How to convince someone to say “yes” is the goal for any sales message. It’s what psychologists call “compliance.”
However, my first exposure to the idea of compliance was not in a psychology book about persuasive words, but beneath a tree decades ago when my grandfather, in a moment of playfulness, showed me something startling with a stick and a few red feathers.
One day, he handed me a long stick with a clump of red feathers taped to the end and said he wanted to show me something. He had a familiar, mischievous look in his eye, so I knew it would be fun.
In a tree near his tool shed, a family of robins had nested. We slowly and quietly worked our way to just beneath the tree, and my grandfather told me to raise the feather end of the stick up to the nest.
Nearby, a male red-breasted robin stood guard. When he saw the red feathers, he immediately attacked them, chirping wildly and flapping his wings in distress. I was dumbfounded.
Between chuckles, my grandfather explained that red feathers made the bird go berserk. I asked why, and he told me he wasn’t sure, but figured that the bird thought the feathers were another robin. He said robins protect their territory and will attack another robin on sight.
The magic of fixed action patterns
Smart man, my grandfather.
Since then, I’ve seen experiments demonstrating that a male robin will attack a simple bunch of red breast feathers but ignore a detailed replica of an actual male robin that does not have red breast feathers.
This is an example of what scientists call “fixed-action patterns” in animals. A fixed action pattern is a precise and predictable sequence of behavior. It’s an instinctive, automatic response that’s useful when you need to know how to convince someone to say “yes.” This sequence is set in motion by a specific “trigger.”
Fixed-action patterns are common among animals. But what about humans? What if you could use a trigger to set off a desirable sequence of behavior in a potential customer — like saying “yes” to a request you make? So you don’t feel like you have to write the greatest sales letter of all time?
Actually, you can.
In Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert B. Cialdini, a respected social scientist and specialist in the area of compliance psychology, says that “… automatic, stereotyped behavior is prevalent in much of human action …”
He cites an experiment by Harvard social psychologist Ellen Langer, where you can see this concept in action. Langer approached people waiting in line to use a copy machine and asked, “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” About 60% said “yes.”
Under similar circumstances, she did the same thing, but instead asked, “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?” In this case, an overwhelming 93% said “yes.”
What happened to increase the “yes” response so dramatically?
It’s a well-known principle that people like to have a reason, perhaps to avoid being naive. A reason helps people make a decision and justify their action. However, in this experiment, “because I have to make some copies” does not provide any new information. It does not actually give a reason.
“Because” is usually followed by information and has become, for most people, a “trigger.” Once the trigger is learned, it is powerful enough to set in motion a behavior sequence, in this case a “yes” response, even in the absence of concrete information.
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7 powerful compliance triggers
It’s easy to see the importance of fixed-action patterns in sales techniques. All we need to know is where to find the “stick and red feathers” that can generate a “yes” response in a variety of selling situations.
Here are seven common compliance triggers identified by psychologists along with my suggestions for applying them to writing copy.
There is an overwhelming urge to repay debts, to do something in return when something is done for us. This deep-seated urge is so strong, noted paleontologist Richard Leaky has said that it is the very essence of what it means to be human. Sociologist Alvin Gouldner points out that no society on Earth escapes the reciprocity principle.
Application: Give people something for free. Whoever is on the receiving end of your gift is then in your debt. What can you give? Anything: a free book, planning kit, sample, subscription, catalog, special report, or virtually anything else that’s related to your product or service, as long as it’s free. The urge to “repay” can then lead people to make a purchase.
2. Commitment and consistency
We are driven to remain consistent in our attitudes, words, and actions. So, when we are led to make a commitment of some kind, to go on record or take a stand or make a decision, there is an urge to remain consistent with that original commitment later on.
When you’re learning how to convince someone to say “yes,” the key is to get the initial commitment, which can appear small, reasonable, and innocent. This commitment can not only lead to compliance via the principle of consistency, but also to further compliance for larger requests.
