The Subtle Layers of Persuasion

“Like acting, sales works best when hidden.” ― Peter Thiel, Zero to One.


The Greek poet Homer tells the story of Ulysses, a respected warrior. As Ulysses is sailing home from the Trojan war, the goddess of magic, Circe, speaks to him. She warns him of two monsters pretending to be beautiful women singing. She warns him anyone who hears their singing is overcome with desire and falls into their trap. Many passing sailors are lured to their island and murdered. What Ulysses did in response teaches us how we can deal with master persuaders. But let’s get to Ulysses story later.

We often think of persuasion like the two singing monsters. We fear if we hear a powerful argument we will be overcome with desire and fall into their trap.


But this idea of persuasion is false. There are no magic words somebody can speak. Persuasion is subtle. Persuasion comes from a culmination of nuance behaviours and tactics. Subtle persuasive tactics are so powerful because we don’t recognise them. They are like a Trojan horse that slips past our defences unnoticed.


An attractive face, a deep voice, displays of authority, emotional appeals, reciprocation, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking and scarcity all influence our opinions and beliefs. But do we recognise when we’re being persuaded by each of these factors? Often we don’t.


In Ph.D Robert B. Cialdini’s book Influence, he retells the story of the Drubeck brothers, as captured by Leo Rosten. The Drubeck brothers, Harry and Sid, owned a tailor shop in the 1930s. As Sid helped customers try on suits, he would ask them to speak louder as he had a hearing problem. When a customer found a suit they liked, Sid would shout to the back of the shop to ask his brother Harry the price. Harry would look up from a suit he was making and shout back “For that beautiful all-wool suit, forty-two dollars.”


At that point, Sid would pretend not to hear and ask for the price again. “Forty-two dollars,” Harry would shout.” Now, with the customer clearly aware of Harry’s forty-two dollar valuation, Sid would tell them, “He says twenty-two dollars.” The brothers made many quick sales as customers sought to escape before the ‘mistake’ was realised.


To avoid being manipulated by a master persuader we must make ourselves aware of specific tactics. We don’t want to be fooled like the Drubeck brother’s customers. We must restrain ourselves like Ulysses.


Ulysses knew that if either he or his crew heard the song of the monsters, they would be persuaded to run their ship aground on the monsters island. Aware of this persuasive singing, he had each crew member stick beeswax in their ears. They were safe. But Ulysses wanted to hear the song for himself. He wanted to hear the monster’s persuasion in action. So, he had his crew tie him to the ship’s mast and promise not to untie him no matter how much he begged them to. He was able to see the monsters persuasive tactics, without being persuaded.


The story of Ulysses begs the question, who would we rather be? Would we rather remain ignorant like his crew and stick beeswax in our ears? Or would we like to expose ourselves to master persuaders and learn their secrets?


Ulysses teaches us by tying ourselves to the mast, we can experience persuasion—without being persuaded. We can peek behind the curtain of master persuaders and study their principles of subtle persuasion.


Principles of Subtle Persuasion

We know master persuaders are charismatic like Bill Clinton. We know they are logical like Richard Dawkins. We see the effect they have, but do we recognise the principles they’re using? Do we recognise that their subtle persuasion tactics are extensions of persuasive principles? Here’s a look at seven of the principles master persuaders use.

1. Smart: If someone sounds smart we think their idea is smart.

The more we can sound sapient, the more our idea sounds astute (sapient and astute are synonyms, but sapient sounds smart and makes the idea sound more credible).


2. Interest: Without generating interest you will not get attention. And without attention, you cannot persuade.

No one pays attention to a story that starts with “Yesterday, Mr Mittens and I watched a soap opera together…” So even if her boring story continued, “And I realised like the soap opera’s main character I have too much money and want to give $1,000,000 to you”, many people wouldn’t be persuaded to take the $1,000,000 because they stopped listening as soon as they heard her say “Mr Mittens”.


3. Trust: We are sceptical of our enemies or inferiors advice and trusting of our allies and superiors advice.

In America the Democrats are more trusting of CNN and sceptical of Fox. And the Republicans are more trusting of Fox and sceptical of CNN.


