Persuasion is much more than a tool of deception. It’s a vital and powerful life skill that anyone can learn and benefit from.
Great success, whether in your career, relationships, or even some personal goals, requires an extraordinary ability to persuade.
You have to be able to persuade your superiors you’re worthy of a promotion. You have to be able to persuade others to buy your products and services. You have to be able to persuade the guy or girl to go on a date with you. Sometimes you have to be able to persuade people to assist you in your personal efforts
When boiled down to utter simplicity, the intended result of all efforts to persuade is to get someone to say “yes” and take action, and if you can do this skillfully, you can do things others can only dream of.
Imagine if you could apply simple principles to your business’ marketing that trigger near-automatic compliance in your prospects. Imagine if you could engineer circumstances that emotionally compel people to see things your way and say “yes.” Imagine if these devices were so subtle and camouflaged that they were completely imperceptible to the average person. And best of all, imagine if none of it was unethical, underhanded or deceptive—if you could do these things with integrity and always deliver exactly what was promised.
Well, such principles do exist and they do work—so well that it’s sometimes scary.
For over a half a century, many mysteries of what makes people comply have been unraveled by pioneering psychologists. Through much social testing—some brilliant and imaginative, some bizarre—scientists have learned some very profound, sweeping things about how to influence our thoughts, attitudes and actions.
The most powerful tactics seem to have the power to generate near-unthinking, mindless compliance to orders—orders that otherwise presented would rarely be accepted. It’s as if there are certain “short circuits” simply hard-wired into us, whether as human nature or through cultural conditioning, and they can be exploited with push-button ease.
As I have no desire to put you to sleep with mountains of abstract psychological theory, I’ve “pre-digested” much of it for you and sifted out the gems. What’s left is a select handful of simple, incredibly powerful persuasion tools that will guide you in all of your marketing efforts and enable you to lace it with a bit of “irresistible.”
Much of the information in this series of articles was brilliantly presented by Dr. Robert Cialdini in his groundbreaking work, Influence, and some was culled from various other works on the subject. I augmented my selections with various business and marketing examples, and as you’ll see, the tactics you’re about to learn are covertly used all around us every day to push and pull our minds and wallets into waiting hands.
So, let’s get started with the first principle of persuasion: authority.
Principle of Persuasion: Authority Knows Best
One of the most fundamental rules of society that we are trained to follow from birth is that obedience to authority is correct and disobedience is incorrect and punishable. This is the theme of many parental lessons, schoolhouse rhymes, and childhood stories, and it carries into adulthood in the form of educational, legal, military, and political systems that expect unquestioning compliance to orders from those legitimately in power.
Look even in the Bible, where a failure to obey the ultimate Authority lost paradise for not only Adam and Eve, but the rest of the human race. In the story of Abraham, he was ready to plunge a dagger into his own son’s heart for no reason other than God’s unexplained command. It was a test of obedience and he had passed.
Following authority does, of course, have societal value. Its polar opposite—anarchy—is marked by social regression and disruption. Obedience to authority as allowed the development of sophisticated structures of production, commerce, politics, lawfulness, and general societal advancement that would be otherwise impossible. Many experts know more than us and their advice proves very beneficial, making our lives easier in many ways.
But like the other principles of persuasion, when such an effective persuader is intimately woven into our culture, its power can be exploited. The scary nature of unwavering deference to authority is well illustrated in the famous experiment run by a psychology professor named Stanley Milgram.
In the experiment, Milgram recruited young college students for what they thought was an experiment of the relationship between punishment and learning. But it had nothing to do with that—it was an experiment of obedience to authority. The setup was simple: a student would enter Milgram’s lab to find a researcher holding a clipboard and a man sitting in an adjacent, glassed-off room. The researcher and subject (student) would strap the man into his chair and attach a pair of electrodes to his arms.
Once the experiment began, the researcher would ask the “Learner” strapped to the chair a series of questions. If the Learner got one wrong, the subject was told by the researcher to activate an electroshock machine and deliver a shock to him. With each error, the shocks would increase by 15 volts. The subject thought the researcher was studying the effect of punishment on the Learner’s ability to focus and answer questions he should know the answer to. But there was a twist. The Learner was an actor, and there were no shocks. The researcher was actually studying the subject’s willingness to inflict serious pain on another human being simply because an authority figure said to do so.