Application: Ask for a little “yes” first, then build on that. Sales people sometimes call this the “foot-in-the-door” technique. Begin by asking your prospect to agree to a simple request, such as making a small transaction or completing a simple questionnaire.
By getting people to make a decision, take a stand, or perform an action, you establish a new psychological “commitment.” Once you have that commitment, no matter how small, you can build on this small commitment and make ever-increasing requests.
3. Social Proof
Most of us are imitators in most of what we do. We look to others for guidance, especially when we are uncertain about something. We ask, “What do others think about this? What do others feel? What do others do?” Then we act accordingly, all thanks to the power of social proof.
Application: Show others using your services or buying your products. List testimonials of satisfied customers or clients. Feature stories of those who have been “converted” from another service. Show pictures of people using your product. Provide case stories from some of your best customers. When people see that what you offer is okay with other people, they are more likely to give it a try themselves.
No matter how reasonable we may think ourselves to be, we are always more likely to say “yes” to those we know and like. We readily comply with requests from those who are similar to us and for whom we have good feelings. It’s what makes refusing to buy Girl Scout Cookies from a friend’s child next to impossible.
Application: Be personal and likable. This is one element of selling that most people know instinctively, but often fail to put into action. Getting people to like you in person is one thing. But how do you do it in writing when people usually have no chance to meet you?
Reveal yourself. Show your feelings. Tell a story that prospects can relate to. Use flattery and praise. Present your sales message in such a way that you are not just selling something but working with others as an ally with common problems, concerns, and goals.
In this age of specialization, we are more prone to respond to authority than ever before. Regardless of an independent spirit, we look to experts or those we perceive to be experts to give us the answers and show us the way.
Even the mere symbols of authority, such as titles and specialized clothing, are enough to trigger a response that’s part of how to convince someone to say “yes.” For instance, note how seeing someone with a white smock and stethoscope instantly suggests “doctor” and makes anything that person says about medicine seem more authoritative.
Application: Provide signs and symbols of expertise. Establish your expertise by providing solid information. Show your credentials. Build trust by admitting flaws or shortcomings and demonstrating a lack of bias. Show similarities between you and your prospect or customer. Cite awards, reviews, speaking engagements, and books you’ve authored.
You can also “borrow” authority by associating yourself with those who have authority. For instance, show a photograph of yourself with someone your prospects will consider an authority.
In general, the fear of loss is more powerful than the hope of gain. By properly engaging the instinctive tendency to avoid losing something — or avoid losing the chance to possess something desirable — you can trigger a “yes” response with scarcity (available for a limited time only).
Application: Create time limits and limited availability. A “reply by” date is one of the most powerful ways to create scarcity. You can do this with a specific deadline or expiration date. If you can’t be specific about the date, use a general deadline, such as “reply within the next 10 days.”
Use limited availability by mentioning how fast your supply is selling or citing the actual number of items that remain. You can also put constraints on supply, such as limiting memberships to the first 500 or creating a limited edition with X number being produced.
7. Personal touch
Personalized shopping experiences are no longer the future — they’re here. When you customize your prospect’s experience, they start to envision themselves with your product or service before they purchase anything. Sounds like a no-brainer when it comes to how to convince someone to say “yes,” right?
A personal touch is equally as important when you’re forming new relationships with clients, editors, or supervisors. People who get along professionally agree on smart solutions and solve problems fast.
Application: Besides addressing prospects with their names whenever possible and tailoring their experiences on your website, make your writing personal, but not self-indulgent. When pitching guest post or collaboration ideas, do your homework before cold-emailing someone. Send an email they’d truly enjoy reading, rather than a generic message that’s easy to toss in the digital trash.
The power of the “but you are free” technique
And let’s not forget that the sales environment has shifted away from “buyer beware.” Customers now have more power than ever to research the best products, as well as the best deals and discounts. So, to compete, you have to offer them something they truly can’t find elsewhere.
And no one wants to be pressured. That’s why the “but you are free” technique is a classy and effective tool when making a suggestion. It’s your job to present a winning copywriting offer; it’s your prospect’s job to decide whether or not they want to accept the offer.
