Analogies Are the Power Tools of Persuasion

October 14th, 2014

shortcut book coverIf you’re looking to make your persuasive communications more effective and efficient, a powerful tool is to master the use of analogy, as explained in a delightful book: Shortcut: How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation, and Sell Our Greatest Ideasby John Pollack.

Analogies are like the water that surrounds a fish: we don’t notice them but they are essential to the way we think and communicate. But it’s helpful to pay attention to analogies because they are powerful tools for persuasive communication; they’re essential to the way we think, learn, and react to new information.

Analogies work because our brains are hardwired to learn from experience and to make judgments with as little hard thinking as we can get away with. As we gain experience in the world, we build mental models of what works or doesn’t work, and what is good or bad. So whenever we encounter new information, we try to make sense of it by comparing it to something familiar. In essence, we choose an appropriate analogy from our vast internal database—usually instantly and unconsciously—and that colors how we react to the new information. Because there can be many familiar situations that might apply, the persuader who chooses the analogy for us creates an easy shortcut for us to take. An astute persuader chooses the best analogy; he does not leave the choice up to the recipient.

According to Pollack, there are five ways that analogies affect the persuasiveness of your ideas:

  1. Like a native guide in a strange land, they use the familiar to explain the unfamiliar. This is the most obvious function of analogy, and it’s particularly useful in reducing the perceived risk of new ideas.
  2. Like magicians who direct your attention for maximum effect, they highlight some things and hide others. They help you frame your message in the best possible light.
  3. They identify useful abstractions and make them concrete so that we can grasp and remember them easier. When FDR faced the difficult task of selling the American people on providing aid to Britain through Lend-Lease, he compared it to lending your neighbors your garden hose when their house is on fire.
  4. They tell a coherent story. In fact, an analogy is a distilled form of a story, and most stories are just extended analogies.
  5. They resonate emotionally. The feelings associated with the familiar transfer over to the new.

Analogies are subtle; they’re like the spoonful of sugar which makes it easier to swallow a difficult message—they help you bypass the normal reaction that people have against being told what to do. Analogies are vivid, which helps people remember your key points later on when they use the information you’ve provided to make their decision.

Most of all, analogies are powerful; once they’ve taken hold, they’re difficult to eradicate. It’s true that people who disagree with you may dispute your analogy, but there is definitely a first-mover advantage: if the analogy resonates, it’s difficult to fight it, even when they can point out flaws. An excellent example described in the book was used by John Roberts during his Senate hearings when he was nominated for Chief Justice. Roberts knew that Democratic Senators would challenge his fairness, so he opened by comparing himself to a baseball umpire; his point was that an umpire does not make the rules, he enforces them, and he does so fairly and impartially. Although then-Senator Biden pointed out that as Chief Justice, he would in fact be the one making the rules, the analogy had already taken hold. (If your opponent gets their analogy out first, it’s usually not enough to refute it. You have to fight fire with fire and come up with a better analogy of your own.)

The John Roberts example is just one of dozens that Pollack recounts in the book and which make it a pleasure to read. Read this book and you will be better able to tap into hidden superpowers of persuasion you might not even know you have.

The Complete Sales Trainer

October 6th, 2014
The deeper you go, the more you get

The deeper you go, the more you get

I’ve been in the sales training business for just over 23 years now, and before that, I was a certified internal trainer for another company’s sales methodology. During that time, I’ve grown in my profession and have also had the opportunity to observe many other trainers in action, so I’ve learned a bit about what it takes to be a successful sales trainer.

Having also done a fair bit of training to non-sales audiences, I can confidently state that while much of this article applies to training in general, salespeople present their own special challenges. Being quota-driven, they are looking for immediate practical application; they are high-energy and find it hard to sit still for very long; above all, they place a high premium on the personal credibility of the trainer.

To succeed with them, a complete sales trainer has to master several roles to deal with the diversity and complexity of the situations he or she will encounter along the way.

Presenter: Just presenting the material is the first step. I began my career working for a firm that taught its own proprietary sales process for the complex sale. My first time in front of a live audience was in Toronto in front of 60 computer systems salespeople. I was terrified before going out, because I knew they had much more experience in complex B2B sales than I did, but my boss reassured me that I knew the content cold, and as long as I stuck just to that, I would be alright. That’s what I did, and fortunately for the client, we had other trainers in the room who could go beyond that in the workshops.

