, people cannot focus on what is happening in front of them just before they speak. The individual is too busy rehearsing what they have to do and say within their head. Then, after speaking, the individual is focused on reviewing what they have just said. Therefore, use a lack of closure to help create better retention. Researchers have found that the adverts remembered best are those stopped five to six seconds before their natural endings. In this instance, our mind is more likely to review the advert’s information to finish the story ourselves. Hence, mysteries and cliffhangers can be highly effective marketing tools.
Cialdini provides a specific structure for the mystery story:
- Pose your specific mystery
- Deepen the mystery
- Hone in on a proper explanation by considering an alternative explanation. This alternative explanation should be supported by evidence
- Provide clues as to a proper explanation fo the mystery
- Resolve the mystery, coupled with help from the audience
- Outline the implications of the resolution of this mystery
One of the reasons mysteries are so compelling is that counterarguments are generally more powerful than confirmatory arguments. The most effective counterarguments are ones that suggest the source of the original argument is untrustworthy. This is an approach often used in politics.
Cialdini provides an example from his own life to back up this point. Cialdini used to go around at parties and offer to read people’s palms. He was often saying broad statements such as “you are stubborn” or “you are unhappy about something,” but the guests always believed him. This is because, when deciding whether a possibility is correct, people typically look for confirmations of the idea rather than disconfirmations.
Capture Attention in Specific Ways
Sexual and violent stimuli are often the most effective in capturing people’s attention, as they are important for survival. However, suppose you are aiming to advertise your product. In that case, you should be focusing on stimuli that fit the purpose of your product. For example, sexy stimuli are not going to help you to sell something mundane like post-it notes. However, sexy stimuli are well-suited for perfume or make-up adverts, as they are already based on the idea of attractiveness.
This idea is supported by research. Cialdini provides an explanation of a study where an advert for San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art was shown. In one advert, the museum’s popularity was emphasized by using the slogan, “Visited by over a million people each year”. A second advert was then shown that emphasized the museum’s uniqueness by using the slogan, “Stand out from the crowd.” In this instance, those who had just watched a violent movie preferred the first advert. They preferred this advert because feelings of being threatened make you want to join a crowd. Crowded areas feel safer. In comparison, those who had just watched a romantic movie preferred the advert about standing out. The conclusion Cialdini makes from these findings is that people’s state of mind will significantly alter the way they perceive your message.
Cialdini links all of these points to Pavlov’s research. When Pavlov’s dogs had learned to associate a bell ring with food, they salivated. They salivated even when food wasn’t presented. However, when the dogs went to a new location or had new stimuli introduced to the room, the experiment no longer worked. This is because their attention was focused on the new environment instead of the food. Pavlov called it the investigatory reflex. Hence, once you have someone’s attention, you must try and hold it there for as long as possible. If you allow other stimuli to become their focus, then you will lose the positive associations that have been made with your product. Similarly, try and draw people’s attention to a specific concept. Bringing everything back to one concept will make it easier for them to focus.
Processes – The Role of Association
“In large measure, who we are with respect to any choice is where we are, attentionally, in the moment before the choice.” – Robert Cialdini
Association is one of the most effective tools for improving employee productivity and audience engagement. For example, it is possible to significantly improve workers’ performance by providing them with words and images associated with achievement. Multiple studies have shown that subtly exposing individuals to words related to achievement (win, attain, succeed) increase their performance and more than doubles their perseverance.
Another research study found that holding a heavy object leads to people perceiving presented items as more serious, important, or requiring effort. In contrast, if people are holding a warm object, then they feel closer to and more trusting of those around them.
In addition to using physical tools to your advantage, you can also use specific vocabulary to influence people’s thoughts towards your product. For example, rather than describing your products as ‘used’ you should describe them as ‘pre-owned’. Similarly, replace the word ‘cost’ with ‘investment’. Your choice of words will have a significant impact on the way others view your product.
Association can also be used by facilitating connections between people and your product or ideas. For example, people are more likely to invest in a product that shares letters of the alphabet with their names. Therefore, try and create multiple connection opportunities between your product and your potential audience. This approach will help them look upon your product more favorably.
