Persuasion Tactics: A Master Persuader’s Toolkit

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Win Bigly" by Scott Adams. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you want to improve your persuasion skills? What tactics do master persuaders use to sway people to their point of view?

If you want to level up your persuasion game, there is no shortage of methods that teach you how to exercise your skills. The following persuasion tactics are taken from Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter.

Here are some tactics every aspiring persuader should know.

Scott Adams: How to Be a Master Persuader

Master persuaders often have a collection of persuasion tactics up their sleeve. The more you can combine, the more persuasive you will be. These tactics teach how to persuade on a word-by-word basis.

Linguistic Kill Shot

A Linguistic Kill Shot is a nickname or catchphrase targeting your opponent. It can be so persuasive that it quickly ends an argument. They are more effective when novel (uncommon, unexpected) and visual.

The 2016 US Presidential election showed a variety of nicknames, some masterful and others ineffective.

  • Trump’s: “Low-energy Jeb.” “Lyin’ Ted.” “Lil’ Marco.” “Crooked Hillary.” “Goofy Elizabeth Warren.” 
    • Note how the most memorable names weren’t common – no use of “liberal.”                                                                                                                                                                                          
    • Note too the deliberate contraction of words that invites a double take – lyin’, lil’.
    • These all fed confirmation bias and visual imagery – Jeb did indeed look listless, Ted did have beady little eyes that made him look untrustworthy.
  • Clinton’s nicknames for Trump weren’t as effective:
    • “Donald Duck” was meant to show him ducking criticism, but it associated him with an adorable beloved character and neutralized the Hitler image.
    • “Drumpf” was Trump’s Austrian original name. It was novel, but didn’t have any associations, and thus was unpersuasive. It was also inconsistent with Clinton’s brand of being welcoming to foreigners.
    • “Dangerous Donald” was better, but some people actually wanted a renegade candidate dangerous to the establishment (which Hillary represented) – it wouldn’t turn his base over.
  • Adams believes the best linguistic attack on Trump was describing him as “dark.” 
    • It has sinister character but is vague enough to allow the person to fill in the blank with whatever scares them most. It captures all of our fears into a tidy package.
    • It’s unusual in politics and easily used in conversation
  • Scott Adams himself uses plenty of key terms in his book – “Master Persuader,” “weapons-grade persuasion skills”

Because of availability bias and confirmation bias, these visual catchphrases become more powerful over time as we receive evidence that fits the name. All that people needed to confirm “Lyin’ Ted” was some evidence that he had been less than truthful at one time, and the nickname would stick.

Furthermore, because they are simple, they are more likely to be used often, making them more available in people’s minds. These effects can form a virtuous cycle.

Create Effective Slogans

Like Linguistic Kill Shots, slogans are short phrases that convey your message.

Principles

  • Make the slogan about the highest ideals you are striving for, not about your independent company or team.
  • Each word should have a positive connotation or symbolism.
  • Have good rhythm, like iambic pentameter or percussion through consonants.

Scott Adams discusses the two slogans in the 2016 US Presidential election.

Trump: “Make America Great Again” 

This slogan was first used by Reagan in 1980. When this was reported as criticism, it might have actually helped Trump – since Trump was an outsider to politics, the association to Reagan gave Trump slightly more credibility.

Decomposing the slogan by word:

  • Make: An active verb, connotes action and change. Also subtly connotes manufacturing and job creation.
  • America: Obviously a positively evocative word. It conveyed that Trump stood for the entire nation instead of for himself, fitting Trump’s “America first” stance.
  • Great: Everyone wants to be great. Greatness can be interpreted however one wants.
  • Again: A return to former glory days, which many of Trump’s voters pined for. This provoked some controversy over whether America was already great or not, which got people talking about the slogan.

The slogan was then put on a red hat, red meaning action, dominance, and sex (in contrast to Hillary’s pink hats). Red also meant Republican.

Adams says saying Make America Great Again had good percussion rhythm with regular consonant sounds, independent of the meaning. Contrast with Clinton’s “I’m with her,” which lacks those benefits.

Hillary Clinton’s Slogans

According to Scott Adams, Clinton’s slogans focused too much on her gender and unity of her party, not about America in general. Clinton used a variety of slogans throughout her campaign, never having one with as much common appearance as Trump’s:

“I’m with her”

  • This strongly emphasized her gender, which implied some sort of advantage. 
  • It also focuses strongly on the voter’s action and Clinton as a candidate, not the nation in general.

