Pre-suasion is a book by the author Robert Cialdini, who also wrote one of the seminal books on human psychology Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Unlike his previous work, this book tackles how your words and actions can have an effect on people before you actually get to the main points of what you want to convey. This book review is dedicated to teaching you a handful of the core, fundamental principles of selling—which is a skill everyone should master, regardless of whether you’re selling products to potential buyers or trying to sell your friends on which movie to watch.
Rather than seek to change what people think (difficult), change what they think about instead by directing their attention (easy). The changed focus of our attention primes, anchors, frames and sets the agenda for our subsequent choices. Smart influence happens before any message is sent.
What Is Presuasion?
Pre-suasion may be controversial for traditional communicators – it argues that influence is primarily a game of attention and association, not persuasion and argument. But Robert Cialdini has pedigree in the field of communications. He is author of one of the most influential business books of all time – Influence, a 1984 book that is still #1 bestselling book on consumer behaviour on Amazon. Whilst Influence focuses on what to say to influence consumers, distilling the findings of scientific research into six universal messages, Pre-suasion focuses on when to influence. And that time is before people notice they are being influenced.
Pre-suasion is built around the ideas of anchoring and priming. Anchoring – also known as the focusing effect/focusing illusion – is an attentional bias that means we systematically rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the “anchor”) when making decisions. Priming refers to how our attention and responses are systematically biased by what we’ve just been exposed to (exposure to one stimulus influences the response to another stimulus). Together priming and anchoring mean that whatever first captures our attention is seen as important, causal and directs our response.
For example, if you want people to…
Positive test strategy: This is also known as Confirmation Bias. How people look for hits rather than misses. The example given is if you ask someone “Are you feeling unhappy?” they will dig in their mind and experiences for reasons to be unhappy. If instead you ask “Are you feeling happy?”, people will gravitate towards positive experiences and memories.
Do you know the positive words and imagery that people associate with your category and category-related goals. No? Well you’ll need to find out in order to become proficient in the art of pre-suasion. For example, if you want people to improve performance, first expose them to images and words associated with performance (win, attain, succeed, master).
These words and images are ‘primes’ that have ‘associative coherence’ with desired outcomes, and ready our mind for an associated response. For instance, telephone fund-raisers raised 60% more money when their script sheet contained an image of a runner winning at race. We may diss motivation posters as cheesy but they work. Likewise, young women do better on science, maths, and leadership tasks if assigned to rooms with cues (photos, for example) of women known to have mastered the tasks.
More generally, by embedding evocative associations in an initial framing message, you can prime how people respond to a subsequent message. For example, Stanford University researchers published two versions of a news story about crime rates with just one word change – the soaring crime was either described as a ‘ravaging beast’ or ‘ravaging virus’. When asked for their preferred solution – either catching and caging criminals or deal with underlying ‘unhealthy’ causes, those who saw the beast version tended to recommend the catch and cage solution, whilst those who saw the virus version recommended dealing with unhealthy causes (poverty, unemployment). The associative coherence between the descriptive metaphor and preferred solution directed preference.
Map positive associations – word associations and sensory associations (sounds, tastes, scents, touch and sights) related to category goals and benefits and use these positive association to pre-suade by priming.
Pre-suasion is the art and science of capturing and channelling attention. The big marketing challenge in a cluttered world is capturing attention. So whilst your may know the associations that you want to use to prime your audience’s mind, you first need to capture attention.
How do you do that? Pre-suasion lists 6 attention grabbing strategies.
1. The sexual
Sexual stimuli have a pervasive power to command our attention, and influence our action, but the influence is more subtle and selective than we may think.
For example, a recent field experiment found that only 20% of men would agree to help a woman after having been asked for directions to Martin Street, but 36.7% agreed to help after having been asked for directions to Valentine Street. The men had been primed with romantic associations, and behaved more chivalrously.
On the other hand, only 8% of top advertising campaigns use sex to sell. Why? Because sex only sells when the product is linked to sexuality (cosmetics, perfume, form-fitting clothing). Sex doesn’t sell soda, soap powder or white goods because there is no strong association in the mind of the audience between sex and the product.
2. The Threatening
Threat and fear appeals, such as in tobacco packaging, have been shown to be effective, when they are followed by clear instructions on how to avoid the threat.
Perhaps more interesting from an advertising perspective is when the pre-suasion and persuasion are uncoupled. Research carried out by Cialdini and evolutionary psychologist Vlad Griskevicius found that the perception of threat opens us up to messages to be part of a group (where there is safety and strength in numbers). In this experiment people people responded favourably to an ad for SF Museum of Modern Art that stressed its popularity (“Visited by over a million people each year) after having seen a violent movie, but not after seeing a romantic movie. After the romantic movie, that ad that worked best emphasised distinctiveness of museum attendance (“Stand out from the crowd”). Once again, what happened before influenced how a subsequent message was received.
The implication is ads and products that help people stand out will perform better when placed in or after romantic content , whilst ads and products that help people fit in will perform better in or after violent or threatening content.
3. The Different
If something is distinctive, out of the ordinary is stands out, it grabs our attention. And because it grabs our attention, the importance of what makes it distinctive is amplified.
