Speaking to the Subconscious: A Subtle Art of Top-Performing Sellers


Long before the current craze around behavioral economics, a book called Influence by Robert Cialdini introduced many of the same themes. The book is a classic of business literature, and it remains a must-read for anyone in sales. Cialdini’s research revealed that effective persuasion uses seven influence levers. These levers are substitutes for reason. They are shorthand cues that play to our subconscious thinking patterns, sparing us the time and effort required for methodical reasoning. All of us are routinely exposed to these levers. They have become part of the furniture of our lives. Let me quickly recap the seven levers, then show you how a top performing salesperson used them.

  • Social Proof: We frequently see the most popular option as the most compelling.
  • Authority: We are swayed by credentials in our decision-making process
  • Scarcity: We instinctively fear missing out on a fleeting opportunity.
  • Reciprocity: We feel indebted to those who do us a perceived favor.
  • Likeability: We are positively disposed to those who make us feel special.
  • Consistency: We feel compelled to uphold our stated commitments.
  • Unity: We bond with those who share our socio-cultural identity.

Below is a redacted version of a top performer’s prospecting email that illustrates how to strengthen one’s messaging with these principles. She was reaching out to a senior leader in a new area of the customer’s organization. Her company was already working with another team, and she was exploring ways to expand the relationship. I’ll share the email first, and then we’ll analyze why it succeeded in getting an immediate response. As you’re reading it, try to spot the technique.

Jeff – Hello from a fellow SEC alum and your Relationship Manager for [company]. Though my Missouri Tigers regularly rank near the very bottom since joining the SEC, we’re just happy to be here!

Football aside, I work with more than 600 of your colleagues, helping them create new business opportunities with better market intel. Mike Kirkland recommended I get your perspective on what would be most effective in coaching the current users, and possibly to discuss the use case for your team. Are you open to connecting this week or next, while we still have a few remaining weeks to find more revenue in this fiscal year?

I also invited Mike to an exclusive peer-to-peer roundtable that might interest you, too [details here]. The session will feature some [Research Company] insights and learnings from your peers in other industries on how to manage a fully remote team today. The event will be capped at 25 to ensure it’s a small group discussion, and I hope you’ll be able to attend!



A lot is happening in this short message. Let’s review it from top to bottom and highlight all the influence levers at play.

Hello from a fellow SEC alum … though my Missouri Tigers regularly rank near the very bottom since joining the SEC, we’re just happy to be here!

This is a brilliant use of likeability and unity because of how natural and balanced it feels. First, Jennifer establishes a common identity with the recipient by pointing out she is part of the same alumni community. She correctly senses that a prospect is more likely to be open to someone who shares the same background. But she doesn’t overplay it. In fact, she seems to understand how tenuous this commonality may be. After all, an American college athletic conference is not a particularly exclusive alumni group. So, she immediately shifts to a self-deprecating tone, acknowledging the shortcomings of her team. The reader is naturally sympathetic to someone who calls attention to her misfortunes in such a good-humored way.

Jennifer also establishes credibility through social proof. The fact that 600 colleagues are already on board is a shorthand way to communicate that another leader has done the due diligence and concluded her solution was worth the investment for a substantial number of people.

Mike Kirkland recommended I get your perspective …

This line is a savvy combination of social proof and likeability. Jennifer uses Mike as a reference because she feels Jeff is likely to defer to the judgment of a senior and well-respected colleague. But embedded in that reference is a claim about Jeff ’s internal brand. Apparently, his perspective is considered important enough that Jennifer was asked to seek it out. This pulls the likeability lever for Jeff because she has made him feel special.

… while we still have a few remaining weeks to find more revenue in this fiscal year?

This line invokes potential scarcity. Jennifer doesn’t know everything that’s going on in Jeff ’s world, but she can confidently predict one of his key priorities is to close the fiscal year strong. By reminding him there is a shrinking window in which to do so, she makes him more aware of what he may lose by hesitating to act quickly.

I also invited Mike to an exclusive peer-to-peer roundtable that might interest you, too … the event will be capped at …

As her note draws to a close, Jennifer pulls the reciprocitysocial proof, and scarcity levers in rapid succession. She invites Jeff to a potentially valuable thought leadership session, encouraging a sense of gratitude in him. She legitimizes the invitation by mentioning Mike received one as well. Finally, she makes it clear there will be limited spaces available.

The session will feature some insights … and learnings from your peers in other industries …

Jennifer communicates the value of the roundtable discussion with authority. She knows it will undercut the appeal of her invitation if the roundtable is perceived to be a self-serving forum. So, she makes it clear the insights will come from a third party. And, once again, she plays to social proof by telling Jeff he can learn what other companies are doing in the market. Rather than invest hours in his own research, he can simply ask them directly.

Notice the compounding strength of these influence levers as they coalesce and combine. Jennifer’s persuasive power builds in non-linear fashion with the use and re-use of different techniques. But the excellence on display is also attributable to Jennifer’s careful and astute phrasing. One can certainly go too far and overplay the above techniques, making readers feel they need a hot shower after pressing “delete.” Artfulness matters, and artful execution is only achieved through repeated testing and practice.

If you aren’t already, start editing your communications through the lens of these influence levers. They will create whole new dimensions for client engagement.

About the Author

Douglas Cole is a sales leader at LinkedIn, an advisor with start-up accelerators in North America, and a part-time university lecturer at The Rotman School of Management and The Schulich Executive Education Centre in Toronto. He is the author of The Sales MBA: How to Influence Corporate Buyers, released in July 2022 with Barlow Books. Website: https://thesalesmba.ca/

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