“I’m Ready for Hillary”

  • Same problems as above, but with some added smug superiority around being “ready” for a woman president.

“Fighting for Us”

  • Who is us? If it’s America, why not say so? 
  • “Us” can be taken too strongly to mean the in-group, and whatever people feel excluded from – women, minorities, immigrants. Would white male voters feel comfortable with saying “fight for us?”

“Breaking down barriers”

  • Suggests Clinton is fighting for the disadvantaged, but does this threaten people who are established – does it entail taking jobs? 
  • This is also too evocative of breaking down international barriers and letting illegal immigrants in, the antithesis of Trump’s wall. 
  • However, this slogan does have good percussion.

“Stronger Together”

  • The best one of the bunch, highlighting more unity. 
  • But as Clinton supporters became bullies to Trump supporters, it sounded like a pack of bullies attacking people who disagreed. 

High-Ground Maneuver

Instead of engaging with a complaint specific to you, neutralize it by relating it to a higher concept everyone can agree with. Clarify your intent along a direction that no one can blame you for.

Examples:

  • In response to Antennagate, Steve Jobs said, “We’re not perfect. Phones aren’t perfect. We want to make all our users happy.”
    • While he got heat for not being apologetic, the question of whether the iPhone 4 was a dud vanished. If Jobs had kowtowed and sheepishly admitted fault, the iPhone could have continued being the butt of jokes.
  • In response to being labeled a whiner, Trump said he was the best whiner of all time, and that’s exactly what the country needs. 
    • The low ground is debating whether whiner is a fair label for Trump. The high ground is whether being a whiner is good for the United States.
  • When switching sides to Trump, Scott Adams wrote: “I don’t know a lot about policy. I don’t know the best way to defeat ISIS. Neither do you. I don’t know the best way to negotiate trade policies. Neither do you.” Then he wrote about how Trump was the most persuasive presidential candidate he had ever seen.
    • This neutralized the counter of “how can you support Trump, he cares so much about policy X.”

Scott Adams also illustrated how the high-ground maneuver could be used in previous controversies.

  • For the military: if a military drone kills civilians, say “War is messy. No one wants civilians to die. We will study this situation carefully to see how we’ll avoid it in the future.”
  • BP oil spill: “All the easy sources of oil are gone, depleted. We all want clean energy in our future, but it will take time. If the oil industry doesn’t take risks today, gas prices will keep going up and make life harder. No one wants oil spill accidents to happen. We’ll study this carefully and do everything we can to make things right.”

In the face of victory, encourage your own supporters to take the high ground.

  • When Trump won, Scott Adams counseled his followers to avoid gloating and not fight back, for the better of the country. 

Appeal to universal ideals that everyone aspires to.

  • (Shortform example: “What would Jesus do?”)

Create Two Ways to Win, No Way to Lose

Say you want X to happen. The strategy is: say publicly that if X doesn’t happen, then that would have been because of reason Y unfavorable to you. 

  • If X doesn’t happen, then you look like you were right and you get a small victory, even if you didn’t get what you wanted
  • If X does happen (partially because the people overcompensated to not look like reason Y), then you win, and you can also take credit for X happening.

This is abstract, so let’s cover some examples:

  • Iran detained American sailors in Jan 2016. Trump said that if Iran didn’t release the sailors soon, he would make Iran pay when he became President.
    • If Iran kept detaining the sailors, Trump would be validated in his tough stance.
    • If Iran released the sailors, Trump could take credit for releasing the sailors, even if he had nothing to do with Iran’s decision.
    • This was a win-win for Trump , no matter what Iran did.
  • A judge of Mexican heritage was in charge of Trump’s Trump University case. Trump argued that a Mexican judge would find it hard to be biased, given Trump’s reputation for being unfriendly to Mexican immigrants.
    • If Trump lost the case, then he could claim validation that the judge really was biased all along.
    • If the judge overcorrected for the belief and ruled favorably for Trump University, then Trump would get the more important battle – legal victory.

Another strategy: say you and your opponent have the same overall goals (eg make your company more money) but have different strategies on how to do it. Pitch your strategy as follows:

  • If you’re right about your strategy, then the important high-level goal is achieved, and everyone is ultimately happy.
  • If you’re wrong and your opponent is right, then we learn something valuable about what doesn’t work, and we can trust the opponent’s reasoning more in the future.