This attention-grabbing capacity of the distinctive can accentuate the influence subsequent messages. For example, an experiment at NorthWestern involving a side by side online comparison of two sofas, one with comfy cushions, and the other with sturdy cushions resulted in a 58 percent to 42 percent preference for the sturdy cushion, but when two extra sofas with sturdy cushions were added to the comparison, preference for the different and distinctive sofa with comfy cushions increase to 77%.
Bottom line, you don’t just have to Think Different, you have to be Different.
4. The Self-Relevant
From the background chatter at a party, we have an uncanny knack of hearing someone mentioning our name (cocktail party effect). In personal health, a message that is self-relevant because it has been tailored to or references us is more likely to capture our attention, interest, be memorised and even acted upon.
In fact, simply using the word you rather than ‘people’ may boost self-relevance.
5. The Unfinished
The idea that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks is known as the Zeigarnik Effect (after Blumer Zeigarnik – a student of psychologist Kurt Lewin).
This explains why we remember stuff – including ads – better if they are unfinished , because our attention will remain drawn to it as we crave cognitive closure.
A recent Facebook experiment shows the capacity of the unfinished to command our attention. College women viewed the Facebook profiles of four male students who had previously seen their profiles and were told whether the male students were attracted to them a lot, no more than average, or not told at all. As was predicted by ‘reciprocity principle’ (we like others who like us), the women were more attracted to the men that liked them a lot. But they were even more attracted to the men for whom they didn’t know.
We may crave closure, but we can be attracted to the unfinished.
6. The Mysterious
Good writers and teachers know this, and will structure what they share as mysteries to be solved. They will begin by posing the subject as a mystery, and then deepen the mystery with surprising observations. Then, they’ll tease the audience by considering and discounting plausible but incorrect explanations, and then provide a clue to the real explanation. Only then will they resolve the mystery, and draw the implications.
Whilst Cialdini does not share experimental evidence of the effectiveness of mystery at capturing, he points to his career and success has been built on systematically using it.
Use the power of incompletion: To incite others or motivate yourself to take action, one way to do this is to use the power of incompletion. For example, if you want to push yourself to gain a positive writing habit, one technique you could try is on your last sentence that you write that day leave off the last few words that you want to write. That way, it will gnaw at you in the back of your brain to come and complete it the next day.
Bringing it altogether
The opportunity for marketers is to combine the embedding of associations in pre-suasive communication , with the embedding of influence cues form Cialdini’s Influence in messages. This one-two of influence – pre-suasion then persuasion – provides marketers with a powerful communications framework that moves beyond mere argument.
In doing so, the promise is that you turbo-charge your influence. Combining the two steps to influence – Cialdini provides a process for non-rational influence.
Floating the absurdity of something (leading): The example he gave of this was if you are negotiating with someone on price, you can float a super high number in a joking way like “This won’t cost millions don’t worry”. As a result whatever number you give in their mind will seem less absurd (similar to the anchoring principle, but in a non-serious way).
Start with Pre-suasion
Capture and channel attention with by embedding positive category (goal) associations in attention appeals.
Then use Liking and Reciprocity
The obligations of friendship, and the obligation to give back to establish rapport and cultivate a positive association with you as a communicator – in a meaningful, and customized manner.
Now use Authority and Social Proof
We follow those we view as experts. Social proof leverages the power of consensus, leading us to do what we feel others are also doing to reduce perceptions of uncertainty and risk.
Finally, use Consistency and Scarcity
Exploit the need for personal alignment and the fact that we want what may not be available, in order to motivate action.
Cialdini concludes by proposing a seventh message cue to the six originally enumerated in Influence – Unity – we say yes to ‘we’ messages that appeal to a sense shared identity (genealogy or geography) or shared activity (synchronicity, collaboration (including – co-creation)).
Naturally, sitting alongside Liking and Reciprocity in step 2 in the process of influence, creating a sense of unity between communicator and audience establishes rapport and positivity.
Ask when the chance of no is lowest: When you need to ask someone for something, it is best to ask them at the “critical beginning”. This is the stage of the negotiation when the deal is still malleable so the risk of asking at this stage is lower, and even if rejected at this stage it would do little to harm the relationship (for example, after accepted for a job but before the contract is signed).
Will you be persuaded by presuasion?
We were not only pre-suaded by Pre-suasion, we were persuaded by it too.
It’s a fitting follow-up to the business book on Influence. As an entrepreneur, you can leverage pre-suasion techniques to craft compelling insights and concepts, and to help your brand communicate more effectively.
It’s perhaps true that Pre-suasion is not quite as ‘neat’ as Influence insofar as it doesn’t offer an off-the-peg solution to influence like the six (now seven) evidence-based message cues. Pre-suasion requires knowledge of the associations people make with the category and category goals, and embedding these in pre-suasive communication that frames a subsequent message. And that requires research.
But for professional communicators, Pre-suasion is a goldmine of evidence-based insight into the attentional biases that influences our behaviour, and offer practical recommendation for how to harness these biases. We unreservedly recommend Pre-suasion to all branding and marketing professionals.
Digital Dandy. Hacker From Heart. Workaholic. Coding Artist. Self-made.