Persuading with… No Results Masterclass

When you are pitching, presenting or otherwise convincing someone, ideally you have results. Your product is proven, your project achieved good outcomes, or similar.

… but there are situations where you may have no results.

(Oops)

Either it’s too soon to measure them, or someone else caused results to be bad, or the unthinkable happened, and you have bad results due to… yourself.

Here, we cover some techniques that you can leverage to still make something seem persuasive when you don’t have results yet – or good results:

(Edit: You can also watch a recording of a webinar of mine, with the same content as this post, but in video format here. Otherwise, keep reading!)

1) Leverage the potential

The potential, put simply is what can be. It’s illustrating a positive possibility, regardless of the chances of it actually happening.

Just picture someone telling you, “This product can help you achieve your highest level of productivity!”. Well, it can, but what is the real probability of it occurring? Doesn’t matter – the possibility is already enough to anchor you to the best-case scenario and be persuaded.

In fact, research shows that the potential persuades even more than actual facts, in many cases.

In studies done comparing job candidates with previous “good” experience versus those with a “great” potential but no track record, the ones with the highest potential sill persuaded more.

Just let that sink in. Saying “I can improve your results by 30%” is more persuasive than saying, “I have consistently improved your results by 20% for years!”. The possibility is a true emotional slap in the face, shocking the person and anchoring them.

In the lack of results, mentioning the potential is very useful:

  • If your product has not proven weight loss weight, you can say “It can cause up to 4 pounds of weight loss per month”;
  • If your project has not saved costs yet, but can, you can say, “This project has the potential to save 20% in costs”;
  • If a certain copywriting technique has not proven to increase email open rates, you can say, “This technique can increase open rates by up to 10%”;

Naturally, be careful not to lie – this technique is immensely powerful, but also usable for manipulation. But do take the realistic, potential results you can achieve, and leverage those.

2) Change the option set (make it relative)

Now, this technique is in a morally grey area, because it seems like you’re excusing your lack of results with similar lack of results by others. But, used ethically, it puts things in perspective.

Imagine you have no results as an executive yet, after 1 year. Does that seem bad? It may.

… but let’s say no other executive in the company obtained results either. Now, does that seem bad?

We tend to look at the relative, not absolute value of something to extract is true merits. Therefore, if you change what you are compared to, you change the value you have.

  • One product that does not achieve results, while 5 others do: Bad;
  • One product that does not achieve results, while 5 others do, and 5 others don’t: Average;
  • One product that does not achieve results, while none other does either: Normal;

This is a type of context persuasion – or context manipulation, depending on how it’s used. Put simply, change your context, and you change your value.

Also notice that, besides changing the specific options in a group, you can also change the entire group. Let’s go back to our example of the executive project. You can compare your executive project to:

  • Other executive projects in the company;
  • Other executive projects in the industry in general;
  • Other executive projects by CMOs in specific (if you are one, for example);
  • Other executive projects by newly-minted executives;

All of these specific option groups will have different characteristics and consequences for how good yours looks.

And the same can be done for any comparison group for a project, product, service, job candidate, movie you’re recommending a friend, or any other persuasion pitch.

3) Do a time skip

In marketing, one of the most powerful techniques is novelty. Something being “new”.

If you have two products that are exactly the same, but one is more recent, that one will be considered better.

If you have two people that took the same exact degree, but one did so more recently, that one is considered more persuasive.

… and so on. “New” sells.

Novelty can also be used, however, to detach from a previous time period, entering a new one, and leaving that one behind.

This is especially useful if you obtained bad results in the past, but want to show that “you’re over it”. But even if results are simply inconclusive, you can split the current time period into two – one where results were not obtained yet, then you did something significant to restructure the project or team, and now you’re in the second phase.

This is especially useful to gain momentum.

  • You break down the current period into two different ones, and leave the previous one behind, giving the impression something has changed, and you have more authority now.