How to convince someone to say “yes” is often as simple as giving them the freedom to say “no.”
Reader Comments (89)
James Chartrand - Men with Pens says
I love, love this stuff. I often open up my psychology textbooks and read about the way people behave. Most of it is incredibly common sense (ie, survival instinct) and some of it is wildly irrational (ie, impulse buying).
This was a great article, Dean. One of your best.
Having been in recruting for the military, we learned that every 8th question you ask someone will result in a yes answer.
So we would ask question after question (that corresponds to the topic of course) and then on the 8th question, ask them the defining question we want a “yes” answer for. Obviously this was the point that we’d ask them if they want to join the military:)
It doesn’t work for everyone, but 7 out of 10 saw positive results.
Stephanie Tilton says
Thanks for showing how this applies to copywriting. As James said, some of it is common sense but it’s still helpful to see it all laid out.
matt lambert says
This is an excellent article. Thankyou.
Is trust in there somewhere?
Tisha Morris says
Very good points! We are so ‘automated’ and predictable in our behavior.
Brian Clark says
Matt, excellent question. The real goal of things like reciprocity, social proof, authority and liking is to *build* trust.
These triggers are not tricks designed to dupe anyone. They are gateways to trust in a low-trust world.
Tom Volkar / Delightful Work says
Yes this is certainly fascinating and I’m grateful for the lesson. Yet there is something within me that is resisting using all of these tips. They seem to say that the end does justify the means. For example, I’ve always seen right through the limited availability hype. It seems like so much bullshit.
Have you any thoughts on authentically applying these lessons? Have you experienced any backlash that you’re aware of for using them? For example, I have talked with many who absolutely hate long sales letters.
Olivia Mayer says
One of the better posts I’ve read. Great examples and very practical information that can be applied in a number of situations.
MaryAnne Fisher says
Langer’s “because” test has always fascinated me. And Robert Cialdini is a master of the psychology of persuasion.
The 6 triggers comprise a powerful foundation for copy / content that influences. The applications you suggest are both practical and easy to implement.
My grandfather was a smart man, too. He was a master–though not consciously–of the reciprocity, commitment and consistency, liking and authority triggers. As a result, everyone in the tiny community knew him and adored him.
Every blogger, marketer and content developer needs to tape this article where they can see it all the time.
Cal Golden says
As always, super-fantastic marketing information.
I have been looking to buy a product called Order Button Triggers that essentially covers the same pyschological principles that is covered in the post. It is geared more toward getting the prospective customer to click that all-important order button.
Again, great stuff!
Ante Vekic says
Brian has mentioned this book so many times allready on copyblogger, so I bought it and read it: great stuff, and absolutely must read for everyone (wanting to be as much effective) in copywriting business.
Bamboo Forest - PunIntended says
This is great stuff. Thank you for sharing this, Dean. I will check out your series on the subject.
By the way… anyone reading this: Feel free to click on over to my blog and subscribe — because it would really make me feel good.
Another thing I’d bring up, is if you use for example the scarcity method, it’s worth wording it in as original a way as possible. When we read or hear the same gimmicky statement over and over again in the same exact way, it tends to lose its power — even if its based on sound principles.
Sheila Atwood says
I am weak on giving a reason as a “call to action.” I am going to try that one out.
After reading you article I have several new ideas I will be testing.
Mike Kirkeberg says
This reminded me of a “persuasion” technique used by my favorite motivational expert – my partner-in-life-and-everything-else Holly. She always wanted her daughters to be safe and have the best information to make good decisions. Problem was if she told them about something, they would go immediately into MEGO (mine eyes glaze over). So, over the years she began “salting the mine (or mind, if you wish)” by leaving information scattered about the house, in locations that, through careful research, she knew they would look – you know, like in the bathroom, by the phone, that sore of thing. Then looking at stuff became their idea and not hers, and I really think they began looking at these things. I always thought that was pretty cool.
