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Dr. Robert Cialdini's Technique That'll Get Buyers Interested Before They Ever Meet You [Interview]

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Editor's note: Dr. Robert Cialdini is a world-renowned expert on influence and persuasion. The below is an interview with Cialdini conducted by Harvard Business School senior lecturer Mark Roberge about Cialdini's upcoming book, Pre-Suasion. You can preview the book here.

Mark Roberge (MR): I'd love to hear the key learning from your new book, Pre-Suasion.

Robert Cialdini (RC): I once infiltrated the training programs of a broad range of professionals dedicated to getting us to say yes -- salespeople, marketers, advertisers, managers, charity fundraisers, corporate recruiters and so on -- to learn what worked most powerfully. We’ve learned a lot over the years about which elements to build into a message and which psychological strings to strum with that message to elevate success.

But recently we’ve begun to realize that by focusing so intently on the message itself, we’ve missed a crucial component of the process. Communicators don’t achieve their greatest success by changing a recipient’s mind with a clearly crafted appeal, but rather by changing the recipient’s state of mind, in the moment before the appeal -- specifically, so that the recipient becomes more sympathetic to, more readied for, the cleverly crafted message that we have waiting for them. They do that through "pre-suasion": The practice of arranging for an audience to favor a message before actually experiencing it.

MR: Did you intentionally set out to pursue this problem or was it something that you stumbled across and then it sort of formed in your mind through the research process?

RC: You know, people have often asked me why it’s taken so long to write another solo-authored book since Influence. And I always had to say I didn’t have an idea big enough to warrant such a book until this one came along.

That’s when I started seeing research findings that didn’t fit with the dominant model social influence that states that if you want to sell someone a product you have to change the person’s beliefs or attitudes or experiences in order to make the person want to buy it. But this new research I was seeing indicated that, although there’s plenty of evidence to indicate that this traditional approach works, there’s another model of change that also works exceedingly well.

According to this new non-traditional approach, which we can call the channelled attention approach, to get desired change it’s not necessary to alter a person’s beliefs or desires or experiences at all. In fact, it’s not necessary to alter anything except what’s prominent in the person’s mind at the moment of decision.

Here’s an example: There was a study done on visitors to an online furniture store. In that study, people were sent to a website that put the idea of comfort in their minds before they ever started to search the site for information about the furniture there. That was done by putting fluffy clouds on the background wallpaper of the site. Those people who came to the site and experienced this pre-suasive maneuver of seeing fluffy clouds in the background placed greater importance on comfort when asked what they were looking for in furniture. Secondly, they spent more time searching for and looking at the comfort ratings of the furniture in stock. And most tellingly, they preferred more comfortable furniture for purchase.

Now, to be sure the results came from upfront exposure to the idea of comfort, other visitors were directed to a page that initially exposed them to the idea of price by depicting coins on its background wallpaper. These individuals placed greater importance on price, spent more time searching for and looking at information about cost, and preferred inexpensive furniture for purchase. The especially interesting thing was that when questioned afterwards, most refused to believe that what they saw pre-suasively, clouds or coins, had influenced them at all.

MR: Can you home in on the applications of pre-suasion to selling? Is it limited to the closing sequence or is there more to it than that?

RC: I think you’re right that pre-suasion is very applicable to the closing sequence, but I don’t think that it’s limited to the close. In fact, if we look back at that study I told you about (the online furniture store example), we can see that the first thing people encountered -- fluffy clouds or coins -- made all the difference in their purchase decisions. It was initial attention to the idea of comfort or price that then sent visitors through the rest of the material in a specifically focused way. So the key to pre-suasion is bringing attention to the concept that is the central feature of your offer as early as possible because it makes people ready for, receptive to, other information related to that concept once they encounter it in your message.

Here’s another example: sometimes we have to sell ourselves, not a product or service. Let’s say in a job interview. So suppose you are applying for a new job, you’re invited to come in for an interview, and there’s somebody evaluating you across the desk—it can be an individual or a small committee. What we typcially say is, “I’m very glad to be here, and I hope to be able to answer all the questions you have for me.”

Now, here’s what I’m going to recommend as a pre-suasive addition. Then say, “…but before we do that, I wonder if you could answer a quesiton for me, why did you invite me here today? What was it about my resume that led you to want to bring me in?”

They will begin reviewing your resume for its strengths, for its positive features; and, very often, they will make public commitments to those strengths. They will reply, “well this is why, because of “x,” and because of “y.” and, now you have them in a mindset that fits with a favorable attitude toward your candidacy. I have an acquaintance who claims that he has gotten three straight jobs by using this strategy.

MR: Are there ethical lines that we should be cautious of as we apply the principals of pre-suasion?

RC: This is such an important question, Mark. And for pre-suasion it’s especially important in part because people are unaware of the influence of pre-suasive practices.

There’s an old saying, “tell me what you’re paying attention to and I’ll tell you who you are.” well, here’s what the latest persuasion science says: what people are paying attention to doesn’t just reveal who they are, it makes them who they are in that moment. You can make me comfort conscious, or price conscious, or helpful, or achievement oriented, or analytical, or almost anything by what you present to me in the moment before you ask me to act. That’s very powerful and potentially worrisome.

That’s why ethics becomes extremely important. To be as ethical as possible in using pre-suasion, here’s what I think salespeople or marketers have to ask themselves, “what is the feature of my offer that would make it a wise choice for my customer?” in other words, is it its quality, or its reliability, or its safety, or its price, or its comfort? After answering that question for yourself, you can bring customers’ attention to something associated with that particular feature of your offer before you describe it to them. Coins if it’s price, clouds if it’s comfort, and so on. That way, people become moved toward your offer because of a reason that most benefits them, not just you.

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