8.4: Persuasive Messages

Learning Objectives

Target icon2. Organize and write persuasive messages

i. Outline the structure of a persuasive message
ii. Explain the importance of persuasion in professional contexts

Persuasion involves moving or motivating your audience by presenting arguments that convince them to adopt your view or do as you want. You’ve been doing this ever since you learned to speak. From convincing your parents to give you a treat to persuading them to lend you the car keys, you’ve developed more sophisticated means of persuasion over the years simply because of the rewards that come with their success. Now that you’ve entered (or will soon enter) the professional world, honing persuasive strategies for the workplace is vital to your livelihood when the reward is a sale, a promotion, or merely a regular paycheque.

Persuasion begins with motivation. If persuasion is a process and your audience’s action (e.g., buying a product or service) is the goal, then motivating them to accept an argument or a series of positions leading to the decision that you want them to adopt helps achieve that goal. If your goal is to convince a pet owner to spay or neuter their pet, for instance, you would use a few convincing arguments compelling them to accept that spaying or neutering is the right thing to do.

Persuasive Messages Topics

8.4.1: The Rhetorical Triangle

Use the rhetorical triangle by combining logic, emotional appeal, and authority (a.k.a. logos, pathos, and ethos in classical Aristotelian rhetoric) to cater your message to your audience. You could appeal to their sense of reason by explaining the logical consequences of not spaying or neutering their pet: increasing the local cat or dog population, or even producing a litter that you yourself have to deal with, including all the care and expenses related to it. You might appeal to their emotions by saying that the litters resulting from your pet’s mating with strays will suffer starvation and disease in their short lives. You could establish your credibility by explaining that you’ve earned a diploma in the Vet Tech program at Algonquin College and have eight years’ experience seeing the positive results that spaying or neutering has on local dog or cat populations, making you a trustworthy authority on the topic. All of these moves help overcome your audience’s resistance and convince them to follow your advice (Business Communication for Success, 2015, 14.1). These three appeals can also complement other effective techniques in persuading an audience as we shall see throughout this section.

8.4.2: Principles of Persuasion

What’s the best way to succeed in persuading people to buy what you’re selling? Though there may sometimes be a single magic bullet, a combination of strategies has been found to be most effective. Social psychologist Robert Cialdini offers us six principles of persuasion that are powerful and effective no matter what the cultural context. Use them to help persuade people, but also recognize their use by others when determining how you’re being led towards a purchase, perhaps even one you should rightly resist.

8.4.2.1: Principle of Reciprocity

I scratch your back; you scratch mine. Reciprocity means that when you give something to somebody, they feel obligated to give something back to you in return, even if only by saying “thank you.” If you are in customer service and go out of your way to meet the customer’s need, you are appealing to the principle of reciprocity with the knowledge that all but the most selfish among us perceive the need to reciprocate—in this case, by increasing the likelihood of making a purchase from you because you were especially helpful. Reciprocity builds trust and a relationship develops, reinforcing everything from personal to brand loyalty. By taking the lead and giving, you build in a moment a sense of obligation motivating the receiver to follow social norms and customs by giving back.

8.4.2.2: Principle of Scarcity

It’s universal to want what you can’t have. People are naturally attracted to the rare and exclusive. If they are convinced that they need to act now or it will disappear, they are motivated to act. Scarcity is the perception of dwindling supply of a limited and valuable product. For a sales representative, scarcity may be a key selling point—the particular car, theater tickets, or pair of shoes you are considering may be sold to someone else if you delay making a decision. By reminding customers not only of what they stand to gain but also of what they stand to lose, the sales rep increases their chances of swaying the customer from contemplation to action, which is to close the sale.

8.4.2.3: Principle of Authority

Notice how saying “According to researchers, . . .” makes whatever you say after these three words sound more true than if you began with “I think that . . . .” This is because you’re drawing on authority to build trust (recall the concept of ethos from the “rhetorical triangle” in §8.4.1 above), which is central to any purchase decision. Who does a customer turn to? A salesperson may be part of the process, but an endorsement by an authority holds credibility that no one with a vested interest can ever attain. Knowledge of a product, field, trends in the field, and even research can make a salesperson more effective by the appeal to the principle of authority. It may seem like extra work to educate your customers, but you need to reveal your expertise to gain credibility. We can borrow a measure of credibility by relating what experts have indicated about a product, service, market, or trend, and our awareness of competing viewpoints allows us insight that is valuable to the customer. Reading the manual of a product is not sufficient to gain expertise—you have to do extra homework. The principle of authority involves referencing experts and expertise.

