As a kind of secret agent, I would infiltrate training programs dedicated to getting us to say yes. For almost three years, I recorded the lessons taught to aspiring salespeople, marketers, advertisers, fund-raisers, and recruiters. My intent was to find out which practices worked time after time. So I answered various organizations’ ads for trainees and arranged to be present in their classrooms, notebook in hand, ready to absorb the wisdom they’d gained from long experience in the business of persuasion.

In sales training programs, trainees were often allowed to accompany and observe an old pro conducting business. I always jumped at those opportunities because I wanted to see if I could register what the best salespeople did to succeed. One such practice quickly surfaced that shook my assumptions. I’d expected that the aces of the sales profession would spend more time than the inferior performers developing the specifics of their requests — the clarity, logic, and desirable features of them. That’s not what I found.


The highest achievers spent more time crafting what they did and said before making a proposal or request. They set about their mission as skilled gardeners who know that even the finest seeds will not take root in poorly prepared ground. Of course the best sales performers also considered and cared about what, specifically, they would offer in those situations. But much more than their less effective colleagues, they didn’t rely on the legitimate merits of an offer to get it accepted; they recognized that the psychological frame in which an appeal is first placed can carry equal or even greater weight. They did something that gave them a special kind of persuasive traction: Before sending a message, they arranged to make their audience open to it.

There’s a critical insight in all this for salespeople who want to learn to be more influential. The best persuaders become the best through pre-suasion—the process of arranging for recipients to be receptive to a message before they encounter it.To persuade optimally, then, it’s necessary to pre-suade optimally.

How skilled are you at pre-suasion?

Consider the following five scenarios and answer each question to discover your own skills in influencing and persuading:

1. Researchers approached people and asked if they’d be willing to provide an email address so they could receive information on how to get a brand new type of soft drink. Under these circumstances, only 33%% agreed. But, for a second sample, the researchers added one more sentence to the request, and agreement jumped to 75%. What do you think it was?

a. Before describing the new soft drink, the researchers asked, “Do you consider yourself an adventurous person who likes to try new things?
b. While describing the soft drink, the researchers said, “We think you’ll love it.”
c. While describing the soft drink, the researchers said, “It’s done very well in taste tests.”

Answer: a. Why did this sentence work so well? When asked pre-suasively (that is, before the request) if they were adventurous, nearly everyone answered yes. Then, when the request occurred, most agreed to participate in order to be consistent with the recently registered idea of themselves as adventurous people. What’s the implication for sales? Whenever you have something new to offer, first ask customers about their adventurous side. This even worked when the adventurousness question was asked at the top of a written message for a new product, nearly doubling success.

2. An online furniture store that specializes in sofas sent half of its visitors to a site landing page that depicted fluffy clouds on the background wallpaper; the other half of the visitors were sent to a site with a landing page that depicted pennies in the background. What happened?

a. Those seeing clouds preferred comfortable sofas for purchase.
b. Those seeing pennies preferred low price sofas for purchases.
c. Both a and b occurred.

Answer: c. Simply directing visitors’ initial attention to clouds (which are associated with comfort) made them see comfort as a more important reason for purchase, whereas directing their initial attention to pennies (which are associated with low price) made them see cost as more important. Remarkably, most visitors had no awareness of having been influenced by the clouds or the pennies in any way. Therefore, we should be sure that the background wallpaper of our website has imagery related to our greatest strength—comfort, cost, experience, safety, durability, speed—whatever it may be.

3. Albert Einstein proclaimed as “the most beautiful thing we can experience” what one thing?

a. The mysterious
b. The mind
c. Art

Answer: a. Why? Mysteries begin the process of exploration (that, for Einstein, was a beautiful thing). There’s an implication for persuasion: A salesperson who begins a message by posing a mystery, spurs customers to begin an exploration of the message content, including its details, so as to resolve the mystery. This process is often exactly what salespeople need to get their detailed points across properly. So, consider starting a sales presentation with a puzzle to be solved such as “Why do you think it might be that after only X years in business, we’ve outpaced our more established rivals?” or “Last year, we rose to the top in consumer satisfaction ratings for one big reason. Any idea what it was?”

4. Diners at Chinese restaurants became significantly more like to order menu items if the managers changed one thing about how the items were labeled. What was it?

a. The dishes were described as “chef’s specials” for the day.
b. The dishes were described as “most popular” on the menu.
c. The dishes were listed as slightly less expensive than before.

Answer b. In keeping with the principle of social proof, people often think it is wise for them to do something if they are given initial evidence that a lot of others have been doing it. In the case of these restaurants, such social proof increased the popularity of the items by 13% to 20% in a way that was simple, costless, and honest — yet never employed previously in those (or many other) restaurants. In sales, we all have most popular models or opinions. We’d be fools of the influence process if we failed to identify their popularity upfront for customers, which gives them a reason to stop searching and choose.

5. Visitors to a fast-food restaurant were greeted warmly as they entered by the manager and ushered to the counter where they could place an order. Other visitors were also greeted warmly and, in addition, were given a gift by the manager—either a cup of yogurt or a nice key chain. Which of these types of visitors then ordered the most food? Those given:

a. the yogurt
b. the key chain
c. no gift, just the warm greeting

Answer: a. According to the social rule for reciprocation, people feel obligated to give back to those who have first given to them, especially if what they received was designed to meet their particular needs. After all, visitors went to the restaurant because they were hungry. An upfront gift of food to hungry individuals not only activated the rule for reciprocation, it activated a more obligating version. Those receiving the key chain purchased 12% more food than those who were just greeted warmly, whereas those receiving the yogurt purchased 24% more! The lesson: Carefully select beforehand the gifts you give to customers so that they meet customers’ immediate needs and challenges. The customers will then give back to you at the highest levels.

Persuasion has always been a part of the sales process. A scant few salespeople — those at the very top — have recognized that pre-suasion is a powerful way to elevate persuasive success. They understand that, for maximum impact, it’s not only what you do; it’s also what you do just before you do what you do.