Persuasive communication

You Probably Should Not Read This

I can think of several good reasons you should not read this post. Of all my ideas for helping you be more persuasive, this may be the craziest one yet. Plus, it takes a lot of skill and confidence to even try to pull it off, and if you screw it up, it will definitely backfire on you.

I’ve actually thought this for a long time, because I’ve seen how it works in my own sales efforts, but I’ve held off on writing a post about this because of the very real concerns I listed above. But Adam Grant wrote about it in his book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, and his evidence for the effectiveness of the tactic is what gives me the confidence to finally roll it out to the world.

I call it unselling, and Grant calls it the Sarick Effect.[1] It’s an approach that involves telling people right up front all the reasons they should not accept your idea—getting all the negatives out on the table right away. When it’s done right, it can be an extremely powerful way to a) get agreement and b) sustain that agreement. In his book, Grant relates the story of Rufus Griscom of Babble, who began his 2009 pitch to potential investors with a slide telling them five reasons not to invest. He walked away with $3.3 million. Two years later, he pitched Disney and told them why buying his company was a bad idea. They bought it for $40 million.

I’ve had the same experience myself many times in my selling career. I’ve used unselling in several different ways, one of which I will share here. When a company approaches me about sales training, I sometimes push back on the premise that sales training is truly what they need. I question whether they might not need to look at their compensation structure or their sales strategies or even hiring practices before investing in training their sales force. Invariably, they start telling me all the reasons they’re convinced that sales training is exactly what they need.

Why does it work? Here are seven reasons. The first four are Grant’s reasons. While I agree with his reasons, I’ve added three more reasons of my own.

  1. Leading off with your negatives disarms the audience, which naturally has its defensive shields up expecting to be sold. If people are initially opposed to your idea, your first task is to get them to at least listen.
  2. It makes you look smart. Research by Theresa Amabile demonstrated that negative reviewers are seen as more intelligent than positive reviewers, for example.
  3. It makes you trustworthy. Not only does it make you seem more honest, it actually does your listeners a favor. Griscom says, “The job of the investor is to figure out what’s wrong with the company. By telling them what’s wrong with the business model, I’m doing some of the work for them.”
  4. By doing the work for them, it makes it harder for them to think of additional weaknesses, which makes it intuitively more reasonable that there are no other weaknesses. It’s what Daniel Kahneman calls WYSIATI: “What you see is all there is.”
  5. It accords with the preferences of an educated and intelligent audience, who prefer two-sided arguments. If you notice, almost all of the opinion pieces in The Economist are written this way. They first cite the reasons against their position before making what they consider to be the stronger case. (You’ll notice that’s not the approach politicians take during debates—which speaks loud and clear what they think about the intelligence of the average voter.)
  6. It harnesses the power of reactance. When people feel you are trying to impose your reasoning on them, it’s an attack against their freedom of choice, and they respond just like a two-year-old. So, they will start coming up with reasons to refute your reasoning, and that’s a good thing.
  7. It takes away ownership of the negative reasons. If you’re listening to a pitch and you think of a good reason not to buy, that reason is your own because you thought of it, and you are much more likely to defend it against all argument. If someone else thinks of it, you may be less likely to cling to it.

So, there are very good reasons to unsell. But the reasons against it that I cited in the opening paragraph are also true, so if you decide to try it, there are some important points to keep in mind. First, the reasons you give against your idea have to be reasonable. If they’re just transparently strawman arguments, a smart audience will see right through them and the tactic will backfire. Second, they should be reasons the audience would reasonably have thought of on their own; no need to give them free ammunition. Finally, of course, be absolutely certain your positives outweigh your negatives.

Does unselling work? You’ve made it this far, so what do you think?

[1] You will have to read his book to find out why.

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  • Watson

    Great article, and I absolutely agree. I’ve actually used this technique extensively since the majority of my job involves selling ideas to skeptical or even outright hostile audiences. Done right it works well and deftly side-steps the us vs. them dichotomy. It conveys the message, “We’re all trying to figure out what best to do in a complicated situation, and you have some valid concerns about what I’m presenting. I just happen to be right in this instance for the following reasons.”

  • Good stuff, as usual, Jack!

    I think the most important point in your article above is your point on trustworthiness. As someone who likes the “salesperson-as-trusted-advisor” model, I think presenting both the pros and cons to potential clients helps to build long-term relationships with others while also making the world a better (i.e., a more honest and forthcoming) place. Bravo!

  • Brilliant advice for those of us in regular conversations with clients and prospects. For that matter, these techniques might even help our to negotiate a family matter! Great stuff Jack.

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