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If This Be Selling PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Steve Cuno   

We skeptics are often eager to share the wonders of critical thinking with family, friends and associates. Good.

Some of us unabashedly and not very artfully seize the smallest opportunity to bring the topic into any conversation. Friend: “I have a new recipe for cookies.” You: “Sylvia Browne looks like she eats lots of cookies. Speaking of which, here is what the evidence says about psychics…” 

Some of us find subtler ways. How many of you, like me, keep a copy of Why People Believe Weird Things in plain sight in hopes of prompting questions?

Once we get a conversation started, we trot out evidence, debunk, and recommend websites, books, magazines and podcasts. We hope that at least some of the people we thus regale will embrace skepticism.

There’s a word for that kind of activity. “Selling.”

Sure, you can call it something else. “Presenting,” “sharing,” “enthusing,” “helping,” whatever, but let’s be honest. When we rave about skepticism, selling is exactly what we’re trying to do. And we hope that what our listener is doing is buying.

There’s nothing wrong with that. To paraphrase what early American patriot Patrick Henry probably never said: If this be selling, then make the most of it.

In that spirit, here’s a tip to make selling-presenting-sharing-helping-enthusing-whatever go over a little better: People buy benefits more than they buy features.

feature is an attribute. Like: “This pole is 11 feet long.” A benefit is what the feature does for you. Like: “Keeps you safe from cooties.”

You can identify a benefit by following the feature with the words “so that.” Say you want to sell parents on child immunizations. The feature by itself, “serum delivered by means of sticking a needle in your child’s arm,” is hardly compelling. But by adding “so that,” you might end up with, “…so thatyour child can escape pain and possible death from a horrible disease.” I don’t know about you, but I find that a bit more persuasive.

You might think that benefits are implicit and that people don’t need you to connect dots. Tests show that you would be mistaken. Pointing out benefits increases sales.

That’s important to remember when we talk about skepticism — because the likes of evidence, logical fallacies, the scientific method, what has been debunked, what has been proved, the Million Dollar Challenge, and so on, though exciting to us, are all features. Listing them without drawing dots to the benefits they represent risks missing an opportunity to help people understand skepticism in terms of what’s in it for them.

This may be tough for some skeptics to fathom. To many of us, skepticism’s benefits appear self-evident. One obvious benefit, for instance, might be knowledge for its own sake. As Michael Shermer wrote, “I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe but because I want to know.”

Another obvious though less talked-about benefit is what I refer to as the “neener-neener” factor: Some of us love lobbing disruptive contradictions into a conversation, confounding the unsuspecting, looking smug, and later bragging to our skeptical friends. I’m not going to call it laudable or effective. But let’s concede that it tempts a lot of us, a lot of the time.

The prospect of broadened horizons or the allure of the neener-neener factor may be all you need to attract some people to skepticism. Often, however, you will be presenting skepticism to someone who doesn’t love knowledge for its own sake and has no interest in showing off. In that case, the first step to coming up with a relevant benefit will be to figure out what matters to the person in front of you. This requires recognizing that what intrigues you about skepticism may not intrigue him or her. You’re going to need some empathy, along with the discipline to listen — to hear — before launching into the admittedly more tempting activity of lecturing.

Such discovery can be fruitful. When a friend recently asked about skepticism, I drew a breath to indulge my woo peeve du jour when, at the last minute, it occurred to me to ask what prompted his question. He was thinking about investing big in a scheme represented to him as inspired by a deity. Setting aside my peeve du jour, I joined him for a look at the scheme’s features. Namely: No supporting, yet ample refuting, evidence. But again, features have limited power, especially in the face of a hoped-for benefit like quick riches. So, next, we looked at the benefits of not investing. These included avoiding the overwhelming likelihood of an unsustainable loss, of having to feel stupid and — the real clincher — of having to explain to his wife why 30 years of savings had suddenly vanished. These benefits dramatized for him the flimsiness of the quick-riches hope. He declined the scheme, later saw it fail from a safe distance, and emerged not a full-fledged skeptic, but with greater appreciation for critical thinking. It was a step. One that I’d have utterly blown had I not bothered to find out what mattered to him instead of to me.

