Get What You Want

Get What You Want

It’s not your pitch that matters: It’s the context you create before you ask.

Robert Cialdini, author of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller Influence, achieved renown as an early mover in the field of using an understanding of psychology to gain influence. Cialdini’s books, with Influence foremost, have sold more than three million copies. Here, he returns with a novel idea: What happens before you attempt to influence people has profound effects on whether you will succeed in influencing them or not.

Pre-suasion identifies what savvy communicators do before delivering a message to get it accepted.Robert Cialdini

He calls this crucial moment “pre-suasion,” and it falls before you make a request, ask a favor, present an argument, convince a client, bargain over price, seek a raise or propose marriage. Despite its unfortunate, jargony title, Cialdini’s book doesn’t contain the New Age rambling of a psychobabble guru. Instead, Cialdini – regents’ professor emeritus of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University and president and CEO of Influence at Work, a training consultancy – provides considerable strategic insight into human interaction. He shows you how to apply that insight to get what you want. Even though he’s a prolix writer with little respect for a short sentence and a great affection for the first-person singular, his content is useful and noteworthy.

Give and Take author Adam Grant called this, “An utterly fascinating read on how the most important drivers of persuasion aren’t the words we choose in the moment, but how we set the stage beforehand.” The Harvard Business Review referred to Cialdini as, “perhaps the foremost expert on effective persuasion,” and noted, “The best persuaders aren’t merely eloquent charmers with well crafted, finely tuned arguments; they’re also creative preparers who focus on finding the best ways to launch their offers and ideas.” And BizEd said Pre-Suasion is, “A fascinating and engaging glimpse into the world of persuasion, and it’s a lot more pervasive and evanescent than we might think.”

References and Evidence

At first glance, this tome – more than 400 pages – appears to provide more than anyone might want to read about pre-suasion. However, you will soon discover that Cialdini uses only two-thirds of it to present his views on that subject. The remainder of the book – surprisingly for a commercial venture by a best-selling author – is made up of a complete set of references, extraordinarily detailed notes and a comprehensive index. These top-quality additions suggest the author seeks not only mass-market acceptance for his ideas, but academic approval as well.

For readers inclined toward research and minutiae, the notes may prove even more engaging than the main section of the book. Cialdini is a rigorous, engaged scholar; he cites every source he utilizes and details the context of those sources in a broader psychological and marketing framework. Whether you agree with his main theses or not, the author clearly knows his field of endeavor and takes great pleasure in it.

Context and Setup

Cialdini focuses his years of research on the goal of helping you get what you want. It’s that simple. Everyone, everywhere, every day of the week has to convince somebody of something. Everyone has to sway people to his or her point of view. Everybody wants something from somebody. Cialdini describes the nervous rehearsal people go through when they’re trying to devise just the right pitch to a spouse, boss, neighbor or co-worker. He maintains, surprisingly, that the content of your pitch seldom determines whether it works. What matters, and what tips the scale, is what you do right before you make your pitch. Context and setup – in his term, pre-suasion – make the difference.

“Before It Is Fought”

The Chinese sage Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War, “Every battle is won before it is fought.” Cialdini opens his book with this ancient wisdom. He also cites the great Roman orator Cicero, who understood that what you do before you make an appeal makes all the difference. Cialdini wanted to know what methods of persuading people “to say yes” consistently succeed across various fields of endeavor.

Studying “salespeople, direct marketers, TV advertisers, frontline managers” and more, he found that victorious professionals spent most of their efforts preparing the ground for their requests. Pre-suasion, Cialdini argues, is the practice of making the targets of your appeal “receptive to a message before they encounter it.”

Basic Pre-Suasion

Cialdini describes two basic strategies to illustrate his point. A consultant he knows always tells clients, “As you can tell, I’m not going to be able to charge you a million dollars for this.” This somehow makes his actual fee sound small, and most clients accept it without bargaining.

Trust is one of those qualities that leads to compliance with requests, provided that it has been planted before the request is made.Robert Cialdini

A fire-alarm salesman with a remarkable percentage of success also revealed his secret: He never pitches potential customers until they invite him to come inside their homes. He says you don’t let people into your house unless you trust them. If potential customers trust him, he says, they will buy from him. And they do.

Weighty and Hot

Cialdini explains the persuasive function that metaphors fulfill in daily language. “That’s a heavy load” might refer to lifting a heavy object or to performing a difficult emotional task. But metaphors can also persuade “nonverbally.” If an interviewer reads a job application presented on a heavy – versus a lightweight – clipboard, the interviewer will regard the applicant as a more serious contender.

The same is true of reports, Cialdini explains. When people read reports presented in a heavier notebook, the information seems more important. This is pre-suasion in action: The physical presentation of the application or the report sways the reader in its favor before he or she reads a single word.

The universal principles of influence…reciprocity, liking, authority, social proof, scarcity and consistency…typically steer people in the right direction when they are deciding what to do.Robert Cialdini 

Cialdini worries that the very lightness of e-readers – a trait that defines their appeal – might make users value their content less. The weightiness of a print book, he believes, gives its words and message additional gravitas.

Heat also plays a role in human judgment. Someone holding a hot cup of coffee feels greater warmth toward those nearby and trusts them more. This can serve as a stealth form of pre-suasion. The person holding the hot coffee – or any warm object – will be more “giving and cooperative.” Thus, you can achieve powerful pre-suasion even in silence.

“Saying or Doing the Right Thing”

Many other simple tactics can help you draw other people toward your position. To get people to try a new product, ask if they are “adventurous.” If you want someone to help you, show photographs of people standing near one another. To inspire someone to achieve, display an image of a “runner winning a race.” To guide people to consider their options carefully, show them a photo or model of Auguste Rodin’s statue The Thinker.

Just because we can use psychological tactics to gain consent doesn’t mean we are entitled to use them. The tactics are available for good or ill. They can be structured to fool and thereby exploit others. But they can also be structured to inform and thereby enhance others.Robert Cialdini

Figuring out exactly what you should do or say to support your interests requires being tuned in to your situation and context. Suit your tactic to the moment, the person and your persuasive goal.


To ensure that someone carries out an enduring positive action after giving you an initial positive response, Cialdini advises having that person make a commitment. Doctors in England found that calling patients the day before their appointments reduced cancellations by a modest percentage. So did writing down their future appointments on a card. But, the doctors got the strongest positive effect – appointments kept – when the patients themselves filled in a reminder card at one appointment detailing the time and date of the next. This made the patient participate in committing – and that made all the difference.

Valuable Insights

Pre-Suasion isn’t particularly well-written, but it’s full of intriguing material. At times, Cialdini slips into jargon, much of it of his own devising. The author might benefit from shorter sentences, active voice and, perhaps, some reportorial economy. As his lengthy notes indicate, Cialdini – like a lot of research-intensive authors – wants to share every single discovery.

In a song by Jimmy Buffett, a former lover has to be informed – five separate times! – that the lack of something can convey the telling presence of something: ‘If the phone doesn’t ring, it’s me’.Robert Cialdini

In the hands of many other authors, these flaws would sink a book, but Cialdini is really onto something. He presents his findings with vigor, passion and genuine surprise. His profound sincerity about the findings that his research reveals makes his conclusions worthy, helpful and, for those who embrace them, effective.

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