Another strategy: be ambiguous about wording your position so that you say things both sides want to hear. People fill in what they want to hear, and you avoid provoking strong reaction with a more explicit position.

  • Trump was clearly tough on illegal immigration. But he dialed it back by focusing on those who committed additional crimes after entering. This allowed people on both sides to see what they wanted – those supporting immigration could agree that we needed to be tough on illegal immigrant criminals.
  • When commenting on Trump, Scott Adams disavowed Trump for his racist ambiguity while praising Trump’s persuasive accomplishments. This allowed Trump critics to not reject Scott Adams immediately.
  • (Shortform example: Trump said that gay marriage was a state issue, and that states have already decided. To gay marriage supporters, this sounded better than a denial of gay rights. To conservatives, this highlighted state rights and less federal control.)

Another strategy: If you have an argument to make, neutralize the predictable counterarguments upfront. People who agree with your counterarguments, who would otherwise be your opponents, will identify with you. Meanwhile, people who disagree with the counterarguments will dismiss them and focus on your main argument.

  • (Shortform example: Say you’re writing an opinion that guns should be regulated more. Note beforehand that you know most gun owners are legally abiding citizens, that your friends are gun owners, you’ve gone shooting before and find it fun, you know gun owners care about home safety, that it will be impossible to confiscate guns in this country. Then talk about how mass shootings do need to be stopped somehow. Gun owners will have their concerns about their motives neutralized upfront, so they’ll listen to your point more.)

Highlight the Contrasts

People pick up on contrasts more than things in a vacuum. This is a basic cognitive phenomenon (going all the way to visual perception in our retinal cells).

Present your idea in the context of alternatives that are clearly worse. Empower it with visuals and employment of fear.

  • By presenting all the options, including the bad ones, you gain credibility for being thorough.

Examples

  • When trying to impress people, participate in activities at which you excel compared to others. People will form an impression of you as generally talented, even if you are otherwise equal to others.
  • Compare someone’s small issue with a big problem. This will re-frame their small worries.
  • Presidents pick running mates who complement them somehow, but do not spark concerns about why the #2 is not #1. 
    • Pence was a seasoned politician and classic conservative. But standing next to the charismatic and colorful Trump, he looked pale and staid.
    • Same with Clinton picking Al Gore and Reagan picking George HW Bush. 
    • However, when Bush needed a running mate, he picked the even more blase Dan Quayle. Since Bush was already less charismatic than Reagan, now Quayle was two levels of charisma away from Reagan.

Anchor to an Extreme, then Dial it Back

People are more influenced by the direction of things than the current state.

Start with an extreme, then dial it back. People will see the moderation as a concession, and see you as more moderate than you might really be.

  • When selling a business, prime the buyer by mentioning the high price paid by someone else in a different context. It might be totally unrelated – like someone buying a $100 million yacht.

When you have a negative reputation, act in opposition to it

  • Trump had a reputation for being Hitler. He deliberately acted more moderately, scaling back his deportation plans and dropping support for waterboarding

Clarify Your Intent

What matters more than what you say is what the listener believes you are thinking.

You can pay lip service to things, but this is heavily discounted if the listener knows you’re being disingenuous.

You can say awful things as jokes, but people can forgive you if they know you don’t mean bad intent.

  • On McCain, Trump joked that he preferred war veterans who weren’t captured. According to Adams, to a California sense of humor, this is an attack on the individual. To a New York sense of humor, people are laughing at the awful inappropriateness of the joke, not at McCain for being captured.
  • Thus to a portion of the country, Trump was refreshing for his bluntness and honesty, even if he said some things displeasing in normal politics

Construct Sentences Deliberately

First impressions matter. People weigh the first part of a sentence more than the second part.

  • Hillary had a series of tweets/slogans: “Imagine President Trump [doing some bad thing.” “Love Trumps Hate.” The problem is that the first few words of each phrase suggests an action that is counterproductive: “Imagine President Trump, “Love Trump”
Persuasion Tactics: A Master Persuader’s Toolkit

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  • The persuasion tactics Donald Trump used throughout the 2016 presidential campaign
  • Why Hillary Clinton's campaign fell short
  • How to leverage people’s biases and irrationality to persuade on your point of view

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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