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Is persuasion really pot luck?

When the London team went into the Olympic bid pitch, seven years before London 2012 began, they weren’t expecting to win the Olympics. According to the press, Paris were clear leaders while London was trailing. Moscow, New York and Madrid were somewhere in the middle.

When the results were announced, of the 54 photographers poised to capture the celebrants, all but three were camped in front of Paris (the scuffles that erupted among them, as they attempted to get to the London team, made great TV).

So what changed? As then culture secretary Tessa Jowell put it, “We’ve come from nowhere to win the Olympics and that is quite something.” Something had shifted in the brains of the panel of Olympic judges casting the votes. Which begs a question this piece sets out to answer…

What is it that changes people’s thinking? What are the prompts that persuade and influence people to action?

Why, why, why?

Answers to that question are often based on looking around, on understanding what worked elsewhere. For example, if you start with a story, it seems to prompt response. The question I’ve asked is why? Why does some communication (written or spoken) stir and engage, while other attempts cause the audience (whether that’s the reader of an email, viewer of a film, partners sat chatting over food, audience listening to a key-note speech) to clock off?

There’s this region in the middle of your brain known as the limbic region – I call it the Centre Brain. It’s where action is prompted. The problem is that it’s subconscious. So, if I asked you why you decided to adopt that dog from a shelter, throw a coin in the cup of a homeless man, take your partner for dinner or go to the gym (or not), you can give me the reason, but you might struggle more to tell me the exact prompts that spoke to your subconscious action-stirring Centre Brain.

There are five prompts which trigger the Centre Brain. If you know them, and practise using them, then whether you’re in an interview, trying to convince your partner to come paintballing, or hoping to persuade whoever’s in charge that what you have in mind is a good idea, these prompts allow you to speak the language that their action-brain understands.

Of course, this doesn’t mean they will respond. But by giving them the choice in the language of the Centre Brain it prevents your ask going to the Outer Brain (neocortex) which delivers conclusions, not responses.

The 5 persuasion prompts

Prompt 1:

Start with why – and use that to make what (and how) interesting

If I tell you what I’m going to do this afternoon – visit the ruins of an old abbey – you’ll struggle to stay connected (unless your one of those few guys who find ancient ruins exciting). If I tell you that Tom Cruise was at those ruins three weeks ago, shooting a scene for The Mummy, released in June this year, and that a guy at the company I’m doing some work for (the company own all the land the ruins are on – they’re next to the offices) showed me a selfie of him and Tom Cruise at the ruins, and that Cruise is reportedly back for a final scene later today, then knowing why I’m going there makes the what suddenly more engaging to you.

Why speaks to everyone. Because it allows you to own it. You have your own connection with Tom Cruise, with blockbusters, with big-budget films, which make something you couldn’t care less about – the abbey ruins (unless you’re an ancient relics enthusiast) engaging.

Try it. The why is always there. You know it. But, because it’s stored in your subconscious brain, which doesn’t have words (words sit in the conscious brain), you’re less likely, instinctively, to go for the why first. Next time you’re trying to influence or persuade, don’t start with what, start with the why. That will give them a route into owning what it is you’re suggesting.

Answering the why is why London won the 2012 Olympic bid. Each city was invited to do a final presentation, including film, explaining why their city was the best location for the 2012 Olympics. The other cities all answered with what (you can see the films on Vimeo). What infrastructure their city could offer, what sort of friendly people and engaging culture they’d find, what sort of eating places, hotels, transport – and so on. New York had Spielberg make theirs. Paris had Besson direct theirs. London’s film didn’t show London at all and only mentioned the city name twice. It answered the question with a why. And said to the panel – here’s why London is the best location – because we will inspire the champions of tomorrow. It’s about young people. That’s why.

The votes reportedly jumped during the showing of that film. And London were the unexpected winners.

Prompt 2: 

Pictorialise your point 

Words are vehicles. When you read a great novel, your brain is pictoralising the images carried through the words. So much so that if you then see the film, it can feel uncomfortable being faced with a different visualisation to the one your brain created.

This happens because, while words are the primary language of your Outer (conscious) Brain (the bit which helps you reach conclusion – but doesn’t prompt action), pictures are the language of the Centre Brain.

Think of the room you woke up in this morning. Now think of Nelson Mandela. Now think about a table tennis table. You’re seeing pictures, not words, right?

The reason we often struggle to prompt action (“Great – let’s kick this off now. What can I do to get the wheels turning?”) and get stuck at conclusions (“yes – great idea. Let’s hold on to it and see if we can do anything with it, at any point”) is because we’ve forgotten to treat the words as vehicles, and instead ask them to simply explain the what and prompt response. They’re meant to carry the picture which the action-brain needs to stir it to act.

When Churchill spoke to the people of Britain, he didn’t talk about the what, but about the why (defending our country). And he used the words as vehicles to carry a picture. In his 1940 Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat speech, he painted a picture. It would have lodged in the bit of the brain (the Centre Brain) that doesn’t forget:

We shall defend our island whatever the cost. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.” 