While failing to point out benefits can mean a missed opportunity, so can failing to recognize how skepticism threatens benefits that people have already “bought.” Suppose you’re talking with astrology buffs. To them, astrology offers benefits like knowledge of the future, purpose, entertainment, hope, pick-up lines for singles bars, and more. Trot out all the real astronomy and empirical tests you want, and see how far you get. From the buff’s perspective, all you’re offering to do is remove their fun and leave nothing in its place. Good intentions aside, that’s not a smart way to go about selling.

Let’s see if we can come up with some benefits of skepticism for astrology buffs (so that you’ll have a better chance of making inroads). We might tell them, “You can trade alleged knowledge of the future for real data, so that you increase your odds of sound decisions. You can quit waiting for the stars and planets to guide you, so that you’re free to take action and seek your own purpose. There’s “Mythbusters,” “Penn & Teller’s Bullshit,” BadAstronomy.com, TAM, Quirkology, etc., etc., so that you can enjoy plenty of entertainment. And, as for hope, there is no better resource than critical thinking. It gives you tools so that you can truly have ‘…the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.’”

(I shall remain silent on the subject of pick-up lines for singles bars. I never was very good at that sort of thing. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I don’t imbibe and I never was an adept flirt.)

Let me not be guilty of overselling benefits as a tool of persuasion. I am not suggesting that infusing your pitch with benefits will compel millions of zealots to beat their zodiacs into astronomy textbooks. Most proven selling techniques, including this one, work no such miracle. When you hear marketers talk about “techniques that work,” they could equally say, “techniques that fail less often.” It’s not unusual for a direct marketer to celebrate when an offer jumps from earning a 0.25 percent to a 0.50 percent response — even though that’s the same as going from not selling to 99.75 percent of the market to not selling to 99.50 percent.

Why do they celebrate such a small gain? Because when the gross numbers are big enough, incremental increases add up. So it is with “selling” skepticism. By presenting skepticism’s features with meaningful benefits, we increase our chances of getting through. And with enough of us out there speaking up, even an incremental increase can make a significant difference.

 

Editor's Note: Steve Cuno is the founder of the RESPONSE Agency, an evidence-based marketing firm in Salt Lake City. He has spoken at the last two TAMs, and has been invited to write for Swift to share his knowledge of marketplace behavior as it pertains to skepticism — and vice versa. You can contact him and view his company's website and blog at ResponseAgency.com.

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written by daveg703, April 09, 2010
An excellent article! A well-presented case for using caution and empathy to temper our eagerness to proselytize skepticism.
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I'm a lousy salesman
written by Kajabla61, April 10, 2010
Unfortunately for me, and many other skeptics I would guess, I am so excited about real knowledge and debunking that I tend to blurt out the bits of knowledge I want to share. I'm smiling and happy when I can add something meaningful to a conversation, I enjoy educating others when I can and I enjoy listening to others educate me.

Also, unfortunately, general social politeness seems to lean toward holding your tongue if you might possibly say something that would contradict another person and might offend them. Being a science minded person, I am lacking the social skills most people have so I tend to step on toes. I would need to take a college level course on how to interact with people to help me learn the soft sell idea mentioned here. Good article, I will try to keep it in mind when talking with non skeptics.
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Sort of what Kajabla61 said
written by mattand, April 10, 2010
Thanks for writing this article. It's well reasoned and has some great info. I have one question: what do you do when no one cares about skepticism or critical thought?

The reason I ask is that whenever subjects that need critical thought come up between me and friends or relatives, people literally don't give a damn.

Oprah and the crap she peddles (The Secret; Suzanne Somers' "health" tips): "Why do you criticize her? She gives to charity!"

Chiropractic or other alt med: "All I know is that it works for me!"

Psychics: "Sure, some are frauds, but the one I spoke with knew all about me!"

Anti vax: "Those people are crazy, but it won't affect me!"

Religion: "Intelligent design should be taught in public school. Evolution is just a theory!"

...and so on.

It's tends to be very frustrating as I watch people who are generally intelligent completely shut down their brains. I can't even bring up the term "skepticism" with some of them as they think of it as some kind of cult.

Granted, I'm a big part of the problem. I don't present facts off-the-cuff very well, and usually wind up botching some critical piece of info. Delivery is also an issue; too forceful and you're an obnoxious know-it-all, and too diplomatic and you're just ignored.