It’s the same thing that people do with negative narratives. “Oh, that’s in the past”. “That has long changed.” “You’re still focused on that?”.

4) Use progress

A different, but related technique is to use progress.

Put simply, illustrating progress is about leveraging indicators that show that something will happen soon – or eventually. Or, at least, that things are getting done, even if the ultimate result has not been achieved yet.

In many cases, when results have no been achieved, the person may assume the whole product or project is useless.

  • For example, a project to achieve 20% cost savings has achieved no savings yet. People on the outside will consider it useless. Even if the project has already generated insights related to methodologies, key people, supplier relationships, or whatever elements will help you save.

In other words, many people ignore research, preliminary results, and tangential benefits, and focus just on the end result of a project.

  • So you are reversing that tendency and showing everything else that has been achieved.

This is the concept, in general, of illustrating progress. It has to do with effort persuasion. Let me elaborate – when something is effortful, we are less likely to be persuaded by it, or to do it. Or vice-versa. Less friction means people adopt something more, right?

Progress works in a similar way, through inertia. That is, something that must be started from scratch, or that must create results from scratch seems very effortful. But what if something is already in motion? Well, that’s a completely different case – there is no effort associated. You just keep doing what you’re already doing.

5) Leverage justifications

As simple as it may be, another technique is leveraging justifications. Saying why things are not working – or sharing about the internals of the project.

Justifications work by “forcing” the person to understand you. They include sharing personal details, using excuses, and similar. Although more sophisticated justification work, even empty ones work.

Imagine you’re selling something. And suddenly, the person says, “Can I have a discount? It’s just I had a soon recently, and unfortunately finances are tight”.

If you’re experienced at turning off your emotions, you may remain indifferent to this, but, otherwise, you will feel it harder to charge the person full price. Their justification “infected” you with feelings.

Research shows that even empty justifications persuade, funnily enough. If you just say, “Hey, can you do this for me? It’s just that I need it”. That already persuades to a point!

I categorise justifications into 4 main categories, in descending order of efficiency:

  • Diagnosed justifications are targeted for the specific person. If one of their priorities in life is quality products, you can say, “This product has not achieved results, but I recommend continuing it because it has quality, and it’s aligned with you”;
  • Granular justification are targeted for a specific action or element of the person. Think of Amazon saying, “We recommend this product because you bought this other one”. It’s not fully targeted to the person, but at least to a dimension of them;
  • Statistical justifications are based on demographics or psychographics. It’s saying something like, “I still believe you should support this project, because executives with similar seniority levels in other companies also support them”. Less targeted, but statistically relevant to the person;
  • Empty justifications are the worst type, but they still persuade, as mentioned. It’s saying, “You should support this project because it’s good”, or “Because I believe in it”, or another empty boilerplate statement;

Whether you justify yourself with a very targeted recommendation (“I recommend maintaining this project because it aligns with your specific goals”), or with an empty recommendation (“I recommend his product because it’s good”), both will be relevant to the person.

6) Change the evaluation standards and criteria

When I created my How Manipulation Works course, one of the most original types of manipulation – and also persuasion – was standard manipulation (standard persuasion, if used for good).

It consists of changing the rules or criteria of something to persuade – or changing your actions within those rules.

Gaming the system, arbitrage, that type of thing.

It’s very frequent in the corporate world. Imagine a bad manager that wants to promote an incompetent employee that is social, but has no results, versus one that has results, but is not social. They can first decide to promote the incompetent one, then change the evaluation criteria to make the social aspect have a higher weight, and performance have a lower one.

Basically, you manipulate the rules or criteria to achieve the results you want.

In some cases, this can be done ethically, and in others it can be a devastating manipulation technique.