A presenter is like a stealth bomber, happy just to get the payload delivered without taking any hits. Actual learning is just a nice byproduct; the test of a presenter is whether the audience heard and saw all the necessary material.

Teacher: Although competently delivering the material is essential, a teacher goes beyond getting the content out; she makes sure the students actually learn the material, by questioning and assessing performance. The teacher pays attention to students to see if they’re getting it, and explains differently or backtracks if they’re not. Teachers tailor their language and their examples to the students’ circumstances. They provide content and meaning.

Teachers succeed when their students retain the key points. To quote…”You haven’t taught until they’ve learned.”

Coach: If teachers are wholesale, coaches are retail. They can work with each individual student and bring out their best learning and performance. Coaches know what it’s like not to know what they know, what it’s like to struggle with applying new concepts to familiar situations. They can realistically play the part of a customer during a role play and dial the difficulty up or down as needed. This is especially important because sales skills are squishy—no formula survives for long when applied to diverse, often unpredictable and uncooperative customers.

Coaches succeed when their students can retain and transfer their new knowledge and skills outside the classroom, in the real world.

Salesperson: Salespeople can be either the worst or the best students a trainer can have. They can be the worst because they know they are investing expensive time out of the field to be sitting in a class, so if they don’t see value, they will tune you out or fight you. You have to sell them early if you want to survive. But if you can sell them on the need for the concepts and skills you’re teaching, they will be the most engaged of all possible students.

A sales trainer who is a good salesperson can also be a great role model. Sales trainers who sell their own materialhave an advantage; they have to practice the same techniques in order to earn the right to be in front of the class. For experienced sales teams, this is especially important. It’s even more powerful when you can show them your own skill: you might take a stab at wording someone’s value proposition, or at answering a specific objection. When you can do this well, there is no greater compliment than having someone ask you if you can go on the call with them!

Success as a salesperson comes when students want to emulate you.

Student: You need to begin as a student to become a sales trainer in the first place, but through it all, you must continue to be a student. It’s a way to keep getting better, to keep up with changes and the latest research in selling, and to stay fresh. Most importantly, you must strive to learn something from the students who come through your classes.

Students succeed when they pick something up which they can apply and pass on to future students.

Deliverer, teacher, coach, salesperson, student: these are not separate roles. They are steps on the ladder to effective sales training, and different layers of skill that unfold with experience and also come out as needed in the classroom. Without some competence in each of these roles, sales training will not and cannot be as effective as it could be.

Joshua Wong and the Power of Speaking Up

October 2nd, 2014

One man with courage makes a majority

One man with courage makes a majority

Whether the current protests in Hong Kong turn out to be a flash in the pan that is soon squelched and forgotten, or explode into a major challenge to the Chinese government, is impossible to tell at this point. But one thing is certain, they have captured much of the world’s attention.

Improbably enough, one of the main leaders of the protests is a skinny 17-year-old kid with geeky glasses, Joshua Wong. As this article in today’s New York Times tells it, He has “been at the center of the democracy movement that has rattled the Chinese government’s hold on this city”. Ironically, at his young age Wong is already a veteran activist, who gained prominence at age 14(!) for founding a movement to fight—and defeat—the “patriotic education” that Beijing wanted to impose in Hong Kong’s schools.

I fervently hope that Joshua comes out of this alright. He has already been arrested for two days, and his fate realistically rests in the decisions of a few powerful men in Beijing.

But he has shown the incredible influence that anyone can command if they have the courage to speak out.

He has shown that leadership doesn’t have an age limit.

He has shown that leadership is not something that has to be given to you by the authorities.

How many 17-year-olds do you know that would have the courage to get up to speak in front of thousands of people, especially when stage fright may be the least of his worries? Have you ever had an idea but didn’t want to make waves? Have you ever seen an injustice but decided to go with the flow? I know I have; we probably all have. I’m just thankful that the world has people who can show us a better way.

Book Recommendation: Curious, by Ian Leslie

September 29th, 2014

curiousPiggybacking off last week’s article about personal renewal and the importance of staying curious, I would like to recommend Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It. Why should a blog dedicated to persuasive communication care about a book on curiosity? I guess you’ll have to read the rest of this to find out…

For starters, being curious makes you easier to talk to. Actually caring enough to want to know about the other person is what gets us to ask questions and thus use our ears more than our mouths. Curiosity focuses attention and shows caring… If you want to be interesting to other people, show an interest in them; when you’re curious about them, and about the things that they care about, you will find that they will talk to you at length.