This being the Internet and all, there'll probably be a few "get new friends" or "avoid your family" suggestions, but that's not a practical option. If I started shunning everyone who disagrees with me, it'd get very lonely very quickly. However, based on my admittedly anecdotal evidence, people don't want critical thought regardless of presentation.

How do you get past that?
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written by daveg703, April 10, 2010
@mattand
I have a suggestion for your consideration: Put your skepticism on hold for five minutes when encountering such difficult folks. Then, after asking the other person to explain the justification for their beliefs, give them the floor for those five minutes. While it is true they may not have enough material to last for more than 20 or 30 seconds, (most non-thinkers won't), you might find it quite enlightening to listen to someone who is able to go the full five.

For one thing, they will admire you for being such a good listener and may offer to buy you a drink. For another, you might learn the weaknesses of what they feel is the justification for their belief. Thus armed, you can then move in for the kill and leave their belief system in shreds and tatters. Be sure to finish your drink first, though. smilies/grin.gif
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@daveg703
written by mattand, April 10, 2010
That's not a bad idea, particularly if it leads to free booze. The problem I encounter is even when I manage to make a point, it's like watching a spit wad bounce off of Godzilla. This particularly evident when dealing with alt med types; i.e., "Well, all I know is that it worked."

I'll give it a shot, though. We're heading out to a party in a bit. It's hosted by long-time friend of ours who has bought into the Secret 138%. She's been crediting that with helping her find her new house. It had a ping pong table in the basement and she played ping pong when she was a kid. Therefore the Universe was dropping a clue that this was the house to buy.

What's fascinating is that last year she got into an argument with a homophobic priest who insisted that proof that homosexuality included that some children find it "icky". She countered him successfully by using genetics and logic, among other things. It this kind of split thinking that drives me batty.
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written by Balstrome, April 10, 2010
Sounds like the story of the young bull and old bull, watching the farmer unload a new herd of cows into the south pasture. The young bull wants to rush down there and do a couple before they run off.
And the old bull suggests that they walk down and do them all.
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Keep in mind...
written by Michael K Gray, April 10, 2010
One also needs to consider the age of the 'target', for those who are (say) 14 and under are naturally credulous, engineered to so be by human evolution.
There is (generally) a downward ramp that credulity takes after puberty, often corresponding vaguely with age and experience, and especially with education in psychology, legerdemain, magic and of course the hard sciences.
The 'softness' of the skeptical approach need to be tempered with the natural credulity of the target audience.
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Skepticism is tool that should be taught
written by Baloney, April 13, 2010
Like mathematics and reading, skepticism and science are tools that must be taught, preferably from an early age. I recently bought "Maybe Yes, Maybe No: A Guide for Young Skeptics" (Dan Barker) for my 4-year-old son and it turns out that it's his favorite bedtime story (even beating out "Danny and the Dinosaur" and "Spiderman and Friends"!). Most people are simply not taught how to think critically -- either in schools or at home -- and prefer not to challenge the status quo, thereby making a late-in-life turnabout difficult.
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written by daveg703, April 13, 2010
@ Baloney
I concur! The sooner the better. As for your son, while I cannot say on this site that I *see*/i] a great future for him, I do feel confident about his future. Good going, Dad! smilies/smiley.gif
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@daveg703
written by Baloney, April 13, 2010
Thanks! One funny note: the only time he hears the word "Jesus" is when it's used in an exclamatory sense, so he says it's a "bad word." I can only begin to imagine the situations he'll have in kindergarten next year.
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Beattles Got Pardoned Today
written by BobG, April 14, 2010
In terms of the usage of the word "Jesus", it actually caused quite a bit of grief for the Beatles when they said, "We are more popular than Jesus". Ironically, the Catholic Church came out this week with a pseudo apology. Careful with the "J" word as it could cost you 50 years of banishment!
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Sorry, 45 Years
written by BobG, April 14, 2010
to be exact!

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...
written by BobG, April 14, 2010
and a few months.
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Outstanding defense of ethical marketing, sales and propaganda
written by TheGodlessMonster, April 18, 2010
I've been often criticized on other blogs for characterizing much negative atheist interaction with the public as lost opportunities to market our cause. Thank you for your insightful appraisal of the place marketing and sales have in the spread of ideas.
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Oh, by the way...
written by Baloney, April 19, 2010
Before I threw in my tangential comment, I should have mentioned that this was a fantastic article. smilies/cry.gif

Great article, Steve!
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