How Can You Use Pre-Suasion to Make More Sales

Have you ever wondered how to communicate well? Not just communicate, but how do you sell well? Communication is all about delivering a message that is well received, and then accepted by those that hear it and Pre-Suasion by Robert Cialdini is here to help us with that.

The main thrust of Pre-Suasion hinges on Cialdini’s assertion that it’s the moments before a decision that matter. Not months before, but the minutes before a message is recieved, is what matters. He says that we need to arrange for people to receive our message well.

The best persuaders become the best through pre-suasion — that process of arranging for recipients to be receptive to a message before they encounter it.

I use this in my dealing with development clients, specifically when I give prospects budget expectations in my first email. I let them know that the $1000 – 2500 price point is mostly using existing solutions without customization, but that at $30k we could build almost whatever they want. This sets the tone before we ever get on the phone together and helps set budget expectations for a project.

Before Cialdini gives us methods to use that are effective at pre-suasion, he gets us on the same page by defining a few ideas he’ll use later in the book. First up is privilege moments, which are moments when you identify yourself as receptive to a message. If you’ve encountered the “survey” people in the mall, note the ones that first ask if your helpful, they’re creating a privilege moment with you. Once you say yes, like most people, you’re way more likely to say yes to doing their survey.

The second idea that Cialdini introduces to us is that what we focus on is important. News stories about…anything…make us think that they’re important. Ultimately we do a poor job of filtering the things that are important and rely on external feeds to decide this for us, even if we truly don’t care.

Closely tied to this, we assign causality for an event to the thing we focus on. We often do this with money when we assume that the payment for an endeavour causes the work to happen. In my client work this is often seen when a client offers to pay me more for work and I still say no, because the project isn’t interesting enough or I’m just too busy already. The money doesn’t matter, it’s an external factor that causes me to decide not to do work.

Cialdini also had a very interesting point around our need and desire to help other people:

Several decades worth of research shows that, in general, the more someone needs our help, the more obligated we feel to provide it, the more guilty we feel if we don’t provide it, and the more likely we are to provide it.

To wrap it all up, for the marketer, it’s all about getting people to focus on the thing you want them to attribute causality to. If you’re selling a course that means you show that the results your prospects want are a result of the course you’re providing.

From here, Cialdini get’s deeper into things that draw our attention.

Things That Get Our Attention

Of course as we talk about what gets our attention some of the expected things show up, like sexual stimuli and violence. We’re drawn to pay attention to both of these things, and we all recognize this.

Another thing that we’re drawn to pay attention to is stuff that changes in our environment. Interestingly, Pavlov’s famous dogs did not display their famous behaviour if someone new came into the room or if the room changed. Instead of the bell that signalled food, they spent their attention on the new possible threat in their environment.

Next Cialdini looked at the effect that being different had on the online sales of products. Given three sofa’s listed on a site that were described as “durable” and one that was “comfortable” the comfortable one outsold the “durable” ones. When they reversed the experiment so that there were three comfortable ones and a single durable one, the results flipped as well. People were drawn to the outlier, regardless of their expected personal preference.

We also focus on things that focus on us.

Here, then, is another lesson in pre-suasion available for you to use: When you have a good case to make, you can employ – as openers – simple self-relevant cues (such as the word you) to predispose your audience toward a full consideration of that strong case before they see or hear it.

This is why you get email marketing messages with your name listed in them, or at least some name because some are terrible and comical as they try to guess at your name to create affinity with you.

Finally, we relate to things that remain unfinished. In productivity circles this is the open loops that systems like Getting Things Done, try to close as we write things down. Open loops continue to take up space in our brains and consume our attention.

For a marketer, that means writing your story in such a way as to have a mystery at the beginning and then threading the resolution of it through the rest of your copy so that readers are forced to stick around if they want to close that mental loop. This is also common book writing advice and TV writing practice. End your chapter/episode with a question, that is resolved in the the first bit of the next chapter/episode. This method will draw users through your content, often without them realizing why they have to continue1.

Priming for Desired Behaviour

I’ve already mentioned this, but being asked if you count yourself as a helpful person before getting asked about a survey makes your more likely to complete the survey. Warm tea served before an ask for volunteerism, increase the chances that you’ll say yes to the volunteer request.

We’re also primed by the books we read and the media we interact with. When primed with violent words, we’re more likely to make aggressive choices.

Lack of time to make a decision can also factor into how we consider the options inherent in that decision.

When we are rushed, we don’t have the time to take into account all of the factors at play within a decision.

I’ve fallen for this with a “sale” price that is only offered for 24 hours after a sales call. If I waited then the $2k price turned into $5k, and I admit to pushing the finances hard to make that $2k course work. This short-curcuiting of good decision making procedures is what marketers are counting on with their “always closing” sales2.

