Book Review: Getting to ‘Yes’ by Setting the Stage

Robert Cialdini’s “Pre-Suasion” describes a new aspect of the art of persuasion.

Almost every high school student knows about Pavlov’s dogs and how they were conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell. What most people don’t know, though, is that the slightest distraction or a change in the immediate environment before the bell rang could change those results. In his new book, “Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade” (Simon & Schuster, 2016), social psychologist Robert Cialdini explains why. For those who deal every day with customers who make decisions, it’s an insightful read.

Cialdini’s 1984 international bestseller, “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” is still a must-read for anyone in marketing and sales or those simply interested in how the mind works. In it, Cialdini, a regents’ professor emeritus of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, introduces the world to his six tenets of persuasion, such as reciprocity and authority, and explains why these factors make us all more susceptible to saying “yes” when we know we should say “no.”

“Pre-Suasion” takes the art of influencing to the next level by explaining that the power of persuasion doesn’t lie in the message itself. It’s found in the moments leading up to the message, or “the process of arranging for recipients to be receptive to a message before they encounter it,” Cialdini writes. By creating what he calls “privileged moments,” you can refocus someone’s attention and make him or her more amenable to your message. “What we present first changes the way people experience what we present to them next,” he writes.

Cialdini is an academic, so “Pre-suasion” is dense with scientific research supporting his insights. In fact, footnotes make up almost one-third of this 400-plus-page tome. But he makes the science accessible using both familiar and surprising examples of how even the slightest suggestion can make us change our focus and home in on a specific message.

For Pavlov’s famous dogs, any change that drew the animals’ attention away from the food, even momentarily, shut down the conditioned response. In the same way, if people typically say “no” when asked a certain type of question — if they will take a poll, for instance — you might persuade them to answer differently by what you do before you ask. First, get them to answer a question to which they will probably say “yes,” such as, “Do you consider yourself a helpful person?” Then they may be more likely to give you a few minutes for the poll.

In the personal relationships realm, here’s another example of Cialdini’s pre-suasion tactic: If you want someone to like you, offer the person a warm drink. This demonstrates the art of influencing a response practically before it starts to form.

Later in the book, Cialdini worries about opening a Pandora’s box by offering these insights to potentially dishonest practitioners who could use the information against an unsuspecting public. In the end, he decides that, for most of us, forewarned is forearmed.

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