Very Evolved says
But you forgot the trigger at the end your article – what would you like me to say yes to? (already ready your other articles – top stuff).
Oh well, I guess I’ll just put my credit card away now…
Marna Reinhardt says
Fabulous article. THANK YOU!
Simply Mike says
Great explanation in comment #6 Brian.
Great post, Dean. Those of us in face-to-face sales also use some of these every day.
Thanks for creating another piece for my swipe file 😉
AJ Kumar says
well said. I’ve read several times that ‘because’ is one of the most powerful words in the dictionary. For the exact reason you stated above.
It’s amazing how simple things get poeple take action they wouldn’t nessessarly take. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion is a great book. I did a writeup of it on my website not to long ago. http://www.davelife.net/2008/influence/
Sonia Simone says
@Tom Volkar, you may hate long sales letters, but my guess is you hate the way the less-effective ones are put together, and the obvious tactics some of them use. For myself, I hate the feeling that I’m being sold, that someone is trying to trick or squeeze me into doing something I don’t want to do.
The best sales people (whether in person or in print) can give you the feeling that they’re not selling you a darned thing, they’re just engaging you in a conversation about what you need and whether they have any tools that might help you get it.
And as Brian mentioned, it’s not a trick or a con. That’s actually what they’re doing.
Another simple trick is to ask them something you know they are going to automatically say yes to. Even if it doesn’t apply to what you are doing, it will get them in the positive mentality for future requests. Usually a sales technique.
Tom Volkar / Delightful Work says
@Sonia Simone, Thanks that’s a reasonable explanation. How I feel when reading them is an indication of the actions I’ll take.
I like your comparison to in person sales. I was one for many years and a more consultative approach was what worked well and I didn’t feel tricky. I appreciate this because it’s a good re-frame for me.
Shane Arthur says
Nice Dean, and thanks for the motivation. I’ve had that book for a month now but haven’t touched it. I’ll read it now.
Helpful post. It reminds me of some of the teachings from How To Win Friends And Influence People.
Will Lowrey says
Great post and very practical applications. I love that you took an ‘offline’ concept and adapted it for the online market. I have always known the value of the ethical bribe, but I never new the science behind it.
I wonder if the use of ‘because’ in a twitter question/request would produce more results. I may have to give it a try.
I love Cialdini’s book and highly recommend it. Dean, your sample applications are excellent. Thanks!
Rachel Esterline .:. A Step Ahead.:. says
Great post. This really is timely for me because I just started a job working for the student newspaper selling ad space. I lost count of how many “no’s” I got on my first day.
David Pierce says
Scarcity’s a great point. It also points to another way of getting people to say yes- making yourself unique. If you somehow give them what no one else can or will, and can convince them of the benefit of that, you make yourself next to impossible to say no to.
I love the post- your grandfather sounds like a good time.
Steve Cockrane says
Excellent article Dean, these automatic triggers make day to day life much easier to navigate. Even though most of us would argue until we’re blue in the face that we consciously make every decision. These triggers kick in to make our life easier and less complicated and we don’t have think so much!
Nathan Hangen says
One of the most useful posts I’ve read in a long time. Excellent work – I’ll put it into action on my authority sites.
Emin Andreasian says
Wow…. Great article! This honestly puts marketing and sales into perspective.
J.D. Meier says
All your base are belong to us.
One of the keys to social proof is finding the kingpins and winning them over first. It’s a domino effect.
Jay | Niche Q Insider says
Very informative article. I definitely have to put these ideas to use. Not only can you use these ideas for sales but to get people to say yes to subscribing to your blog, commenting on your blog and other things depending on what YOU want.
I love reading your blog, and as a creative in digital marketing, think I have a lot to learn from you. However I have to say, sometimes your posts are so long, that I switch off pretty quickly, and spend my ‘blog reading time’ on other marketing and creative sites with more digestible and manageable posts. Maybe I’m an exception, but I thought I’d let you know. 🙂
John Bradford says
Great summary of what can become a very dry topic.
