On Persuasion

The man convinced against his will
Is of the same opinion still.
How does one go about persuading a person of something?

The first thing to do in achieving any goal is to ask a professional. They may not always be right, but their income depends on being right more often than wrong. If they don't understand how to do it, they don't stay in the business. The long-term professionals in the persuasion business are the salesmen. Politicians do their persuasion thing for a short while, but once they succeed, they no longer need to do much more. Some preachers (evangelists) are a special case, with complications that muddy the waters.

Some time ago master salesman Hank Trisler wrote a book No Bull Selling. He really had only two insights; the whole book was essentially just an exposition and explanation of these two points, which I call Trisler's Laws:

T1. People buy on emotion, then justify with facts, and
T2. People buy for their reasons, not ours.
These have some interesting implications, beyond Trisler's explanation of them. Trisler was careful to point out that the most important factor in selling is listening to the customer. If you don't understand what is important to the customer, you will not sell to them. I knew that implicitly, even before reading his book. I was able to walk into a client's office, the vice president of engineering (CTO in today's jargon) with no resume, no samples of my work, no recommendations -- and walk out two hours later with a signed contract. It astounded even me. So I started watching what I was doing. It was exactly Trisler's 2nd Law. I listened carefully to what they saw as their corporate vision, then I explained how my services promoted their agenda.

Let's see how these Trisler Laws work out in practical ways.


Not long ago a professional marketing person "Ellen" tried to persuade me that I have a "blind spot" in my world view. Her chosen sales technique consisted in appealing to her own authority as an expert in the topic. When I pointed out that her own failings in that arena exceeded my own, she got quiet for a while -- but not very long. If you want to point to an authority in the subject you are trying to persuade somebody, use somebody they acknowledge as authoritative.

Jesus answered and silenced the hostile question of the Sadducees by quoting from the Torah, the only part of the Hebrew Scriptures the Sadducees held authoritative. The Apostle Paul, when preaching to the Jews in Jerusalem, referred to their Jewish traditions and the Scriptures they held true. But in Athens, preaching to Greeks, he never mentioned the Jewish Scriptures. Instead he accurately quoted Greek philosophers.

It's not hard to find an authority I acknowledge: the Bible. I can be convinced of anything, provided you show me chapter and verse. It helps if you have done your homework, and your exegesis captures the true sense of the text. I studied Hebrew and I read Greek, so I'm not easily bamboozled. But despite my fondest desires, I have not attained sinless perfection; there are things I don't know yet about the Bible, and parts I have not yet successfully mastered. I am willing to take instruction. I am learning new things all the time. The Bible is my authority.

Ellen did not quote the Bible in support of her sales pitch. Instead she ridiculed and belittled my dependence on Scripture. Ellen is no longer in a marketing job at work either. Small wonder.


I do not know of anybody who is truly illogical. Everybody uses logical inferences to order their understanding of the world. What comes off as illogical in their thinking is almost always simply a matter of priorities in giving credence to conflicting data. Even those priorities are not really illogical. Often they are based on events experienced but misinterpreted because of inappropriate presuppositions. The chain of poor priorities is long and often devastating, and comes off looking like illogic. Thirty years ago I went to a conference on dealing with conflicts, where the presenter (among other things) invited us to "saturate your mind in Scripture." It was excellent advice. Scripture gives us good presuppositions, which leads to good logic.

Logic happens to be a skill where I am a professional. We all make mistakes, but I don't get paid for making logic errors, so I'm particularly sensitive to them. Ellen knew this, but Ellen was not paying attention to the customer. Ellen wasn't paying much attention to logic at all.

It seems to me that if you want to convince somebody that they have a "blind spot", that there is data they are inappropriately ignoring, then you need to build a logical case for it on the data they already accept. It is nonsensical to expect people to see past their blind spot, but it makes very good sense to expect them to reason past it, given a little help.

