Gauging from what’s happening in politics this season, fact-based persuasion has gone woefully out of style. And it’s not just politics—one of the most common themes in the sales and persuasion blogosphere is that emotion rules persuasion. You don’t need to have a detailed grasp of the facts to make your case, because anyone can look up the details. Impressions and emotions sway decisions, numbers and details simply bore people.
But when you tear yourself away from a computer screen and pay attention to what’s happening in the real world, it’s clear that having a deep command of the facts—and being able to speak them at the rate of normal conversation without having to use your slides as a crutch—still has tremendous persuasive power. In fact, when everyone else is relying on vague, unsupported emotional appeals, those who state their case calmly, but with airtight confidence based on a tenacious grasp of the evidence, can stand out because hardly anyone does it anymore.
I’ve seen this phenomenon repeatedly over the past several months, as I’ve been involved with a group that has been fighting a battle against overdevelopment in my city. Our little band of dissidents lacks the money or influence that the developers and politicians have, and we’ve learned the hard way that emotional appeals at City Commission meetings are simply ignored. But we’ve also figured out that we can get attention by carefully researching the issues and backing up everything we say.
We’ve also learned that nothing is drier than too many numbers in a presentation, right? Actually, I’ve seen that if done correctly, rattling off a series of numbers from memory can have an enormous impact on the minds of your listeners. Paul, a member of our group, is a master at this. When we met with the editorial board of our local paper to make our case, Paul began explaining the public safety impact that the project would have, citing numbers such as response times, traffic delays, number of incidents, etc. Halfway through his spiel the paper’s editor interrupted and said: “You have an amazing grasp of the numbers!” That’s when I knew we had made our point.
In another public meeting, Paul’s detailed analysis of the weaknesses in the developer’s traffic study was so devastating that when the traffic expert tried to rebut his testimony, every time she mentioned a number, she looked at him as if she needed approval.
These examples point out another benefit of fact-based persuasion. When people are already emotionally invested in their own opinion on a matter, it’s extremely difficult to change their minds with an emotional appeal; they will simply dig an and defend their point of view even harder. Even if they agree with you, conceding your point may make them lose face. But if confronted with irrefutable facts, this “new information” gives them an honorable way out of their position, and they can show themselves to be reasonable people by changing their minds. This is especially important if you’re challenging those who are more powerful; a torrent of facts can be your best protection and surest way to succeed.
There is one key to keep in mind if you want to use details to impress and not to simply bore people. State the bottom line up front and then support it with numbers. As John Medina says in his book, Brain Rules: “Meaning before detail.” People will lose interest if they don’t know what your point is right away. When they grasp the meaning, they can much more easily pay attention to and absorb the necessary detail.
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. 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.
- 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.
- It makes you look smart. Research by Theresa Amabile demonstrated that negative reviewers are seen as more intelligent than positive reviewers, for example.
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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?
 You will have to read his book to find out why.
I’ve been very worried about the state of American democracy recently. I see the general quality of the candidates for President and wonder if this is the best we can do. I hear the tone and content of their public speaking, and marvel at how dumbed-down and personal it has become.
But last night, I had a reminder that American democracy doesn’t just take place every four years in a circus side-show; it takes place every day at the state and local level as well, help and I’m happy to say that my experience with it last night makes me feel a bit better about the state of American politics, and the general intelligence and public speaking skill of the average citizen when they talk about things that directly affect their daily lives.
I attended a Fort Lauderdale City Commission meeting specifically to speak against a development proposal that was up for a vote. The meeting room was packed with roughly 200 people, with an overflow crowd accommodated on another floor. Anyone who wanted to speak could register their name and be put into a queue.
And what a queue it was. No exact figures were released, but certainly well above 100 people signed up to speak. Those of us speaking were granted 3 minutes each. My wife got called past midnight, and I finally got my turn past 1am. (In true lean fashion, I only used 2 of my allotted 3 minutes.)