I personally find that in building partnerships (and trust) you need to select the right combination of triggers in a process of moving someone from “I don’t know you and why should I care” to “yes, please, I’ll have one of those”. If you go in with all guns blazing (so to speak) most people immediately put up their defences.
Nick Drake-Knight has a great 5-step approach to that journey: Rapport – Understand – Demonstrate – Recommend – Close
thanks for sharing great ways…..must be implemented
Jane Chambers says
I learned early in my career to ask questions in the positive (i.e. questions that anticipate a yes answer), because people are more likely to say yes to the big question if they’ve been saying yes all along to the smaller questions.
Nick Stamoulis says
Everything in business almost comes down to the way people think and act. Learning the way the mind works will be a great advantage for any business.
SpotOn SEO says
Brilliant post Dean! This is deep stuff that really resonates with me. It would not hurt to read this one once a week.
REW Ryland says
Great, great summary. Nothing much else to say. It is Friday…
Mark Joyella says
Great stuff. Fascinating and well-written. Will post this piece via Twitter.
Joselito Laudencia / @JoselitoL says
It really is about building relationships – trust, likability, understanding our readers – and offering real value to them.
Love the red robin story!
Ok, most of the points I’ve read before but what is so good about this post is that it all comes together and each of the “six ways” comes witha good example that makes the application easy … Hm… now I rememebr – isn’t it how you write good pillar articles anyway?;-)
Great job – thanks!
People also say yes when they believe they’ve come to their own conclusion.
The best way to do this is to listen, ask questions and get your ‘prospect’ to do all the talking.
Absolutely brilliant read – This will change the way I talk!
Excellent, excellent article! Great stuff there, things we ALL need to keep in mind. Bookmarked for sure!
Adventurous Wench women's travel says
Cool post! In my experience, reciprocation always works. We should treat others the way they treat us. When someone does us a favor, it creates an obligation to accept any reasonable requests she might make in turn.
Thanks for a brilliant post!
Faina, Princeton NJ says
Excellent article, especially suggestions for practical application. I have seen first hand people reacting to triggers, such as preconceived notions of a profession. People often tense up, when they hear “real estate agent” calling:) They tune out the message as an automatic response.
Oh my! To be honest, all you’d have to do right now to get me to say YES is offer me some hot coffee….
Seriously, GREAT post!
grier govorko says
Great post – I find it endlessly interesting and important to learn as much as I can about the science/art of selling and marketing.
I’m making the step from only designing things – to designing and selling the things I designed. Going from being paid by giant famous rock’n’roll bands to not getting paid by anyone but potential customers is a challenge – 🙂 but one that must be overcome.
Good stuff. It’s scary to know that the human psyche can be dissected to a science and dealt with logically.
Mobile tracker says
Thanks for the informative post, I want to get my girlfriend say yes when I say marry me, lol.
Joey Carrera says
Using emotional triggers to influence a customer/prospects thought processes is “The” most powerful way to make sales. Its all about putting their mind in a state which makes them more responsive to your offer and when you have them there, ask them to commit to the sale.
A fantastic post which touches upon the strategy behind the words used in a sales message.
The great thing about most sales skills is that they apply to life as much as they do sales. For example, everytime I sit down to eat with my kids I have to sell “Vegetables” to them as a good lifestyle choice, I usually use reciprocation promising them chocolate pudding if they eat all of their sprouts! (I not that evil to feed my kids sprouts, come on!)
But you see what Im saying, we all sell ourselves and our ideas in everyday life. Selling is influencing, and influencing is the hierarchical method of the human race.
Nice article, but I have an issue here. I think we will be very inhuman, if we give to people only to make them feel in debt. Is it right to exploit these fixed patterns and thereby exploit people?
Or may be I just don’t fit in sales :o(
Desmond Campbell says
This is good stuff, encouraging and I can definitely relate to it. Some of it you’d have seen or heard, but it is well represented here. Don’t you overlook that photo that is attached to the story… POWERFUL!
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