Gil-Ad Schwartz


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Marketing Strategist
Springfield, MO


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VP Marketing & Sales
Route 29 Caramels
Golden Valley, Minnesota


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Carr’s Copywriting Checklist for Professional Copywriters

Persuasion 101

The science of getting people to do what you want

If I could teach you only one principle of persuasion, here’s what I’d want you to know:

You can never “convince” anyone of anything.

Picture this. It’s a scene which played itself out dozens of times when I was growing up:

A friend takes a position on a certain controversial issue. The position is, to say the least, misguided. In the spirit of cultured debate, I see fit to demonstrate to my friend where he has gone wrong.

Drawing in equal measures on my obscenely high IQ and my penchant for logical acrobatics, I whip up an airtight argument in support of my own opinion. Using my opponent’s own premises against him, I show, step by step, how his stance is self-contradictory and untenable. Then I wrap it up in a bow and dust it with icing sugar. It’s a beautiful performance; a triumph of rhetoric.

The response: a shrug, followed by a lame joke about one of my analogies (“Yeah, but the wolf will do what the sheep says because the sheep’s got a shotgun.”) The subject changes. I press the issue, ready to parry any counter-attack. No counter-attack ever comes – only more weak jokes.

Imagine how deflated I felt every time this happened. On the one hand, my victory was beyond question: my opponent was left with nothing of substance to say. On the other hand, there was never any acknowledgment of my superior logical position. Not once did anyone say to me, “Yes, I concede the point” or “You win, Gil-Ad, well done.” It made me miserable.

Now, before you label me an intellectual bully, I’ll say in my defense that, to me, argument was (and still is) like sport or chess. You expect your opponent to lose gracefully when you play him at tennis; I only expected the same when it came to debate. Failure to acknowledge my wins felt like poor sportsmanship.

The point of this illustration is that logical arguments are powerful tools of persuasion – except when they’re used as weapons against the person whom you’re trying to persuade. That’s because, as I learned the hard way, people do not take well to being out-debated. And the reason is quite simple:

People are not emotionally-detached rational beings. People have egos – fragile egos. Whenever you attack a person’s belief, you attack a part of their ego. This is true even when the belief in question is trivial, such as “we should go see a romantic comedy rather than an action film.”

Once the ego is threatened, it goes on the defensive and takes control of people’s decision-making. They become possessed. Suddenly, they dig in their heels and refuse to accept what you’re saying. It doesn’t matter if what you’re telling them makes perfect sense. It doesn’t matter if what you’re suggesting is clearly in their best interest. They’ve gone into a kind of primitive psychological survival mode and, to them, winning the argument is all that matters.

The word “convince” dates back to the 1520s. It’s the English form of the Latin convincere – “to overcome decisively” – a word composed of the intensive prefix com (“with”) and the verb vincere (“to conquer”). It’s an aggressive act. It triggers a correspondingly defensive response.

If you want to avoid this stalemate, you must cleanse your communication of any trace of hostility. Logical arguments are great – the stronger the better – as long as the context is co-operative rather than adversarial. The approach should be “let me show you how I see things”, not “let me show you why I’m right and you’re wrong.” Do not threaten the ego. Do not make it about right and wrong or about who knows better.

Crucially, this means you must hand all the power over to the people you’re persuading. Your role is to give them information that will help them reach a decision, but the decision itself is always theirs to make. You must respect that.

Think about it. If they have no choice but to say “yes” to you, you’re not persuading. You’re coercing. Coercion isn’t only about threats or violence. It’s about making people feel as though it’s not legitimate for them to say “no.”

That’s why you can never convince anyone of anything. It’s confrontational. It becomes a battle.

By contrast, persuasion is non-confrontational and non-intrusive. It’s about giving people options. It’s about helping them get what they want.

Bernard Baruch – Wall Street tycoon and advisor to U.S. Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt – carved out a reputation for himself as one of the most persuasive men of the 20th Century. His formula for success?

“Find out what people want
and show them how to get it.”

In other words, what you say is:

  1. You want X.
  2. I have Y.
  3. Here’s how Y will lead you to X.

Notice the sharp contrast between this and how most people try to “persuade”:

  1. You want X.
  2. I have Y.
  3. You should want Y because Y is better than X.
  4. I’m now going to convince you that you’re wrong to want Y and that you really want X.

See the difference? It’s like night and day. One approach sparks antagonism; the other is smooth and collaborative. That’s why this formula, which at first glance seems so simplistic, gave Baruch the power to perform miracles.

If you like anecdotes, the word “persuade” also dates back to the early 16th Century. It’s a combination of per (meaning “thoroughly”) and the Latin verb suadere, which itself derives from suavis – the root of the word “suave.” Taken literally, “to persuade” means “to make sweet.”

>>> Next: The Jack Bauer guide to persuasion

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MBA (Harvard)


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Oxford University
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New York

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