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Planting a persuasive seed: How certain cues create powerful messages in our minds

Pre-Suasion

By Robert Cialdini

(Simon & Schuster,

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413 pages, $37)

If somebody shopping online for a mattress comes to a landing page with some fluffy clouds in the background, they are more likely to put a priority on comfort in their purchase decision. On the other hand, if the landing page has pennies in the background, cost becomes a prime factor.

That's an example of what psychologist and marketing expert Robert Cialdini calls "pre-suasion" – even before the seller actually starts making a pitch, the buyer is being subtly influenced in a certain direction. "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," he writes in Pre-Suasion.

That fluffy clouds example – and others in the book – may stir up memories of Vance Packard's 1957 classic The Hidden Persuaders, which warned about subliminal manipulation in advertising. But Prof. Cialdini – whose landmark book Influence was intended to help consumers protect themselves, but ended up a handbook for marketers – warns in his final chapter of the importance of ethics, arguing that crossing the line will hurt deceitful executives and companies.

His purpose is to highlight how to set the stage for your selling efforts based on psychological research. "It's possible to move others in our direction by saying or doing the right thing immediately before we want them to respond," he notes. For example:

If you want somebody to buy a box of expensive chocolates, arrange for them to write down beforehand a number that's much larger than the price tag of the chocolates.

If you want them to choose a bottle of French wine, expose them to French background music before the choice must be made.

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If you want them to agree to try an untested product, first ask whether they consider themselves adventurous.

If you want them to feel warm toward you, serve a hot drink.

Moving beyond selling, if you want people to be more helpful, have them look at photos of individuals standing close together. If you want them to be more achievement-oriented, provide an image of a runner winning a race. If you want them to make careful assessments, display a poster of Auguste Rodin's The Thinker.

At the core are privileged moments, identifiable points in time when an individual is particularly receptive to a message. Essentially, you are focusing attention on something that can help to shape action later. He notes that the news media does this regularly by highlighting issues that don't tell us what to think but do indicate what to think about.

However, he cautions: "Any practice that pulls attention to an idea will be successful only when the idea has merit. If the arguments and evidence supporting it are seen as meritless by an audience, directing attention to the bad idea won't make it more persuasive. If anything, the tactic might well backfire."

Nevertheless, channelling attention and making recipients more open to a message before they process it can be "a persuader's dream," Prof. Cialdini notes. That's because often the biggest challenge for a communicator is not providing a meritorious case but in convincing people to devote their limited time and energy to considering its merits.

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Certain cues are particularly powerful. Sexual stimuli is a well-known example, although it must be linked to the right product. It can help sell cosmetics, body scents and form-fitting clothes but despite the many efforts you see in television commercials, it has no noteworthy impact on the sale of soft drinks, laundry detergents and kitchen appliances.

Threats to safety can sway people, as we have seen in the wake of terrorist attacks and violent demonstrations. But he says chilling messages from public health authorities won't be effective without clear information about legitimate, available steps that people can take to change their dangerous habits.

People's attention will gravitate to your message if you make it relevant to them. In writing marketing copy, the pronoun "you" will draw attention compared with less relevant words such as "people" or "they." It draws you in, after all.

Mysteries can also be effective, as people seek closure when teased by a puzzle. Prof. Cialdini improved his lectures dramatically when he decided to wrap each around the theme of a mystery the class material would explain, to the point that when he ran late, students wouldn't leave his classroom before hearing the conclusion.

He set out six universal principles of social influence in his previous book: reciprocation (sharing something with others), liking, social proof (citing examples of others following a certain path), authority, scarcity and consistency. Here, he adds unity. Being together, combined with others in a group or living in the same city, and acting together, such as in an organization, can nudge us in like-minded directions. When you cheered for Canadians at the Olympics, you were proving that point.

This is a fascinating, challenging book. He brings together a huge number of psychological studies, but the research and his general themes are far from the blueprint for action that many readers will be seeking.

POSTSCRIPT

Design a Better Business (Wiley, 269 pages, $42) by consultants Patrick Van Der Pijl, Justin Lokitz and Lisa Kay Solomon brings together the ideas and experiences of 30 designers and thought leaders on building a better business.

Consultant John David explains How To Protect (Or Destroy) Your Reputation Online (Career Press, 223 pages, $21.95) so digital attacks and misinformation by the Internet jury doesn't doom your company.

Defining Management (Routledge, 318 pages, $78, paperback) by academics Lars Engwall, Matthias Kipping (of York University), and Behlul Usdiken charts the idea of management as a practice over time in an eclectic series of detailed papers. If interested, consider the Kindle version, since you can adjust the type; the paperback font is too small and light to be comfortably readable by most people.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points.

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