The Sales Management Specialists

Thursday, 3 March 2016

The art of persuasion. Mindjacking with metaphors.

The art of persuasion. Mindjacking with metaphors.

Change is at the heart of sales. Our best prospects are companies that need to change, whether to grow, be more efficient or to avoid trouble. When a company needs to change then the minds of the people involved in the change program also need to change. As sales people we want to influence that mind shift to the mutual benefit of the customer and our company.

We use questions to understand the mind of the customer but at some point it will be necessary to change or expand the customer’s view and that requires teaching or rhetoric, or both. This post is about a specific persuasion device, the metaphor.

For guidance on persuasion we should look to the masters; politicians, film makers, authors, comedians, artists and advertisers. Through stories, images and evocative language, master persuaders hijack our attention, taking our minds hostage with a metaphoric knife to the neck reshaping our thoughts to suit their purpose.

Here are some examples you may know
“I’m a Mac, and I’m a PC”, Apple Ad
“Ideas that stick”, 3M Post-it notes Ad
“Let’s say the foot is your company and the banana skin is a change in interest rates”, Continental Bank Ad
A hospital bed is a parked taxi, with the meter running”, Groucho Marx

As sales and marketing people we may not be in the same league as the masters, but we can learn from them. Here is a favourite business example from my experience.

Many years ago when I was selling software systems to the oil and gas industry, we marketed two database systems; a geoscientist's project database for interpretation work and a master database for raw data and final interpretation data.  Unfortunately, the two databases were somewhat incompatible, had different user interfaces and our main competitor sold a single database that served as both a master and project.

Our customers could not understand why we didn't have just one database and we were constantly defending two database architecture. Even internally it was a contentious issue.

Then one day, one of my colleagues put up the image below and the debate and arguments stopped.  

I believe this image was a competitive turning point. As simple image metaphor it eloquently explained why two databases made sense and how they could have similar characteristics but different functionalities and purposes.
The beauty of this metaphor is its transportability. Imagine, that after seeing it, your customer contact attends an internal meeting and the discussion turns to your master/project databases. Your contact introduces the metaphor and the mid-air refuelling image effortlessly and magically does its work on the buying committee.

Marshall Thurber calls metaphors “stories on steroids” because compelling metaphors can have near miraculous persuasive power.

But how are compelling metaphors created? And what is a good topic for metaphors? The first step is to notice and appreciate their power in everyday conversation and discourse. James Geary in his Tedx (  talk on metaphors claims that we average six metaphors per minute in normal conversation. Have you noticed?

As you start to notice, you will observe that many are overused clichés (which should be avoided like the plague ;-)). You will also note that metaphors which persuade tend to have an element of surprise. George Orwell (1946) said “never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print”.

Think about what your customer does not appreciate about his business that your products or services would solve and see if you can come up with an image which can expand your customer’s point of view. You can use images and ideas from nature, popular culture, business, science fiction, historical stories and fairy tales. It doesn't matter, as long as the chosen metaphor will resonate with your target. Brainstorming metaphors works well in a multi-disciplinary workshop with sales, service and marketing.

If you are interested in sharing persuasive stories and metaphors in sales then please send a request to join our Story Selling LinkedIn group (

Happy mindjacking!

As a side note, my father, no fan of business clichés, once stopped a management consultant in his tracks (sorry) with; “but if we drop the ball, and it’s a level playing field, the ball will be where we dropped it and we can just pick it up”.