We can do the same thing here, changing the results we measure our projects by, to make projects without results seem to have results in other areas:

  • Imagine a project for employee engagement that is supposed to increase engagement by 10%. It didn’t, but curiously, it increased enablement, as some tech video courses were included. Maybe, if measured as an employee enablement project, it would have 20% or higher increases;
  • Imagine a product that is supposed to save time on all DevOps tasks for programmers. It doesn’t help that much in general, but, in specific, for code integration, it reduces time spent by 20%. If positioned as a code integration product, it will seem a lot better;

You may argue we’re talking about positioning and the angle you take here, and, absolutely, But, more specifically, we’re achieving that by changing the rules or criteria used to evaluate something.

7) Substitute numbers for credentials

This one is an interesting fallback for specific people. Let me elaborate. There are four types of persuasion templates, what I call the four Influence Archetypes.

Put simply, the person can be a Dominant, Analyst, Passionate or Nurturer.

Analysts are the people we are focusing on in this specific part. They are persuaded by slow, logical thinking. They like facts, processes, credentials, reputation, preparation above all else.

You probably know these personality types. They are very effective in areas such as accounting, finance and the legal world. They are the people most likely to give you a hard time over a lack of results.

Therefore, you can simply persuade them with the other elements that are also attractive to them, such as credentials, proven processes, and, above all else, preparation.

The idea here is the following: instead of looking like someone with no results due to being an amateur, who has no credentials, no processes and no logical thinking, you want to seem the opposite. You want to seem someone who is completely on top of their game, extremely prepared, and who just happened to not get results yet, due to the vicissitudes of the environment, or other reasons.

(Now, do notice you do have to put in the effort with this technique. You really have to show preparation with an Analyst, if you’re going to persuade without results. Research, risk management scenarios, simulations, forecasts, and many other elements are necessary – to seem like someone who is very organised, and did not get results due to a fluke, you really have to be that person – very organised, even if with no results)

8) Detach cause from effect

Finally, a technique that works is detaching the cause from the effect.

Or, in other words, blurring the line between cause and effect.

Put simply, if you have no results, people will be likely to blame you for it (or the responsible team, naturally). The team under you, if you are an executive with a “resultless” project, your product management team if you’re a salesperson pushing a “resultless” product, and so on.

People tend to make simplistic attributions. If the competition’s product has results, but yours doesn’t, then they have a good team, and you have a bad one. We all have a tendency for premature attribution, and this is no exception.

This is where detachment comes into play. You illustrate other factors that may be causing results – or the lack of them, therefore blurring your personal accountability.

When people are very focused on one possibility, they trust it. But when you insert other possibilities, they are “confused” by the possibility, and therefore they lose conviction about it (this is a technique, by itself, that I call The Possibility Shuffle).

Although this is a manipulative example, and definitely not something you want to do, the oil and gas industry is perfect at using this technique. Climate change? Oh, it’s not due to emissions. There are so many factors that may cause it. Also, global warming may occur naturally, or it may occur due to so many other factors. Why do you think this is us?

Now, back to reality, and the ethical usage of this technique. You can mention alternative factors for something working or not, such as:

  • The attitude of individual users or clients (some people get results, others don’t);
  • The economical and financial landscape (good projects and businesses fail in crises, for example);
  • The diluted accountability in big teams (a cross-department team of 50 people made a faulty product. Is our team really the guilty one?);

In other words, what you’re pretty much doing is introducing noise. Given the noise is realistic, it can be effective.

(On a personal note, I am heavily against this technique. But that’s maybe due to my personal code of conduct and an overgrown sense of honor that makes me fall on the sword and take ultimate responsibility for everything that happens, even when it was completely due to factors outside my control. But, still, it’s a technique that can work very well for some – and in shady corporate cultures where failure is not tolerated, this may be necessary to a point).

Conclusion

Although persuading with results seems like the highest-efficient – and most logical – thing to do, using alternative techniques to create appeal and make something better can serve either as a substitute, or in conjunction with these results.

Considering that certain techniques, such as the potential, actually overwrite results in many cases, with people caring more about what can be than the track record, it’s important to master these techniques.

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