You’ll Turn to Stone Once You Realize Your Sales Pitch Inadvertently Contains this Common Mistake

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You’re always selling. You may not consider it as “selling,” but you’re always trying to convince someone to do something.

It doesn’t have to be about trying to get someone to buy something from you or your company. It could be anything. Maybe it’s what to have for dinner. Maybe it’s what movie to watch? Maybe it’s swaying your boss to give you a raise.

Do you find your pitch is less persuasive than you hoped for? You could be making a common mistake without knowing it. What is that common mistake and how can you avoid it? Perhaps we should start with a metaphor.

Have you ever been to the Petrified Forest?

No, I’m not referring to the 1936 movie The Petrified Forest, starring Leslie Howard and Bette Davis, which also featured Humphrey Bogart when he was still cutting his chops playing the villain. Such was Bogey’s performance on the undercard that the American Film Institute included his character Duke Mantee among the nominees of the greatest heroes and villains of all time. (That AFI groups heroes and villains on the same list should tell you a lot about moral relativism in modern times.)

The “Petrified Forest” I’m referring to is the same setting of the film by the same name. It’s a National Park located on the border of Navajo and Apache counties in the northeastern quadrant of Arizona. Scattered among the colorful but eerie badlands lay fossilized conifers and pine trees dating back to the Triassic Era some 160 million years ago.

Oddly, unlike their contemporary peers, these trees did not turn to coal. The rivers that carried them once they fell (likely due to natural causes) allowed them to settle into enveloping sediment. This wasn’t ordinary silt. It represented the final resting place of the same volcanic ash spewed from ancient eruptions. The minerals from this ash not only painted the surrounding landscape, its silica also provided the necessary ingredient to convert the trees into fossilize stone.

According to “A Brief Guide to the Petrified Forest National Monument Arizona” (United States Department of the Interior, September 1941), “in the process much silica was freed, leached out, and carried by underground waters into the logs. There, slowly, the silica was deposited, impregnating the wood and replacing the wood fiber until the pine logs became logs of stone… The great variety of red, brown, and yellow colors are usually produced by minute quantities of iron oxide stain in the silica, and similarly the black is produced by iron and manganese oxide pigment.”

These beautiful rocks, once discovered, became attractive souvenirs.

Think about what that meant. As more people “harvested” these trees for their own rock collection, there’d be fewer and fewer samples for visitors to see. Eventually, the Petrified Forest would become nothing more than simply another painted desert. Theodore Roosevelt recognized this problem and declared the area as the “Petrified Forest National Monument” in 1906. (It would finally became a National Park in 1962.)

A 1953 booklet on the Petrified Forest National Monument issued by the National Park Service contained this warning:

“Please help to maintain and protect Petrified Forest National Monument by refraining from destroying or removing specimens of petrified wood (no matter how small the piece) or defacing or marking ruins, pictographs, petroglyphs, or other works of prehistoric man. If each of the hundreds of thousands of yearly visitors took pieces of petrified wood, there would soon be none left. Once removed, it is gone forever—it cannot be replaced.”

To emphasize the seriousness of this bad behavior, the pamphlet further threatened “to impose penalties of fines or imprisonment, or both.” On a more positive note, it did suggest “You may purchase petrified wood from the monument concessioner, who gets his supply from dealers handling wood obtained from private lands outside of the monument.”

If you’re seeing a kind of mixed message here, you aren’t alone.

In his book Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, co-author Robert Cialdini, a renowned behavioral psychologist, describes an experiment he and his colleagues performed in conjunction with the Petrified Forest National Park.

It began when they heard a story about a park visitor. She noticed a sign in the park that read “Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time.” Her immediate response was, “We’d better get ours now.”

Think about what that sign just told the visitor. First, people are stealing petrified wood and apparently getting away with it. Second, it’s a whole lot of petrified wood that’s being stolen. Third, pretty soon, there won’t be any petrified wood for visitors to see. Finally – and this is the really great part – it tells you exactly how to steal petrified wood and get away with it: “a small piece at a time.”

Not very effective. In fact, Cialdini calls this “negative social proof.” Think of “social proof” as a form of peer pressure.

Except it doesn’t have to just be about pressure. It could also be a form of justification you use when you know you shouldn’t do something. It’s what your mother warned you against. (You remember, “If all your friends jump in the lake, does that mean you should jump in the lake?”) Face it, how many times have you wanted to jump in the lake simply because all your friends are doing it. (“But, ma, everyone else is just fine when they do it!”)

Well, according to Cialdini and friends, your mother was right. (Was there ever any doubt?) His researchers put up two signs. One, like the original, reinforced negative social proof. The second sign, however, merely advised “Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the park, in order to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest.” (N.B.: This second sign uses another tactic Cialdini’s research has shown to be effective, but that’s beside the point.)

Under the negative social proof sign, people were nearly four times more likely to steal petrified wood versus the second sign. In addition, fewer people (by about half) stole the rock when reading the second sign versus seeing no sign at all.

What does this tell you? Your mother may have been right, but her persuasive pitch was wrong. The minute she says all your friends are doing it, she’s inadvertently telling you it’s OK for you to jump in the lake, too. That’s not the message she wants to convey, but that’s what you’re hearing.

What’s a better way for mom to communicate? She could say, “Johnny, who just flunked out of school, jumps in the lake. Billy, who never jumped in the lake, just got a college scholarship.”

How does this work in the real world? Read any financial media and you’ll certainly see a piece about the importance of saving for retirement. How many of those articles also include some sort of fact saying, “too few people are saving for retirement” and what does that tell you?

It tells you it’s OK to jump in the lake.

A better choice of words (and sources) would be to highlight that (rare) case where someone who didn’t save enough is forced to live a sorry lifestyle in retirement. At the same time, the article can put the shine on multiple cases of those everyday “millionaires next door” who saved during a lifetime of work to live a retirement beyond their dreams.

That’s just one example. Every industry, every organization, every cause, each has the opportunity to accidentally fall into the trap of reinforcing negative social proof.

How many times have you gone to church or received a plea from a non-profit saying “not enough people are donating?” Does that inspire you to give your money or does it make you think, “well, if everyone else is doing it…?”

How many times do you hear your boss complain that “too many people think they can arrive late to work or leave early from work?” Does that make you begin to wonder if it’s also OK for you to start shaving a few extra minutes off your work hours?

And don’t think you can get around negative social proof by spouting “the average” in hopes of boosting those performing below average. Cialdini calls this the “magnetic middle.” His research (in looking at energy consumption) shows this approach has an unintended effect. Yes, it encouraged people who were below average to save more energy. At the same time, however, it also encouraged people who were above average to save less energy – to get closer to the average!

The lesson here is simple. If you want to convince someone to do what you want them to do – from buying more of the widgets you produce to working harder to supporting your charity – don’t employ a pitch that reinforces negative social proof.

Or you can join the rest of your friends and jump in the lake.

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