That’s called empathic curiosity, by the way, and it’s one of the three forms of curiosity that Leslie describes in his book.

Empathic curiosity is a key quality for successful salespeople as well. It’s the central ingredient in outside-in thinking, in which you strive to get what you want by helping the other person get what they want. You can find out a lot about the other person because it’s part of your job, or you can be intrinsically curious about who they are and what makes them tick—and people can tell the difference.

Besides showing you care, your curiosity is what prompts you not to accept the easy, surface answers, and to dig deeper into situations—to ask why with the tenacity of a four-year-old until you get to the real issues. This can be extremely useful in consultative selling, and especially in negotiations, where the ability to understand others’ perspectives can help uncover their true interests behind their declared positions.

Persuasion also depends to a large extent on having something useful or important to say, and that requires a mind filled with knowledge about the world, which you can only get if you are truly and deeply curious about how things work and how people think. This is called epistemic curiosity, and it’s the mechanism that drives us to learn for the sake of learning. Epistemic curiosity built our modern world because it led humans to explore outside the safety of their fire, to sail out of sight of land, and to question what the authorities called wisdom.

Epistemic curiosity is what the book is mostly about. It’s what drives us to dig deep into the details and nuances of a topic. The big difference between epistemic curiosity and the shallower sort is that it requires effort, and that effort is repaid through deeper learning and greater understanding. Of course, when you’re truly curious, the effort is not work, it is joy. It’s also curiosity with a specific direction, where you are in control of your own effort and learning, not pulled along by the latest shiny distraction that comes your way.

However, curiosity is not all good. While it may not kill you, it can certainly kill your productivity. The form of curiosity that fills your otherwise productive time is diversive curiosity, and unfortunately it’s probably the most common. It’s what attracts us to novelty; it’s shallow and strives for instant gratification. Unlike epistemic curiosity, diversive curiosity controls you. As Leslie tells us, imagine what you would tell someone from fifty years ago about the future:

“I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers.”

It doesn’t have to be that way. The internet can make you smarter or dumber, depending on how you use it. Be careful what you put in your mind. Just as you are what you eat; you are what you read.

Curious is a fascinating blend of history and science. Chapter 2 explores the development—or lack thereof—of curiosity in children. Kids ask up to 100 questions per hour. Until about 30 months, their questions focus on what and where, and then they move on to why and how questions. Curiosity continues to flourish when adults answer the question and engage them with questions of their own, and dies when they don’t.

For me, the best chapter is the one in which Leslie demolishes the trendy idea that we don’t have to learn anything deeply anymore because we can Google it. We’re told that it’s more important to think critically and be creative than to stuff our minds with facts. The problem is that critical thinking and creativity require a deep database, because that’s the only way our mind can make the meaningful connections. In his words, ”Creativity starts in combination”, and you need a lot of useful information in your mind to make the necessary combinations.

Today we’re in the Age of Answers. The thing about Google is that it is very good at finding answers to things you specifically want to know, but it’s terrible at helping you stumble across things you don’t even know yet that you want to know more about.

The benefit of building your store of knowledge is why, according to recent research cited in this book, curiosity may be as important to success as intelligence and grit. It provides the intrinsic motivation to learn that keeps you engaged. To the curious, every day and every encounter is a new opportunity for growth.

Fortunately, curiosity is a state, not a trait. This means you can increase your general level of curiosity. Leslie provides seven suggestions.

7 ways to stay curious:

Stay foolish: don’t let success quench your curiosity.

Build the database: Facts are not separate bits of knowledge, they are nodes in a network of knowledge. “knowledge loves knowledge”.

Forage like a foxhog: Is it better to have deep or broad knowledge? Leslie’s take on the comparisons between hedgehogs and foxes is that you need t-shaped knowledge: deep in one area combined with breadth.

Ask the big Why. Understanding others’ motivations will make you a better negotiator and influencer.

Be a thinkerer. Ideas are nothing without hard work to make them come to fruition. Thinking and action have to go together, so you need both the big picture and the small details.

Question your teaspoons. Anything can be interesting if you study it closely enough.

Turn puzzles into mysteries. Turn puzzles into mysteries. Puzzles can lose their interest when solved. Mysteries can intrigue forever.


Well-researched and well-written, Curious is a fascinating book, which I strongly recommend[1].



[1] The only thing I did not like is the poor quality of the citations, because they make it difficult for those of us who are curious to dig even deeper into the topic.