4. Feeling: How we feel about something changes how we think about it.

In his book Influence, Robert Cialdini retells a story of a German Soldier in World War I. This soldier would capture enemy soldiers for interrogation. He crawled through no-man’s-land, entered the enemies (allied forces) trench, captured a soldier and brought them back to the German trench for interrogation. But his next mission would be different.


Again, he was instructed by his superiors to enter the enemy’s trench and bring back a soldier for interrogation. Again, he made it through no-man’s-land and entered the allied forces trench. It was there that he surprised a lone soldier. The lone soldier was eating at the time so he was quickly disarmed.


The frightened captive did what no other captive had done. He gave some of the bread he was eating to the German soldier. This gift, this act of generosity, affected the German soldier so much that he could not complete his mission. He let the frightened soldier go and returned to his own trench alone to face the wrath of his superiors.


The frightened soldier changed how the German soldier felt about the situation. And feeling differently about his supposed ‘enemy’, the German soldier, for the first time in all his missions, thought it better to leave him be.


5. Relevance: Before we can be persuaded we must care enough to listen. It must be relevant to us.

Made To Stick by Chip & Dan Heath tells the story of a local newspaper, The Daily Record, in Dunn, North Carolina. This local paper has the highest penetration of any paper in the country. Why? It focuses exclusively on relevance; they know “The main reason anybody reads a local newspaper is for local names and pictures”.


This sentiment is shared by Ralph Delano who runs another successful local newspaper. He says, “If an atomic bomb fell on Raleigh (a neighbouring town), it wouldn’t be news in Benson unless some of the debris and ashes fell on Benson.”


6. Style: If you can make your audience spellbound your persuasion will work like magic.

Consider the effect of sentence length. A single seven word sentence is fine. Even two in a row is okay. But three starts to become slightly boring. And it gets worse as you continue. The uniformity begins putting you to sleep.


Consider variety. Consider combining short, medium and long sentences. It becomes engaging. And once you have engagement you are able to deliver your point. You are able to persuade. Style matters—and sentence length is only one technique.


7. Concrete: We believe what we can see for ourselves.

Abstract ideas exist only in thought, while concrete stories exist in the real-world. Concrete stories are about things you can touch. We can explain abstract ideas by using concrete stories.


Consider Aesop’s fables. The abstract idea of the danger of lying is made concrete with the story, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”. The abstract idea that greed can destroy opportunity is made concrete with the story, “The Goose That Laid The Golden Eggs”. And the abstract idea that appearances can be deceptive is made concrete with the story, “The Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing”.


Persuasion Principles In Action

Now we know the principles, can we recognise them when they’re applied? Can we notice the tactics born from the principles? Let’s take a look why a politician gathered more attention than the world’s scientists, why some companies have cults not customers and why some religions gather larger flocks.

1. An Inconvenient Truth

Scientists tried drawing public attention to global warming. They showed their graphs and spoke in their scientific language. Nobody listened.


One of the major turning points in the fight for awareness of global warming was when Al Gore released the documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.


As you can see in the image below, the number of people searching the term ‘global warming’ increased by 400% in the three months following the release of Gore’s documentary. It is the most interest there has been, even to this day. You can see the data for yourself on Google Trends.

It captured public interest. Not because it had better scientific evidence, but because it was designed to persuade.

What are Al Gore’s subtle persuasive tactics?


  1. Smart:

– Gore uses scientific reasoning.  

– He makes the audience feel smart. Before explaining the science of how global warming works, Gore says “That brings up the basic science of global warming. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on it because you know it well…”
Even though most people watching An Inconvenient Truth don’t understand the basic science of global warming, Gore tells them they “know it well”.
Ordinarily, when faced with a complex scientific concept people immediately reject it—not because it’s incorrect—but because if they attempt to understand it and fail they feel stupid.

The ego-boost of “know it well” gives them the confidence to open themselves to the idea—they cannot feel stupid for being reminded of something they already know.  


