During a flight in Europe I read an article in a business magazine I pulled  from the back of the seat in front of me. It dealt with one of my favorite subjects:  persuasion. The author, Steve Martin, begins the article describing a story he says an English business man  was fond of telling. It involved a young man who came to his office looking for a job. He said that after listening for a few minutes the business man pushed  a large jug of water on his desk towards him and said: “Young man, I have been told that you are quite the persuader. So, sell me that jug of water.” After hesitating for a moment, the job seeker got up from his chair, picked up a wastepaper basket with discarded paper and placed it next to the jug of water on the desk. Then he lit a match and set the paper on fire. Turning to his prospective employer he said: “How much will you give me for this jug of water?”

The author of the article pointed out to make the sale the young man did not point out any features of the water jug nor discuss  savings and purchasing it but instead changed the psychological context in which it was offered for sale. Persuasion scientist have established the fact that successful persuasion is frequently governed more by context than content of the sales pitch.

The young man wasn’t selling the water as a  product in the abstract. He was  selling it to satisfy an immediate need for water. For example, a buyer wanting a 1/8 inch drill bit is not buying it for the inherent quality of the drill bit. Rather, he needs a 1/8  inch hole drilled which is the reason these buying the drill. Someone once wrote a book on sales they titled “sell the sizzle and not the steak.”

Think about our cases. While we are presenting a client to the jury and asking them to  evaluate the client’s case under tort principles,  we should be selling the juror’s need to feel safe from the kind of negligence that injured our client, to feel like they are doing something important and to feel satisfied and  proud of their service as jurors.

The change of context can take more than one form. Another context changer is that of contrast. Research shows that what people experience first has a disproportionate influence on their perception of the next thing they see.  As the article points out, that’s why a $ $60 bottle of wine appears to be a great value after you’ve been first shown  a $120 bottle of wine. Just the opposite reaction occurs if you had been first showing a $10 bottle of wine. Comparison influences perception.

Think about your summation for damages. Don’t we frequently use this principle when we talking about values in the real world  –  paintings that have sold at auction for multi millions and the salaries paid sports stars in comparison to what we say is the value of our client’s case?

There is much to be learned from the research done in the business world in advertising and sales. Our professional role is that of persuasion in our client’s stead. Learn from business  world the principles that work.

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