Persuasive communication

Beyond WIFM

One of the oldest ideas in selling is WIFM, or “What’s in it for me?”[1] It’s a great reminder that you should frame your persuasive message in terms of the other person’s self-interest. WIFM is enormously useful in persuasive communication, because it puts you into the outside-in thinking frame of mind, and forces you to consider your product or idea from the perspective of the person whose agreement you want. I love the idea of WIFM, and have used it for over two decades in my training classes.

But WIFM has limits; it does not always work, and it sometimes can even backfire on you, as illustrated in this story that Chip and Dan Heath tell in their book, Made to Stick: a marketer was testing messages to help sell a fire safety educational film to firefighters. He first asked fire units if they would like to review the film for their educational programs, and the replies were enthusiastically positive. Then, he asked them if they would prefer a popcorn popper or a set of steak knives for reviewing the film. The general response was “Do you think we’d use a fire safety program because of some #*$@! popcorn popper?!”[2]

The problem is that we are often wrong about others’ motivations. Clearly, people do consider their own self-interest when they make choices or decisions, but research has shown that we overestimate to what extent. First, consider your own motivations: how often do you consider other factors besides your own self-interest when making a decision, such as whether it’s good for the company you work for, or it’s just the right thing to do? Next, ask the same question with regard to others.

Chances are, the answer to the second question was much higher than the answer to the first. As to ourselves, we know that our motivations are a mixture of narrow self-interest—extrinsic rewards—and intrinsic rewards such as feeling good about ourselves, doing something worthwhile or meaningful, personal growth, etc. But when we think about others, we overestimate their reliance on “selfish” extrinsic rewards.[3]

This is not about logic vs. emotion, although that does tie into it. It’s about what behavioral economist Richard Thaler calls “bounded self-interest”—there are limits to WIFM. It is not the only driver of decisions.

So what? How does it affect our persuasive approach? We may leave a lot of motivational oomph on the table when we over-rely on WIFM. We use the hammer of WIFM to nail down measurable personal benefits, while ignoring other paths to agreement. We hang out at the lower levels of Maslow’s pyramid when there are better benefits and reasons at the higher levels of belong, esteem, and self-actualization. Higher levels of motivation bring powerful emotions on board, which help with commitment and not just compliance.

It’s not time to get rid of WIFM, but it’s a good idea to add other tools. The first is WIFU, or “what’s in it for us?” Many people will do things for the good of the group they belong to, even when it carries a personal cost to themselves. Asking this question in addition to WIFM, will enable you tap into higher motivations. And, even if the other person’s real motive is self-serving, you can at least give them cover to help them rationalize their decision to others.

You can also appeal to how they see themselves. If you can tie your idea to a higher purpose, perhaps their personal or corporate values, or to their professional identity, you can make them not just better off, but proud. How can you make it the kind of decision that the other person would be proud to go home and tell his family about?[4]

Besides our mental bias of overestimating others’ cynicism, I believe we over-rely on WIFM because it’s easier. It’s easy and socially acceptable to have a conversation with someone about their economic and business motivations, but it’s hard—and potentially risky—to dig deeper into their personal motivations. It’s easy to assume that someone in procurement, for example, is motivated mostly by price discounts; what’s hard is to understand him or her as a real person with fears, emotions, aspirations and pride.

But in order to go beyond WIFM effectively, you need to change your conversations and your questions, to try to either specifically find out what drives the other person, or to tease out their intrinsic motivators. If you think you haven’t yet earned the right to ask such personal questions, listen carefully for hints in their conversation, and then probe further into those and steer the conversation in that direction.

I am definitely not recommending that you drop WIFM from your persuasive toolkit; it’s probably still the most important tool you have. But, as the Heaths say, “Always structuring our ideas around self-interest is like always painting with one color.”

Go beyond WIFM—and tap into the rich rainbow of human motivation.[5]

[1] Purists call it the WIIFM.

[2] Made to Stick, Chip Heath and Dan Heath, p. 187-188. P.S. I just realized this is at least the third time I’ve used this example in my blogs; maybe it’s time to find another?

[3] Perspective Taking: Misstepping into Others’ Shoes, Nicholas Epley and Eugene M. Caruso.

[4] This is not just a sales idea; it’s a fundamental leadership idea. I highly recommend Why Pride Matters More than Money, by Jon R. Katzenbach.

[5] Heath and Heath, p. 191.

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September 25, 2012

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