  1. Interest:

– The trailer that must generate enough interest to persuade people to watch the documentary, shows the famous Mount Kilimanjaro 30 years ago covered in snow. It then contrasts it with the image of Mount Kilimanjaro today—a barren mountain landscape. People are interested in the famous tourist destination and the natural beauty of our planet. It captures our interest.


  1. Trust:

– Al Gore had been the Vice President of the United States so he had authority.


  1. Feeling:

– In the trailer he said, ‘If you love your planet, if you love your children, you have to see this film’ which evokes guilt.


  1. Relevance:

– He linked Hurricane Katrina to global warming, which had an extra impact because it was recent.

– He told people they can contribute by recycling which evokes participation.


  1. Style:

– Gore talks with an emotive voice, uses inclusive language such as we and uses metaphors such as comparing the thinness of the earth’s atmosphere to a coat of varnish on a globe of the world.


  1. Concrete:

– Gore turned the numbers into a visual image—to emphasise the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere he climbs in a cherry picker and raises it so he can point to the top of the graph—he uses concrete imagery.


2. Apple

Apple, the company with $650 billion value, is incredibly persuasive. People line up for hours to buy their product. Many Apple devotees consider themselves closer to cult followers than customers.

What are Apple’s subtle persuasive tactics?

  1. Smart:

– Apple ran their famous Mac vs PC ads which had a defeated looking man say “I’m a PC” and a young sophisticated looking man say “I’m a Mac”. The Apple guy looked smarter.


  1. Interest:

– They create attention grabbing designs, such as the bright white earphones.


  1. Trust:

– At the Apple stores you don’t have sales assistant helping you, you have ‘geniuses’. The name gives them a sense of authority.

– The huge lines of people lining up to buy the latest iPhone create social proof (if everyone else is buying it I should too).


  1. Feeling:

– Apple puts more resources than any other electronic company to ensure its products are beautiful, which leverages attractiveness.


  1. Relevance:

– To make their products seem even more popular, they limit the number released on the day of the product launch, which increases perceived value due to scarcity.


  1. Style:

– Everything about Apple, from their physical product to their advertising carries a sophisticated image.


  1. Concrete:

– They transformed the idea of the iPod from an abstract MP3 player to a concrete slogan; “A thousand songs in your pocket”.


3. The Bible

The bible could be summed up in one line: don’t be an asshole. But if it was, it wouldn’t have become the most popular book in the world.


The bible has had such an impact on humanity because it resonates with humans. That one line, ‘don’t be an asshole’ is a throwaway line. It doesn’t stick. The bible is popular because it has layers of persuasion that become incredibly influential when weaved together.


What are The Bible’s subtle persuasive tactics?

  1. Smart:

– As The Bible is a book willed from God, an omnipotent being, it’s considered smart.


  1. Interest:

– The book is filled with stories of miracles that capture reader’s imagination.  


  1. Trust:

– Jesus being the son of God gives the bible authority.

– The many followers mentioned throughout The Bible create social proof.


  1. Feeling:

– The themes of love and sacrifice in the face of personal sacrifice inspire deep feeling among Christians.


  1. Relevance:

– The archetypal characters who struggle with their own flaws evoke relatability.


  1. Style:

– Concepts of love and forgiveness are used repetitively.


  1. Concrete:

– The abstract idea of sacrifice was made concrete with the image of Jesus on a cross.


An Inconvenient Truth, Apple and The Bible haven’t influenced our world because they apply one tactic well. They have gained power because they simultaneously apply several principles.


Using multiple tactics is powerful for three reasons. Firstly, individuals are persuaded on multiple levels. For example, we are persuaded by both logic and emotion. Secondly, different people are persuaded by different tactics. For example, scientists and rational thinkers were more persuaded by the scientific arguments of Al Gore while other groups trusted him because he had been the Vice President.


The final reason using multiple tactics is powerful, is because persuasion works best when we don’t know it’s occurring. The more tactics you use, the less your audience will be able to consciously detect them. And those that go undetected will be allowed to subconsciously persuade.