We finally left after almost 8 hours in the meeting, and it still was not over and the room was still substantially filled with people either waiting their turn or listening to the speakers. I can’t believe I spent almost a full work-day equivalent, but it was not a chore at all. I was fascinated by the entire process and came away with a few observations about the state of public speaking and democracy in America:
Although passions ran high—especially among the anti-project side—for the most part every speaker avoided ad hominem attacks or a strident tone. They were able to argue for their own side with both cogency and conviction without explicitly tearing down the other side. The incivility and incoherence at the national level has thankfully not yet trickled down to the local level.
I got the impression that “expert” speakers get paid by the word.
I was pleasantly surprised by the general quality of the ordinary citizen’s public speaking skills. The area of the city under discussion is generally affluent and well-educated, so this may have been a factor, but in general I rated them higher than some of the business audiences I face regularly.
I know a lot of the speakers had stage fright, but it was astounding to see how many confronted their own fear and went ahead anyway.
Although I’m not generally a fan of reading speeches, it’s a good idea if you’re not experienced. Those who read their own prepared remarks had clear messages while still being able to convey their authentic feelings.
One concern I had was how few young people attended. I don’t know if it’s because the topic is not one they care too much about, or a more general lack of interest in the political process.
The most impressive thing to me about last night’s meeting was the fact that so many people signed up to speak. It shows that people in America still believe their voice counts. At least at the retail level of politics, they can speak directly to their elected representatives and sway their opinions. In fact, in the end we did sway their opinions: they did not approve the developer’s plans. It’s an exhilarating feeling to participate and to make a difference, which is why I love public speaking so passionately.
If we can get that spirit to trickle up to the national level, the state of American democracy will be just fine.
Last week, my church brought in a guest pastor from out of state who delivered a technically perfect sermon. Her message was strong and well-organized, she had great stories, her delivery was enthusiastic with excellent vocal variety and gestures that perfectly choreographed with her key points.
And I didn’t care for it at all. There was something missing. The message made sense intellectually, but I wasn’t touched at all on a personal level. She did not connect with me; she did not tap into a feeling that I could relate to.
Similarly, I watched the presidential debates last night, and one candidate in particular piqued my professional admiration for his technique—but quite frankly he also gives me the creeps. That’s because I can’t tell whether he actually believes or feels what’s coming out of his mouth.
As I analyzed why I reacted this way to both of these examples, my first thought is that too much perfection is a bad thing. But as I reflected further, I don’t think it’s that. After all, Churchill, King and Reagan were also technically perfect, and they deeply touched millions.
I believe the pastor and the candidate missed the mark for two different reasons. The first can be cured with hard work, the second is probably terminal.
I think the pastor truly believed in her message, and genuinely cared about whether the audience benefited from it. Her intentions were pure, but she fell short in her technique. It wasn’t too perfect, it was just one step shy of perfection. Perfection is not only doing everything just right, but making it seem so effortless that it doesn’t call attention to itself. She gave off the impression that she was so proud of her skill that she wanted everyone else to notice it. The problem with that is that she succeeded: I was so busy watching the performance that I missed the message.
That can be cured by working on the technique even more, and getting it to the point where it’s truly unconscious and effortless competence. Here’s a practical example: most people don’t realize it, but natural gestures actually precede the words they support by a few milliseconds. When people are thinking about the gesture they want to use, it comes out at the same time as the words. The difference is so minuscule that we don’t consciously notice it, but something in our minds registers that it’s not right. So, how do trained actors get away with it? They “become” the person they’re portraying, and it becomes real. When you’re so good that it’s a part of who you are, the real you can come through, and that’s where connection begins.
The second reason is less about technique and more about character, which is why it might be terminal. Besides working on their craft over decades, the great speakers had something else that all the practice in the world won’t give you: they started from a place of genuine conviction and feeling and then honed their craft to improve their delivery. They did not work on delivery for its own sake. One got the sense that they cared how their message affected the listener, not how their delivery made them look. Reagan actually alluded to this when he said, “In all of that time I won a nickname, ‘The Great Communicator.’ But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: It was the content. I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things…”
I am not against working on your style and delivery—after all, I make a living by helping people improve on those things. But I am against working only on style and delivery; I am against thinking that outer perfection can make up for inner conviction. If you don’t truly believe in your message, if you don’t truly believe that the product you are selling will help your listener, there is no amount of technical perfection that will help you in the long run.