7 Lessons on Persuasion: Book Review
Marketers can learn 7 lessons about persuasion from a new book by Lee Hartley Carter, Persuasion: Convincing Others When Facts Don’t Seem to Matter.
1. Facts Are Never Enough
“At a biological level, brains aren’t hardwired to look for facts. Instead we rapidly and automatically process opinions we agree with as if they are facts,” Carter writes.
“Not only are our opinions … change-resistant, we actually involuntarily reject facts that contradict our existing opinions.” She cites results of a study from Social Psychological and Personality Science.
“When confronted with facts that don’t fit inside our frame, we throw away the facts and keep the frame.”
Technology and healthcare brands often struggle with the idea that emotions drive customers’ purchasing decisions. “By and large, [people] make emotional decisions more often than they make rational decisions, and respecting that can be a challenge for more scientifically minded brands,” Carter notes.
What audiences do not need is more facts. They need a simple clear master narrative they can remember and repeat.
A master narrative is what you want people to say about you when you’re not in the room, a singularly focused message that defines and differentiates your brand.
2. Know Your Audience
The better you know your audience, the more persuasive you can be.
But “it seems like the more data we have, the less intimate we’ve become,” Carter writes. Brands “hit a wall because we find we can’t make people care.”
“Persuading someone to give you what you want starts with intimately knowing that person and caring about who they are and what they need,” she adds. “We all know the feeling of someone talking at us instead of to us.”
“No matter what you are trying to accomplish, everything begins and ends with the audience.”
To understand your audience, ask how they feel about your brand right now. Get feedback from four audience segments:
- Your fans
- People who think nothing of you
- People who have a negative (but not necessarily emotional) opinion
- Haters who have deep-seated opinions about you.
You only get a true picture when you take all of these segments into account.
Don’t play only to your base. And don’t be afraid to try changing haters’ minds, one by one.
3. Don’t Ask for Too Much
Make sure your call to action doesn’t demand too much – or too little – from your audience. “When you try to persuade people to do too much, you will paralyze them, or worse still, be ignored entirely.”
On the other hand, brands’ #1 obstacle is that often their ambition is too small to be inspiring. Great brands need the courage go beyond what may seem feasible, realistic or reasonable.
Don’t overload people with too big a message. “In persuasion, barraging your audience with too much information puts the onus on your audience to hold too much in their heads. People want to feel smart.”
4. What Persuasion Is, and Is Not
Persuasion is not about trying to convince someone that you’re something you’re not. If you’re trying to be like someone else, you’re not being authentic.
Instead, persuasion is about finding an authentic story that will change beliefs or behaviors in your audience.
Vulnerability plays a key role. If there’s a vulnerability, and the brand acknowledges it, “It’s so much more powerful than trying to pretend it doesn’t exist.” In fact, you can use your vulnerabilities to strengthen your argument.
Sit with feedback from your audiences. Pose questions like these:
- How do people perceive your brand now?
- What are its weaknesses?
- What keeps the brand from getting where it wants to go?
Accept any feedback you hear with grace. Say, “I’m looking at my brand through your eyes and I see how you came to these conclusions.”
Be uniquely you by telling your own story. “Own the truth of who you are.”
If you have weaknesses, “flip weaknesses into differentiators,” Carter advises.
For example, if your brand is small, focus your message on the boutique, personalized service you deliver. If your brand has no experience in an industry sector, focus your message on how much value an outside perspective brings.
“The center of persuasion is showing something a little bit unexpected.”
Avoid ambiguity. “Anything that is ambiguous will be used against you … Human beings fill in blanks with negative assumptions.”
“Meet customers at their truth.”
5. What’s Missing? Empathy
What’s too often missing from conversations today is empathy, listening and respect, Carter writes.
Empathy doesn’t mean you need to agree with people. But “make the shift to believing that everyone is doing the best they can with the tools they have.” That’s what radical empathy is all about.
“Know your customer – without judgment, without snark,” Carter says. “In persuasion, there is only one truth that matters: theirs.”
To activate empathy, grapple with the audiences’ emotions, values and behaviors as a single unit. To dig deep, ask these questions:
- How to address the audiences’ and brands’ respective emotional states so we can have a constructive conversation?
- How to better understand audiences’ most important values so you can communicate in language that resonates with them?
- Can you better understand your audience by looking at what they actually do (versus what you think they do or what they say they do)?
When audiences respond with joking, sarcasm, critiques and negative thinking, you need to lower their defenses by listening, checking to make sure you understand, and avoiding judgment.
You also need to get people past emotions that inhibit them: shame, anxiety and guilt.
Once you get past the audiences’ defenses and inhibiting emotions, you can find out what are the productive core emotion(s) that your audience feels – fear, anger, grief, joy, excitement, disgust or sexual excitement. “Your audience must be feeling productive core emotions to be persuadable.”
Values-based empathy builds on Jonathan Haidt’s six innate moral foundations:
Ask: Which of these values is most important to you and your brand? What values are most important to your target audience? Consider customers’ obstacles, their needs, and what your brand can deliver to them consistently and authentically.
“Until you can truly understand what your audience wants to feel, you can’t create a master narrative that gives it to them.”
When there’s not enough empathy for audiences, they’re unlikely to hear what your brand wants to say. “If they can’t hear you, it’s not their fault.”
6. Build Your Narrative
“Find the one thing that you want to be known for … your master narrative is the one thing about you or your brand that expediently embodies the critical emotional need you are going to fulfill for your audience.
“Everyone is telling a story. You want to have the shortest, most memorable one.”
Note: that’s why we create brand messages you can convey in 7 seconds or 23 words.
Carter spells out a step by step process to develop a master narrative, with one main message supported by three pillars and nine proof points. (Its structure is practically the same as our 2-minute Message Maps.)
Avoid points that reinforce audiences’ perceived obstacles. Make sure you remove any language land mines that could trigger your audience.
Check to make sure your message is plausible, positive, personal and plainspoken – and presented in audiences’ language, not industry jargon.
Then find ways to make your message even pithier, smarter and stronger. Polish the language to make your message more memorable. Create visual symbols that turn theoretical ideas into tangible things that help people see your message.
“Persuasion lasts longer than marketing or advertising because we’re changing people’s minds,” Carter writes.
7. Tell Your Story Well
Open your story with a compelling hook, plus an emotional appeal based on what you learned about your audiences’ core values, emotional needs and stories that tap into these insights.
Your story must be interesting to your audience, connected with their core emotions, relatable, and scalable – that is, reflecting a bigger point you want to make.
Stories follow an arc from beginning to middle to end. A protagonist struggles for an object of desire. In the end, the story resolves.
What’s the point of the story? Make sure you have one! You can start with a story and find a point, or start with a point and find stories.
Make specific choices about questions such as: who’s the hero of the story? (Our take: it’s your customers or employees. Not your product or technology.)
Test your story with audiences by asking:
- What did you hear?
- Does this message matter to you? Why? Why not? What does matter to you?
- What will you do differently as a result of this message?
- What did you learn that you didn’t know before?
- Did any words or phrases stand out to you in a good or bad way?
- What emotions do you feel when you hear this message?
The audience ultimately decides whether your story flies, or crashes.
There’s lots to learn from Persuasion. I highly recommend this book for leaders, communicators and marketers.
More books about persuasion
We recently reviewed new and noteworthy books on persuasion. To read book summaries and reviews, click the links below.
- How Minds Change, by David McRaney
- Win Every Argument, by Mehdi Hasan
- High Conflict, by Amanda Ripley
- Amplify Your Influence, by René Rodriguez
- Making Numbers Count, by Chip Heath and Karla Starr.