The Single Most Important Factor For Persuasion

This blog was originally published on Forbes as The Single Most Important Factor For Persuasion on Tuesday, December 8, 2015.

An indisputable fact of life in every company, every industry, every vertical, every geography, is that sales people sell features when they should be selling benefits instead. This mistake is also chronic in presentations because presenters too often focus on their own message to the exclusion of their audiences, causing them to think: “Why should I care?” or “It’s all about you!”

Politicians fall into the same trap. A recent scientific study about persuasion in the political arena found that each side of the political spectrum tends to appeal only to the principles of their base and not to those of the opposition. Doing so not only fails to move any voters beyond those who are already-committed, it also drives the wide wedge in our polarized country ever deeper.

The latter problem is the equivalent of a presenter from a startup company pitching for financing only from an existing investor; or a sales person selling only to existing customers. The sales person thus gives up the possibility of gaining a new client or, better still, capturing a competitor’s customers.

One of my clients, a senior executive at a major telecom equipment company, learned that a potential client company he was pursuing decided to go with a competitor. He asked the client for one more chance to pitch. He began his presentation by complimenting the clients on their choice, listing the positive features of his competitor’s product. Then he stopped and said, “But…” and proceeded to list how his own company’s product features would better serve the client’s requirements. That’s a double down of the benefits.

He won the deal.

The authors of the scientific study described how politicians could double down their benefits in a recent New York Times article:

[W]e presented liberals and conservatives with one of two messages in support of same-sex marriage. One message emphasized the need for equal rights for same-sex couples. This is the sort of fairness-based message that liberals typically advance for same-sex marriage. It is framed in terms of a value — equality — that research has shown resonates more strongly among liberals than conservatives. The other message was designed to appeal to values of patriotism and group loyalty, which have been shown to resonate more with conservatives… Liberals showed the same support for same-sex marriage regardless of which message they encountered. But conservatives supported same-sex marriage significantly more if they read the patriotism message rather than the fairness one.

Clearly, tailoring benefits to each unique constituency produces a greater impact. This same approach is applicable to anyone attempting to convince anyone else to act; to vote, to buy, to invest, to approve, even to donate. Understand your audience. Who are they? What do they want? What are their fears, concerns, and hot buttons? Whether you are a salesperson, a presenter or a politician, make your answers to those questions an integral part of your message.

If politicians were to do that, it just might begin to bridge the gaping chasm that is now dividing our country.

This blog was originally published on Forbes as The Single Most Important Factor For Persuasion on Tuesday, December 8, 2015.