8.4.2.4: Principle of Commitment and Consistency

When you commit to something, you feel obligated to follow through on it. For instance, if you announce on social media that you’re going to do yoga every day for a month, you feel greater pressure to actually do so than if you resolved to do it without telling anyone. This is because written words hold a special power over us when it feels as though their mere existence makes what we’re doing “official.” If we were on the fence, seeing it now in writing motivates us to act on it and thereby honour our word by going through with the purchase. In sales, this could involve getting a customer to sign up for a store credit card or a rewards program.

8.4.2.5: Principle of Consensus

If you make purchase decisions based on what you see in online reviews, you’re proving how effective the principle of consensus can be. People trust first-person testimonials when making purchase decisions, especially if there are many of them and they’re unanimous in their endorsement. The herd mentality is a powerful force across humanity. If “everybody else” thinks this product is great, then it must be great. Such argumentum ad populum (Latin for “argument to the people”) is a logical fallacy because there’s no guarantee that something is true if the majority believe it. We are genetically programmed to trust our tribe in the absence more credible information, however, because it makes decision-making easier in the fight for survival.

8.4.2.6: Principle of Liking

We are more likely to buy something from someone we like, who likes us, who is attractive, and who we can identify with because we see enough points of similarity between ourselves. These perceptions offer a sense of safe belonging. If a salesperson says they’re going to cut you a deal because they like you, your response is to reciprocate that acceptance by going through with the deal. If you find them easy to look at—no matter which sex—you are predisposed to like them because, from an evolutionary standpoint, attractiveness suggests genetic superiority and hence authority. Furthermore, if the salesperson makes themselves relatable by saying that they had the same problem as you and this is what they did about it, you’re more likely to follow their advice because that bond produces the following argument in your mind: “This person and I are similar in that we share a common problem, they solved it expertly by doing X, and I can therefore solve the same problem in my life by doing X” (Business Communication for Success, 2015, 14.2).

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8.4.3: Indirect AIDA Pattern of Persuasion

When you consider the tens or hundreds of thousands of TV commercials you’ve seen in your life, you understand how they all take the indirect approach (typically associated with delivering bad news, as we saw in §4.1.2 and §8.3 above) because they assume you will resist parting with your money. Instead of taking a direct approach by simply saying in seven seconds “Come to our store, give us $100, and we’ll give you these awesome sunglasses,” commercials use a variety of techniques to motivate you to ease your grip on your money. They will dramatize a problem-solution scenario, use celebrity endorsements, humour, special effects, jingles, intrigue, and so on. You’re well familiar with the pattern from having seen and absorbed it many times each day of your life, but when you must make a persuasive pitch yourself as part of your professional duties, you may need a little guidance with the typical four-part indirect pattern known as “AIDA”:

8.4.3.1: A – Attention-getting Opening

When your product, service, or initiative is unknown to the reader, come out swinging to get their attention with a surprise opening. Your goal is to make it inviting enough for the reader to want to stay and read the whole message. The opening can only do that if it uses an original approach that connects the reader to the product, service, or initiative with its central selling feature. This feature is what distinguishes it from others of its kind; it could be a new model of (or feature on) a familiar product, a reduced price, a new technology altogether, etc. A tired, old opening sales pitch that appears to be aimed at a totally different demographic with a product that doesn’t seem to be any different from others of its kind, however, will lose the reader at the opening pitch. One that uses one of the following techniques, however, stands a good chance of hooking the reader in to stick around and see if the pitch offers an attractive solution to one of their problems:

  • Focus on the solution’s benefits:
    • Imagine cooling down from your half-hour sunbath on the white-sand beach with a dip in turquoise Caribbean waters. This will be you if you book a Caribbean Sun resort vacation package today!
    • What if I told you that you could increase your sales by 25% in the next quarter by using an integrated approach to social media?
    • Consider a typical day in the life of a FitBit user: . . .
  • Focus on the problem scenario:
    • Is your hard-earned money just sitting in a chequing account losing value from inflation year after year?
    • Have you ever thought about investing your money but have no idea where to start?
  • Surprising quotation, fact, or statistic:
    • Yogi Berra once said, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it!” At Epic Adventures, any one of our Rocky Mountain hiking experiences will elevate you to the highest of your personal highs.
    • The shark is the ocean’s top predator. When you’re looking to invest your hard-earned money, why would you want to swim with sharks? Go to a trusted broker at Lighthouse Financial.
    • Look around the room. One in five of you will die of heart disease. Every five minutes, a Canadian aged 20 or over dies from heart disease, the second leading cause of death in the country. At the Fitness Stop, keep your heart strong with your choice of 20 different cardio machines and a variety of aerobics programs designed to work with your busy schedule.