People are more easily persuaded by things that immediately make sense to them. For example, a picture or process that is effortless to understand is viewed as more valid and worthwhile. Hence, songs and poetry with rhyming are often more popular. Similarly, humans have a bias toward liking people with easily recognizable facial features and easily pronounced names. Similarly, words that are easier to pronounce, spell, read, and remember are much more persuasive than words that aren’t. People have positive associations with ease.
Use Environments For Persuasion
When designing your product, you always want to have your target audience in mind. One way to enhance your ability to think about what your audience might like is to surround yourself with people and objects that remind you of your audience. Additionally, the environment in which your product is placed should complement your product’s vision.
The Optimization of Pre-Suasion
“So by my lights, the number one rule for salespeople is to show customers that you genuinely like them. There’s a wise adage that fits this logic well: people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” – Robert Cialdini
To increase your return, you should aim to give before asking for something. However, make sure what you are giving is meaningful, unexpected, and customized. Each of these factors is essential for optimizing your pre-suasion. On top of this, make sure the person you are talking to knows that you care. People will not care about how much you know about your product unless they understand how much you care. Therefore, show genuine interest in the other person and your product. Be likable, friendly, and humorous. The more enjoyable you are to be around, the more likely the other person will associate positive emotions with your product or idea.
- People view popular choices as more right, both morally and practically. Therefore, you should label products you particularly want to sell as ‘most popular.’
- It is a better approach to tell people that their peers are doing what you want them to do, rather than directly telling people what to do.
- Admitting your weaknesses early on in a conversation will allow you to gain instant trustworthiness. Then, you can channel this weakness into a strength. For example, “although our product isn’t the cheapest on the market, you will save money in the long-term because of its superior build quality.”
The influence principles provided by Cialdini can be broken down into three stages.
- Stage 1 (cultivating a positive association): use Reciprocity and Liking. Give first (in a meaningful, unexpected, customized way), highlighting genuine commonalities, and offering real compliments.
- Stage 2 (reducing uncertainty): use Social Proof and Authority. Give evidence that a person’s choice is well-regarded by peers or experts.
- Stage 3 (motivating action): use Consistency and Scarcity. Remind the individual what they said about a topic in the past and what they could lose.
Six concepts empower the major principles of human social influence.
- Reciprocation – People say yes to those they owe. We have a strong tendency to feel that those who have given benefits to us are entitled to benefits from us in return. If you want to pre-suade with this message, take a chance and give first.
- Liking – People trust those who like them. If you want to pre-suade with a message, mention similarities and give compliments.
- Social Proof – People think that it’s appropriate for them to believe, feel, or do something if others believe, feel, or do the same thing.
- Authority – People will listen to those that are authoritative. Show your audience that you are trustworthy and knowledgeable on the topic and it will be well received.
- Scarcity – People want more of something unavailable. The scarcity of an item raises the perceived value. In the consumer’s mind, any constraint on access increases the worth of what is being offered.
- Consistency – If you can encourage somebody to take a small pre-suasive step, then you can increase their willingness to take larger and more consistent steps.
Using the Power of Relationships
Relationships are one of the most powerful tools for influencing people. Cialdini explains that relationships can intensify people’s willingness to help, but also cause it. The most influential relationships are those where individuals see another individual as one of their group, rather than being similar to their group. Hence, these relationships are about shared identities, e.g., gender, race, politics, religion, or birthplace.
However, by far, the most influential relationship to utilize is family. Cialdini describes bloodline as the ultimate relationship. However, Cialdini does not only believe that genetic connectedness falls under the banner of bloodline. Instead, people who share a similar sub-language or imagery can count as part of the same bloodline. For example, brotherhood, sisterhood, and heritage. These individuals treat each other as if they are their family. Therefore, Cialdini includes them within the same category.
Many experiences will cause people to feel unity. This includes liking, support, continued reciprocal exchange, co-creation, and getting together. By installing one of these unitizing experiences in people pre-persuasively, you can start influencing people in a way that will bring you success.
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