If you’ve ever run into someone you’ve not seen for years and said (or thought), “I remember your face, but your name escapes me”, you’re experiencing the longevity of pictures over words in the brain. The Centre Brain stores pictures – faces – over long periods of time, while the Outer Brain will, comparatively, forget words – names – quickly. If you’re sowing an idea which might take time to take root, sow a picture. It will root in the Centre Brain of the person you’re trying to influence. They’ll begin to own it – as so many people owned Churchill’s picture, above. If you offer only words, descriptions of what you hope to do and by when, you’ll find it harder to make that take root. And it will be more quickly forgotten.

Prompt 3: 

Turn your message into an idea

Brands understand that it’s ideas, not messages and not products, that sell. Steve Jobs famously said, “Don’t sell products, sell dreams.”

Back in the 1970s, IBM had a stab at personal computers. Their mistake was to market them using the products to sell the product. In my work with organisations, the most common barrier they face to growth is one they’ve put in place themselves – they sell their product with their product. Watch a set of TV commercials. You’ll see every product wrapped in and presented through an idea.

IBM ads lacked an idea, instead carrying images of the machines themselves, with headlines pointing to the machines: “Presenting the IBM of personal computers”, and later, “Introducing the IBM personal system 2”.

Apple, when they emerged, also marketed personal computers. But not with the machine. They marketed the idea. In one classic Apple ad, there were no pictures of the product at all. No mention of the computers. In fact, just an idea: ‘Think Different’. The advert invited people not to buy the product, but to buy the dream, to embrace the vision to think differently.

Watch a set of TV ads and note down the idea – each ad will have one. And it will be in pictoral form and answer why you need that product. Ad guru David Ogilvy said that “Unless your campaign contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night”.

If you feel your attempts to persuade and influence pass like a ship in the night, then ask yourself whether you have turned your message into an idea. Ideas contain the answer to a problem – and create appetite for action. In The Centre Brain which is flagged at the end of this feature, there’s a section offering steps to help you turn your message into an idea.

Prompt 4: 

Contrast, contrast, contrast

Think of a situation you’ll be in, in the next week, with someone, or a group, or an invisible audience you’re writing for. Or, it may be you and your partner. When you put your ask to them, imagine, above their head, a set of weighing scales, with a bowl on each side. The Centre Brain makes decisions by weighing two options against each other. It always needs two, to contrast and weigh up.

What, then, happens when you make an ask and offer only one option? You decrease your chances of persuading. Why? Because their action-brain will need something to weigh your idea against. And if you don’t put something in the other side of their ‘scales’, then their brain will do it for you. And there’s a high chance it will be a “just say no”.

Jesus did this constantly. He didn’t just talk about building on rock, but on sand as the contrast. He didn’t just talk about seed falling on good soil and growing well, he contrasted it to the seed on rocky soil, withering. He picked the smallest of seeds – the mustard – and talked about how it could become the largest of trees. He talked about sheep – and goats. Strong men who, when bound up, became weak. He understood that outlining only one route gave the brain nothing to weigh it against and so he consistently offered contrast.

Your contrast doesn’t need to be the opposite – suggesting that doom and destruction await if they fail to take up your idea is likely to lead to a whole different sort of conversation. Instead, using the picture you’ve thought and exploring what the contrast looks like in that, may help find a good contrast. Or it may just be two different routes to reach the same destination.

Prompt 5: 

Emotional connection is oxygen

You and I, we’re emotionally connected to so many things.

Football is all about emotional connection. My three sons play in various Sunday league teams. And, depending on how the game is going, the emotional connection to the game can turn watching parents on the same side, who may barely know each other, into brothers and sisters. Or it can reveal a dark underbelly. One recent email from the league, sent to parents, laid out some new rules, instituted “because of a number of serious incidents and a whole host of ongoing issues with referees being intimidated…”

If you support a team, you’ll understand the significant part that your attendance and support plays, emotionally. The sense of shared identity, comradeship and connection is tangible.

When emotional connection is built, it will drive responses which may seem illogical to onlookers. Why buy that phone, when this one does the same job at half the price? It’s what Kevin Roberts calls “Loyalty beyond reason” and if you can create emotional connection, by being open, sometimes even vulnerable or honest about your unanswered questions on your idea, the emotional connection this births is the oxygen which will breathe life into the previous four prompts.

Charles Schulz said, “Life is like a ten-speed bicycle. Most of us have gears we never use.” I hope that if there are gears you’ve yet to experience in the persuasion game, that this feature might be useful in helping you find them.

The Centre Brain

The five prompts to persuasion 

Steve’s book, The Centre Brain (SPCK – available on Amazon) unpacks the five prompts, using stories and examples and includes a simple ‘system’ to help you apply the prompts to events, conversations and moments where being persuasive counts.

Link for pre-order: amazon.co.uk