The goal here is to get the reader thinking, “Oooh, I want that” or “I need that” without giving them an opportunity to doubt whether they really do. Of course, the attention-gaining opening is unnecessary if the reader already knows something about the product or service. If the customer comes to you asking for further details, you would just skip to the I-, D-, or A-part of the pitch that answers their questions.

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8.4.3.2: I – Interest-building Body

Once you’ve got the reader’s attention in the opening, your job is now to build on that by extending the interest-building pitch further. If your opening was too busy painting a solution-oriented picture of the product to mention the company name or stress a central selling feature, now is the time to reveal both in a cohesive way. If the opening goes “What weighs nothing but is the most valuable commodity in your lives? —Time,” a cohesive bridge to the interest-building bod of the message could be “At Synaptic Communications, we will save you time by . . . .” Though you might want to save detailed product description for the next part, some description might be necessary here as you focus on how the product or service will solve the customer’s problem.

Key to making this part effective is describing how the customer will use or benefit from the product or service, placing them in the centre of the action with the “you” view (see §4.5.2.5.1 above):

When you log into your WebCrew account for the first time, an interactive AI guide will greet and guide you through the design options for your website step by step. You will be amazed by how easy it is to build your website from the ground up merely by answering simple multiple-choice questions about what you want and selecting from design options tailored to meet your individual needs. Your AI guide will automatically shortlist stock photo options and prepare text you can plug into your site without having to worry about permissions.

Here, the words you or your appear 11 times in 3 sentences while still sounding natural rather than like a high-pressure sales tactic.

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8.4.3.3: D – Desire-building Details and Overcoming Resistance

Now that you’ve hooked the reader in and hyped-up your product, service, or idea with a central selling feature, you can flesh out the product description with additional evidence supporting your previous claims. Science and the rational appeal of hard facts work well here, but the evidence must be appropriate. A pitch for a sensible car, for instance, will focus on fuel efficiency with litres per 100km or range in number of kilometres per battery charge in the case of an electric vehicle, not top speed or the time it takes to get from 0 to 100 km/h. Space permitting, you might want to focus on only two or three additional selling features since this is still a pitch rather than a product specifications (“specs”) sheet, though you can also use this space to point the reader to such details in an accompanying document or webpage.

Testimonials and guarantees are effective desire-building contributions as long as they’re believable. If someone else much like you endorses a product in an online review, you’ll be more likely to feel that you too will benefit from it (see §8.4.1.5 above on the principle of consensus). A guarantee will also make the reader feel as though they have nothing to lose if they can just return the product or cancel a service and get their money back if they don’t like it after all. Costco has been remarkably successful as a wholesaler appealing to individual grocery shoppers partly on the strength of a really generous return policy.

Rhetorically, this point in the pitch also provides an opportunity to raise and defeat objections you anticipate the reader having towards your product, service, or idea. This follows a technique called refutation, which comes just before the conclusion (“peroration”) in the six-part classical argument structure. It works to dispel any lingering doubt in the reader’s mind about the product as pitched to that point.

If the product is a herbicide being recommended as part of a lawncare strategy, for instance, the customer may have reservations about spreading harmful chemicals around their yard. A refutation that assures them that the product isn’t harmful to humans will help here, especially if it’s from a trusted source such as Canada Health or Consumer Reports. Other effective tricks in the vein of emotional appeal (complementing the evidence-based rational appeal that preceded it) include picturing a worst-case scenario resulting from not using the product. Against concerns about using a herbicide, a pitch could use scare-tactics such as talking about the spread of wild parsnip that can cause severe burns upon contact with skin and blindness if the sap gets in your eyes. By steering the customer to picturing their hapless kids running naïvely through the weeds in their backyard, crying in pain, rubbing their eyes, and going blind, you can undermine any lingering reservations a parent may have about using the herbicide.

