May 18, 2009

The Seven Best Books on Persuasion

A while ago someone alerted me to a review of my book, Persuasive Business Proposals, on The anonymous reviewer called it “the best book ever on persuasion.”

Look, I’m about as arrogant and self-delusional as anybody you’re likely to meet, but even I don’t believe that. But it did get me to thinking. What are the best books on persuasion?

That is our topic this time.

Tom Sant

The Seven Best Books on Persuasion

Actually I first started thinking about this subject when Brian O’Connor, a friend and client who manages marketing communications and CRM for Scandinavia for a multinational corporation, asked me to recommend some books on persuasion. Which ones did I think were the best?

I responded off the top of my head, but since then I’ve been giving it more careful thought. Now, I’m ready to share—ta da!—my list of the seven best books (or at least seven books worth reading) on the topic of persuasion.

1. Robert Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion is a classic. It’s fun to read, it’s based on solid research, and it’s easy to make the connections to business. Besides, Cialdini is Regents' Professor of Psychology and Marketing at my original alma mater, Arizona State University, so that’s kind of cool. Since the first edition of Cialdini’s book came out, there have been others that walked the same path but his is still the most interesting and complete, in my opinion.

2. Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Yeah, the old chestnut. It’s actually quite insightful, particularly on the relationship side of persuasion, and it remains relevant today. What he says still makes sense and it’s backed up by empirical data from recent research in psychology. What did Carengie say? Make the other person feel important. Develop a genuine interest in them, take a positive attitude, use the other person’s name, listen more than you talk, and when you do talk, talk about what the other person finds interesting. Simple stuff, but valid nonetheless. I wrote extensively about Carnegie and his ideas in The Giants of Sales because he’s extremely important to the development of modern sales. He was focusing before anyone else on the role of trust in persuasion—if we don’t trust someone, we’ll never buy from him or her. David Maister, The Trusted Advisor, and Jagdish Sheth and Andrew Sobel, Clients for Life, are solid examples of more recent books that cover the same territory, but Carnegie is just great fun to read.

3. Gerd Gigerenzer, Peter Todd, et al, Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart. It’s not the most enjoyable read, particularly compared to the first two. Simple Heuristics is written in an academic style that’s often too dense by half. But it’s worth the slog, because it contains extremely useful and profound insights into decision making. And, after all, decision making is fundamental to what we do professionally. As proposal writers and sales professionals, our efforts at persuasion are meaningless if they don’t culminate in a decision and/or action from our client. Simple Heuristics explains the hierarchy of processes most of us go through as we make a decision, from simple recognition (I’ll take the one I’ve heard of before) to criterion-based (this one meets our specs) to rate-of-return analysis (I’ll take the one that delivers the most value to my group). These simple processes expl ain respectively why (1) you have almost zero chance of winning a bid if you’re responding to a blind RFP, (2) your proposal should contain a compliance matrix, and (3) you must include a value proposition backed up with evidence in every proposal you write. A similar book is Gary Klein, Sources of Power. Klein’s book is a little less structured, much less academic, and more focused on the seemingly intuitive processes of making decisions. It’s still relevant. Likewise, the new book from Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational, deals with decision making and draws on research by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman on decision making in the midst of uncertainty, for which Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics.

4. Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point. The books I’ve mentioned above are mainly focused on what goes on inside the skull of the individual who is being persuaded—the psychological aspects, if you will. Gladwell moves the discussion into the social sphere. How do social networks influence us to accept or reject an idea, a project, a person? As social networking becomes more of a structured tool for businesses to use in marketing, understanding this aspect of persuasion will become increasingly valuable.

5. Jay Levinson, Guerrilla Marketing. Speaking of marketing, I have always loved this book because it was the first one to show us that even the little guy could establish brand recognition, generate leads, and build customer loyalty—all without buying Super Bowl ads. Levinson was so far ahead of his time that he’s probably lapped all of us by now, but with the rise of the Internet many of his concepts have become even easier to implement. He has lots of followers and disciples. I put Seth Godin in this group [Permission Marketing and lots of others, many with goofy titles], along with Chip and Dan Heath [Made to Stick], for example. But the original is well worth reading.

6. Mack Hanan, Consultative Selling. In terms of sales processes, books that recommend a consultative methodology are built on a basic understanding of persuasion. I love Neil Rackham’s SPIN Selling and I learned a lot from Bosworth’s Solution Selling and Miller and Heiman’s Strategic Selling. But the first book I ever read on the subject and one of the clearest by far is Mack Hanan’s Consultative Selling. Once you finish reading Hanan, you’ll never again think it’s smart to focus on product features or to start your sales presentation with an overview of your company’s history. Focus on the client’s problem, quantify what it’s cost them, and show them how you can solve it: that’s Hanan’s method in three phrases and it’s dead on if you want to close business and gain a reasonable margin.

7. Edward Tufte, Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information and Visual Explanations. Okay, I’m cheating—I’ve listed three books by one author. But you need to look at them together to get the full impact of Tufte’s thinking. For many of us—especially if we’re writers by trade—the right hemisphere—the visual side of our brain—is a bit anemic. That’s something we have to address, however, because our customers process our message on the left (verbal) side of the brain, but they make decisions on the right (visual) side. Clip art, cluttered Excel tables, and other junk graphics just don’t work. Tufte has gained some notoriety in recent years for his vehement attacks on PowerPoint and similar programs. In his view, they corrupt the power to communicate and may lead to misunderstanding, superficial thinking, and manipulation. He rather convincingly cites the s pace shuttle Columbia disaster as an example, showing how the 28 slides presented by Boeing engineers misled NASA into a false sense of security. Chilling stuff, but it shows how subtle things, like the font size of a bullet point, can persuade, inform, or mislead an audience.

Some of the books I’ve listed here have nuts-and-bolts practicality and some are a little more theoretical. Their value to me is that they provoked new ideas. They’re the kind of books that make you look up from the page and say to yourself, “Hmmm… That’s interesting. I wonder if…” and then off you go.

Now it’s possible you may not have time to read all of these books. Or it’s possible that you won’t find them as interesting or as inspiring as I did. That’s okay. Call us. We’ve figured out some very practical ways of helping our clients create persuasive proposals and presentations and we’re happy to share them. In fact, we have a really great PowerPoint presentation we can show you that outlines all of our products and services.