Now we’re not totally helpless in the face of these tactics. Obvious product placement in movies and online causes many people to correct for the blatant placement and “demote” their view of the product.

We can also reduce our susceptibility to these marketing tactics by creating if/then plans. Cialdini uses dessert as an example where we tell ourselves that if we are offered dessert at a restaurant we will then order mint tea. For a purchase you could say that if the purchase is over $200 you will take at least 48 hours to make the decision regardless of any time limited sales that are offered.

When we’re purchasing a new car we force this on ourselves by starting the purchase process before we have the cash saved to make the purchase. I can’t purchase the car on the lot at this moment regardless of what is offered to me in the moment. Then my wife and I must evaluate all the vehicles on their merits instead of some “sale” that is offered.

Six Main Roads to Pre-Suasion

The final section of Pre-Suasion looks at the six main roads that Cialdini identifies that will cause us to take a desired action.

First up is reciprocation. If we feel we owe someone, we are more likely to say yes to them. This is why the local Chinese food restaurant in the food court offers tastes. You now owe them because of the taste and are more likely to purchase their food.

Second, is liking and is a counselling and sales tactic. In my counselling degree we were taught that you will create affinity with your client if you sit like them. Cialdini addresses the topic like this:

Similarities and compliments cause people to feel that you like them , and once they come to recognize that you like them, they’ll want to do business with you.

Third is social proof. If multiple others that are like you have results you want then you’re more likely to take the same actions they did. Labelling a meal as “most popular” on a menu will increase it’s sales. Showing testimonials of your clients will help others make a decision if they see themselves in the testimonials.

Authority is the fourth item that Cialdini addresses. This is when you speak at an event and people see you as an authority. They’re more likely to say yes to requests because they trust you based on your authority.

Next is scarcity, which is the always closing 24 hour sale we discussed earlier. We want what we can’t have.

In the consumer’s mind, any constraint on access increased the worth of what was being offered.

Finally we address consistency, which is the idea that people want to act like in ways that they view as consistent with their existing behaviour. I’ve read about one study that asked people to put a small political sign on their lawn then returned the next week to ask about a huge one. If you said yes to the small sign you were much more likely to say yes to the huge one than if you were just asked about the huge one up front.

The Ethical Question of Pre-suasion

At the end of the book Cialdini finally addresses the ethical implications of his work with this question:

Just because we can use psychological tactics to gain consent doesn’t mean we are entitled to them.

While many people are entirely fine with using possibly underhanded methods to make a sale, that doesn’t mean we have to be. Most of the business owners I know use some of them, but are firmly against tricking customers into a purchase. They genuinely want customers to get value out of their products and services and offer refunds if customers aren’t getting the value desired.

As a consumer, make good use of the if/when system Cialdini talked about so that you don’t succumb to saying yes, when you should say no. I’ll cover more of my rules for this in a future video on my YouTube channel.

The final point that Cialdini address as he looks at the ethics of Pre-Suasion is that doing things that people feel to be unethical takes a huge toll on them. He says it like this:

One recent analysis found the toll to be heavy on both personal and economic dimensions, as various kinds of occupational stress, when combined led annualy to about 120,000 deaths and $200 billion in additional health care expenses in the United States alone, where employers bear much of the financial burden.

As a business owner, you need to make sure that your staff are acting consistently with the ethics that they have. If you don’t make sure of this, then you’re going to have a high churn rate. Even worse, it’s going to cost you big time in sick time. You’re also going to have to live with the fact that you’re shortening the lives of your employees.

Should You Read Pre-Suasion by Robert Cialdini

While much of the information felt heavily marketer centric and a bit icky, there is so much in Pre-Suasion that can enhance the interactions we have with people around us. Take for instance that having you write down your appointment on an appointment card after you book it reduces missed appointments by 18%. You could extend that to taking the time to write down the names of the people you meet at a networking event so that you don’t forget them.

But, in the midst of the good, there is ample opportunity for abuse. In fact, coming on the heals of reading Digital Minimalism, and then reading Irresistible after, I was struck by how these tactics are used heavily in almost every interaction we have online.

If you’re looking to enhance your marketing endeavours, than Cialdini has some good tips for you. If you’re looking to increase your resistance to these same endeavours, Pre-suasion will help you recognize the tactics as they’re used on you.

Either way, Pre-Suasion is a decent interesting read. Not one of my top recommended books, but a decent book nonetheless.

Purchase Pre-Suasion on Amazon

Photo by: lievenvm


  1. For those that hate this idea, look at Digital Minimalism for methods to combat this technique in your next Netflix binge. 
  2. An always closing sale is one where once someone takes an action your system sends them a link to your product to purchase. Regardless of when they get the link they’ll have 24 hours to take advantage of some special pricing or extra product. Often they even include a countdown timer in big bold numbers to press the urgency of this “offer”. 

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