Subtle Strength: Language Techniques that Win Customers (Without Overt Persuasion)


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Telling your prospects to buy from you is like trying to take a cat for a walk. They’ll stay rooted in position and won’t budge and the more you try to push them towards you, the more intractable your prospects will be.

In decades of training specialists in Tech, Engineering and Finance, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard statements such as, “I’m going to convince you to buy…” and “I’m going to persuade you”. Such statements are common in presentations. These direct attempts at persuasion, often backfire due to psychological reactance, whereby customers resist perceived attempts to undermine their autonomy. Effective persuasion is subtler, respecting the customer’s freedom and fostering an environment where – crucially – they convince themselves.

These techniques are as relevant to formal pitches and presentations as they are to your interactions with prospects, colleagues, and customers.

Here, I’m focusing on five nuanced approaches that have been proven to increase a prospect’s likelihood to buy your service, product or idea – whether internally or externally.

1. Use Specific Language

Avoiding nebulous, unspecific language key to customer satisfaction. In 2020, a study published in The Journal of Consumer Research, demonstrated that ‘linguistic concreteness’ significantly increased the likelihood of prospects becoming customers. For example, instead of stating, “We can help maximise your processes with our SaaS system,” more specific language has greater effect. Hence, this could be rephrased as “No longer will you be struggling to trace your customer supply pipeline. Our SaaS system can show you this at the click of a button.” Here, you’re stating the process explicitly. In retail, this could be translated from “We’ll help you with that,” to “We’ll help you get a refund.”

Here, you’ve been very unambiguous about the actual process or benefit, making it immediate as well as relevant. Moreover, your listener can visualise the action and result. It becomes tangible.

2. Are they ‘Moving Away’ or ‘Toward’?

During Presentation Skills Training with a client, the Legal Team were irritating Business Development with their presentations, constantly telling them what to avoid. Business Development, by their very nature, are built to seek opportunities – and their lies the conflict: they saw the Legal Team as holding them back. Legal Teams are generally seeking to avoid trouble, just as a Pilot runs thorough checks to avoid danger. On the other hand, Business Development is propelled toward opportunity, seeking new commercial openings. When selling anything to a prospect, you may be more certain of what they want to gain than avoid, or vice versa. By homing in on their expressed motivation, you’ll be selling benefits in a way that will resonate with your listener. When presenting to a group, build in the ‘away’ (avoidance) as well as the ‘toward’ (gain) to cover your bases.

3. Make it Now or Near

Zakary Tormala, Professor of Behavioural Science and Marketing at Stanford has demonstrated through his research that immediacy plays a large part in stimulating action. Immediacy can play out physically in that what your customer does is affecting their business, people or issues close to them. This immediacy can also refer to ‘temporal proximity’, meaning what’s happening now or in the near past or future. This is because people attach more importance to issues that affect them personally or within a short time span resulting in the increased likelihood of engagement and action.

4. It’s all about ‘you’ – sometimes…

I’ve witnessed after dinner speakers hush tables of tipsy sales teams at award ceremonies with the word ‘You’ – so powerful is its use.

This is affirmed by the findings of 2020 research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealing that a subtle shift in language establishes a strong sense of connection between ideas and people. ‘You’ works particularly well when expressing benefits or goals. For example, you may state: “You’ll find that this product will fit with your current requirements.” Within a presentation or pitch, ensure you use that word within the first minute, and pepper it throughout.

But this comes with a caveat. It’s been shown that in Customer Services, the use of the third person – he / she / it / or, for some, ‘they’, is useful when talking about faults as a customer doesn’t want to feel blamed. Even shifting this to ‘I’ can help. For example, “I had a customer that had been in the same situation with their supplier,” would be more readily received than, “You’ve chosen the wrong supplier.”

Collaborative language expressed in the word ‘we’ is effective in expressing co-operation: that there’s someone with expertise on whom they can lean.

Using the right pronouns, therefore, can make your message more personal, convey understanding and indicate collaboration.

5. State their Objections

So many individuals are scared to mention objections but if you don’t it’s the elephant in the room. Everyone sees it’s there and it’ll obstruct the view.

Whether you’re in a dialogue with one person or speaking to a group, explicitly voicing their objections is key to building connection with your prospects.

Zakary Tormala asserts divergent views – the act of acknowledging objections – is also fundamental to revealing expertise as it shows you’re not afraid of an opposing viewpoint if you trust your solution.

Tormala terms such acknowledgement of contrary perspectives as a ‘pro-attitudinal stance’ meaning the act of expressing and appreciating oppositional views. Let’s say a colleague has a concern about a potential new hire. You may counter with a statement such as: “I see they’re not an obvious contender. From my perspective, there are some advantages to their experience.” Rather than going in with a direct counter, you’re taking on board their doubts. As a result, they’ll be more likely to listen to your views without feeling dismissed. In conversation, note that introducing a contrary stance is better received if you don’t use the word ‘but’: here are 13 ways to do this. In pitches, ensure that the objection is built in explicitly before you state the solution, whether you’re presenting to Senior Management or external prospects.

Integrating linguistic strategies, when speaking to prospects and clients, is essential if you want to engage them, have them trust you and be ready to buy ideas, products or services.

Frankie Kemp
Frankie helps technical specialists to become Communication Ninjas. She supports individuals and teams in becoming Knock Out Presenters, Impactful Influencers, Stand Out Storytellers or Creative Problem Solvers. As an award winning storyteller and actor, Frankie blends psychology with business. In addition, her book 'How Technical Experts Become Powerful Presenters' has now hit 100k downloads.


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