A Four-Pronged Approach to Getting to ‘Yes’

Getting to Yes
I hate selling. As a believer in the principles of complexity (adapt to the situation/environment, don’t try to change it), I think trying to change people’s minds is inherently, unnecessarily difficult, and often futile. Tell people what makes sense to you, and if it makes sense to them, they will say ‘yes’. If it doesn’t, don’t try to persuade them, come up with another approach or solution that will make sense to them. 

Sometimes, however, you have no choice – you have to make a pitch. This is especially true when you’re dealing with decision-makers in a hierarchy and they don’t agree with each other. That means someone besides you has to change their mind. Recently, I’ve seen several presentations that use a simple, four-pronged approach to persuade someone to change their mind. I don’t know where it originates, but it seems quite powerful, and based on its growing popularity it presumably works. It’s summarized in the diagram above. 

The idea is to appeal to your audience in four different ways, for two reasons:

  • Depending on their worldview, sensitivities, drivers and biases, different people are persuaded by different things: Some respond better to negatives (threats, risks) and others to positives (benefits, opportunities), and
  • Depending on their context for understanding the problem or issue, different people have different levels of knowledge and awareness about it: By taking different approaches to persuasion, we appeal to different understandings and contexts, at least one of which should work for each audience member.

The four approaches are:

  1. Anxieties: What is causing stress to your audience that your idea/proposal will relieve? Audiences that respond to this approach are those who focus on the urgent before the important. If an issue is keeping them awake at night they will have a propensity to listen and respond positively to ideas and proposals that address it, even if the benefits are otherwise small. So by talking about possible anxieties, you have a better chance of ‘tapping into’ anxieties that this audience segment feels, and getting them engaged.
  2. Incapabilities: What can your audience not currently do that your idea/proposal will enable them to do? Audiences that respond to this approach are those who focus on vulnerabilities rather than abilities. If an issue makes them feel that they are at risk if they do not resolve it, they will have a propensity to listen and respond positively to ideas and proposals that address it, even if the benefits are otherwise small. So by talking about incapabilities, you have a better chance of engaging that segment of the audience that responds to risk more than opportunity.
  3. Needs: What does your audience need that your idea/proposal will address? A third segment of your audience will be process focused, and will respond to ideas and proposals that address needs that they have already identified and perhaps articulated, which are not being met (and could not be readily met) by any obvious solution. You engage this segment by recognizing and anticipating what they need and want, without them having to tell you.
  4. Benefits: What are the specific, measurable benefits to your audience of your idea/proposal? A final segment of your audience is impressed more by opportunity than risk, and will respond to ideas and proposals that stress benefits that they can personally relate to in the context of doing their job, task or hobby. They are not generally impressed by generic lists of benefits – they want to know that you know enough about how they would personally use your idea or proposal if it was implemented (so you need to do your homework to know your audience). They are also not generally impressed by lists of features.

By “audience” I am referring to whichever group you are trying to persuade – ‘real’ customers who will pay money for your idea or proposal, managers who you need to get to buy into and approve your idea or proposal, or internal users of your organization’s tools and processes.

The keys to being able to incorporate these four approaches effectively into your ‘pitch’ are:

  • Knowing your audience – What’s keeping them awake at night, how and why they might use your idea or proposal, and which of the four approaches they are most likely to respond to.
  • Avoiding repetition – It takes some skill to be able to incorporate all four approaches without obviously saying the same thing four times different ways, and boring or annoying your audience. Using different examples or stories can help you engage all four audience segments without being repetitive.
  • Being brief and direct – If you’ve done your homework, you needn’t be vague or circular in making your point. Get to it directly, point out the anxieties, incapabilities, needs and benefits that your idea or proposal addresses/delivers, and stop. Leave it to the audience to connect the dots and conclude for themselves that your idea or proposal is a good idea (and let them say it so it becomes to some extent their idea or proposal!) – don’t hit them over the head by saying it yourself. If they don’t respond (either immediately, or in the case of more cautious or discreet ‘customers’ reasonably soon afterwards), draw them out by asking questions about how they think their anxieties, incapabilities, needs or desired benefits might be addressed/delivered. If your idea/proposal meets those criteria, then they’re probably sold on it – ask them to approve it. If they offer some very different solution, you haven’t sold them, and it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

I’m just in the process of trying this out for the first time. I’m being subtle (not using the terms anxieties, incapabilities*, needs and benefits in my pitch) because I don’t want my audience to feel manipulated. And because I have different audiences I’m preparing several ‘flavours’ of the pitch with different emphases. I’ll let you know how it turns out. Has anyone else used this four-pronged technique? Anyone know whoinvented it?

* I know this isn’t a real word. It should be, though.

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5 Responses to A Four-Pronged Approach to Getting to ‘Yes’

  1. chosha says:

    I don’t mind selling something IF it really does do one of those four things without causing an ethical dilemma. I just don’t want to ever have to lie to make a buck.

  2. Linda says:

    I think selling sometimes gets a bad wrap. A few years ago when I was working for a high tech company, I noted that the sales people in this field were being solicited for HUGE salaries. Initially I was shocked, but then I realized that the rest of us wouldn’t jobs if someone wasn’t out there doing the selling. Sales people keep the economy going. They also deserve the big bucks because most of us can’t sell or won’t. Thanks for the strategies.

  3. Earl says:

    Some of the ideas you mentioned seem similar to what solution selling recommends. I too am testing marketing/selling techniques to use in my business. I am keenly interested in collaborating/communicating with others to develop a simple process/methodology that really works. Dave, most of the research I’ve come across suggests you’re on the right path. Below are a couple of recommended reading books.Solution Selling by Michael T. BosworthSelling to Big Companies by Jill Konrath

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks for the comments and links, everyone. Solution selling sounds consistent with simply clarifying that what you offer is what your customer needs or wants. That works for one segment of buyers but not all, I think. Some people don’t respond to solutions.

  5. Hi Dave, Your post is so timely for me as I am making presentations to youth organizations serving youth at risk of (or in)poverty and homelessness. Essentially, it’s a community of practice approach and I need to introduce some new concepts (learn from each other etc)and I face an array of questions that you address in your 4 approaches. Your post on this subject is a great help, thanks again.Brent MacKinnon

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