The term "blind spot" comes from a region in the human eye where the optic nerve is connected. If you position an image of a circle with a small gap, so the gap lands on the optic nerve region, the viewer will see the circle as complete. We build a logical inference of completeness from what we see, and extend that into the region we cannot see. The metaphor works the same way. If what we can (intellectually) see implies a complete circle, then we infer that for the areas we do not see. If the salesperson makes a logical case from known data, the customer might accept it as a valid description of and pointer to the unknown.

Today I have no idea what might have been behind that "blind spot" Ellen was trying to sell me, because Ellen got more and more illogical (ignored more data I considered relevant) as the discussion progressed.


I am an MBTI Thinker. That doesn't mean I have no feelings, only that they are not my most important value. Conventional marketing directed by Trisler's 1st Law is largely ineffective with me. It's not that Trisler's 1st Law is ineffective -- I suspect it works with me as well as with anybody else -- but you cannot activate it by pouring warm fuzzies like "It just feels good" on your ad.

Ellen is not unaware of T1. She said "sometimes the disaffirming truth is the hardest to accept." Disaffirmation has a very negative emotional impact on people, and Ellen knows it. But as a Thinker, it is far more important to me to be "Right" than comfortable. If somebody (Ellen or anybody else) is disaffirming me, I am going to make the effort to determine if it is true, and if so, make the necessary changes in my life to nullify the disaffirmation. So Ellen was wrong about disaffirming truth in my case; it's actually easier for me to accept than flattery (false affirmation).

But Ellen did not make effective use of her (perhaps implicit) understanding of T1. Ellen successfully activated T1 in me only negatively by getting angry and screaming obscenities and insults. That resulted in an emotional reaction which made it very difficult for me to buy her agenda. Not a good sales technique. Professionals don't get angry, they get smart.


One of the most successful ways to sell something is honest personal endorsement. Marketers understand that. For a while they exploited this insight by paying celebrities to endorse their products, but pretty soon it became obvious to the public that the endorsements were paid and not sincere, so it became ineffective. The latest rage now is called "viral" marketing, getting individuals to endorse products to their friends in informal ways without paying them for it. The internet "social networks" are hot investments because of the perception that they facilitate this kind of viral marketing. Whether that is true or just another gimmick remains to be seen, but the underlying fact is undeniable.

This is not a new idea. Jesus taught the same principle, albeit in a negative form:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, "Let me take the speck out of your eye," when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye. -- Matt.7:1-5 (NIV)
People will buy your product when they see you use it; they believe what you say when they see you live it. Ellen somehow missed that important fact.


You will not sell me a new car the day after I bought the competitor's product -- even if yours is a better car or a better deal. You are too late. You will not successfully sell me a home in Denver before I know I have a job there. Timing is very important. The facts you cite to persuade me must also be timely. Mark Twain once reportedly said, "Buy land. They've stopped making it." That's great advice while the population was growing and there were more people competing for the same acreage. It's obsolete information today. In many countries the population is shrinking (the USA grows only because of immigration); buying land in a state or country that is shrinking is not a good investment. Timing.

My sister often tells me, "Can a leopard change its spots?" It's a quote from the Bible, but I like to believe we can change, by God's help. It's called repentance, and God tells us to repent. I do that -- especially when I get caught off-base. "Fool me once, shame on you," the saying goes; "fool me twice, shame on me." I'm sometimes a little slow, but I usually get it by the third time. Ellen was still throwing obsolete (and already corrected) failures in my face. Professionals in conflict management tell us not to do that. Ten years ago "Ben" thought it his duty to instruct me in the same "blind spot" now on Ellen's agenda -- unlike Ellen, I do pay attention to what people are saying -- and Ben also was depending on obsolete data. I don't see Ben any more.

Hank Trisler was right. People sell new ideas to me all the time, but I buy for my reasons, not theirs.

This has been mostly anecdotal and personal, but I suspect the ideas are universal.

Tom Pittman
2007 October 18