The scenario planned by the actor and researcher was gruesome. The first series of shocks produced nearly inaudible grunts, but as they continued, the actor started putting on a show. Groans turned to yelps, turned to agonized screams, turned to desperate pleading for the experiment to stop. But the subjects kept delivering shocks as instructed. It wasn’t until the 300-volt shock had been sent and the victim desperately shouted that he would no longer try to answer any more questions did anyone stop—and even then, only a minority of subjects did.
A full 62 percent of subjects administered every shock—up to 450 volts—despite the actor’s writhing, begging, and shrieking. More variations of the experiment were done to see if both genders would behave the same way (they did), if the subjects were fully aware of the physical harm (in this variation, the actor announced beforehand that he had a heart condition and during the ordeal, cried out that his heart is starting to bother him—circumstances that made no different in people’s compliance), and to ensure that those participating represented a fair cross-section of society, not a morally degraded, sadistic minority (they did).
What could account for this horrible, unwavering readiness to inflict suffering upon another? Well, in Milgram’s own words, “It is the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority that constitutes the chief finding of the study.”
In three simple words: people obey authority.
How Authority is Used to Persuade
Let’s now enter the realm of marketing, where appeals to authority are constantly made. Advertisers hire actors to play lawyers and advise us. They inform us that their product is prescribed the most by doctors. They announce their status as “leading authority” as proclaimed by significant third-party organizations. They tout their many years of expertise, their impressive achievements.
All smart marketers strive toward establishing themselves or their clients as experts—authorities—in their prospects’ eyes. They know full well that many of us will feel the pull of automatic deference and thus will be drawn to that company’s products and services over alternatives that don’t share that status.
Sometimes the connections made are obviously meaningless, but the pull of authority works nonetheless. In the 1970s, Sanka brand coffee ran commercials featuring the then-popular actor Robert Young advising people on staying away from caffeine and drinking de-caffeinated Sanka instead. It was an incredibly successful campaign that ran for many years. But why should people take Robert Young’s word on caffeine? Because in the mind of the American public, he was Marcus Welby, M.D., the role he played on a long-popular TV series. It didn’t make sense to listen to a man who only pretended to be a doctor, but he convinced many that caffeine was bad and Sanka was good.
People are swayed by experts in every area of their lives: the products they buy, the advice they accept, the decisions they make. They know that following authority is not only a matter of avoiding punishment, but in many cases, achieving better survival.
Authority’s power to persuade is highest when the object of authority appears knowledgeable and honest, bestowing great credibility. When these two factors are severely lacking, the object not only loses its influence but its status as an authority—it becomes known as a fraud.
You’ve probably seen advertisers admit a small shortcoming in their position or product before delivering the praise. “We’re no. 2, but we try harder”—Avis. “Oh, the disadvantages of Benson & Hedges.” “L’Oreal, a bit more expensive and worth it” and then later, “Because you’re worth it.” Why do they do this?
Because by arguing a little against their own interests, even though the small disadvantages are inconsequential when compared to the advantages delivered thereafter, they “prove” their honesty. By establishing truthfulness on minor issues, we find them more credible when stressing the more important points of their argument.
I’ve seen this done many times with information products, where the marketer starts his sales pitch by actually telling you who shouldn’t bother with his product or service and why. He “pulls no punches” about the fact that success with his product takes hard work, persistence, and won’t make you rich overnight. He even tells you to not buy it if you’re too hard up on cash and instead, use his free advices to make some money first and then buy it.
So, if you want to improve your ability to persuade, you should always be looking to establish yourself as a knowledgeable, honest authority in your field.
How do you do that?
Well, if you deliver great products and services and make this fact well-known, you will be naturally on your way. But there are ways to shortcut the process, too. You can associate yourself with already-existing authorities in your field; you can associate yourself with the types of people considered authoritative in your industry; you can leverage an impressive track record if you have one (years in business, awards received, etc.); you can write a book for your industry (a great way to take the position of expert); and so on.
If you give it some thought, you can surely think of a few other ways to come across as expert and honest, and thus, authoritative. And in the next article in this series, we’ll look at another principle of persuasion: liking.