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8.4.3.4: A – Action-motivating Closing

The main point of your message directs the reader to act (e.g., buy your product or service), so its appearance at the end of the message—rather than at the beginning—is what makes an AIDA pitch indirect. If the AID-part of your pitch has the reader feeling that they have no choice but to buy the product or service, then this is the right time to tell them how and where to get it, as well as the price.

Pricing itself requires some strategy. The following are well-known techniques for increasing sales:

  • Charm pricing: dropping a round number by a cent to make it end in a 99 because the casually browsing consumer brain’s left-digit bias will register a price of $29.99 as closer to $20 than $30, especially if the 99 is physically smaller in superscript ($2999).
  • Prestige pricing: keeping a round number round and dropping the dollar sign for a luxury item. For instance, placing the number 70 beside a dinner option on a fancy restaurant’s menu makes it look like a higher-quality dish than if it were priced at $6999. To impress a date with your spending power, you’ll go for the 70 option over something with charm pricing.
  • Anchoring: making a price look more attractive by leading with a higher reference price. For instance, if you want to sell a well-priced item, you would strategically place a more expensive model next to it so that the consumer has a sense of the price range they’re dealing with when they don’t otherwise know. They’ll feel like they’re getting more of a bargain with the well-priced model. Similarly, showing the regular price crossed out near the marked-down price on the price tag is really successful in increasing sales (Boachie, 2016).

If the product or service is subscription-based or relatively expensive, breaking it down to a monthly, weekly, or even daily price installment works to make it seem more manageable than giving the entire sum. Equating it to another small daily purchase also works. The cost of sponsoring a child in a drought-stricken nation sounds better when it’s equated with the cost of a cup of coffee per day. A car that’s a hundred dollars per week in lease payments sounds more doable than the entire cost, especially if you don’t have $45,000 to drop right now but are convinced that you must have that car anyway. Framing the price in terms of how much the customer will save is also effective, as is brushing over it in a subordinate clause to repeat the central selling point:

For only §49.99 per month, you can go about your business all day and sleep easy at night knowing your home is safe with Consumer Reports’ top-rated home security system.

Action directions must be easy to follow to clinch customer buy-in. Customers are in familiar territory if they merely have to go to a retail location, pick the unit up off the shelf, and run it through the checkout. Online ordering and delivery is even easier. Vague directions (“See you soon!”) or a convoluted, multi-step registration and ordering process, however, will frustrate and scare the customer away. Rewards for quick action are effective (see §8.4.3.2 above on the principle of scarcity), such as saying that the deal holds only while supplies last or the promo code will expire at the end of the day.

Sales pitches are effective only if they’re credible (see §8.4.2.3 above on the principle of authority). Even one exaggerated claim can sink the entire message with the sense that it’s all just snake-oil smoke and mirrors. Saying that your product is the best in the world, but not backing this up with any third-party endorsement or sales figures proving the claim, will undermine every other credible point you make by making your reader doubt it all (Lehman, DuFrene, & Murphy, 2013, pp. 134-143). We’ll return to topic of avoidable unethical persuasive techniques in §10.2.4 below, but first let’s turn our attention in the next section to a more uplifting type of message.

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Key Takeaway

key iconUse reliable strategies and persuasive indirect message patterns to persuade readers to buy products or services, adopt your ideas, or support initiatives.

 

Exercises

1. Recall a purchase where you were upsold or bought something that you later regretted after following the salesperson’s advice. Break down how they were able to convince you to want something you didn’t need to the point of acting on that desire. Identify which of the principles of persuasion (outlined in §8.4.2 above) they used to get your dollar.

2. Let’s say you have a database of customers who have consented to receiving notices of promotional deals and special offers from the company you work for in the profession of your choosing or an industry adjacent to it (e.g., if you’re training to be a police officer, put yourself in the position of marketing for a company selling tasers to police departments). Write a one-page letter that will be mailed out to each convincing them to purchase a new product or service your company is offering. Follow the indirect AIDA pattern described in §8.4.3 and involve some of the persuasive strategies summarized in §8.4.2 above.

References

Boachie, P. (2016, July 21). 5 strategies of ‘psychological pricing.’ Entrepreneur. Retrieved from https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/279464

Lehman, C. M., DuFrene, D, & Murphy, R. (2013). BCOM (1st Can. Ed.). Toronto: Nelson Education.

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8.4: Persuasive Messages by Jordan Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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