Where Brain Science and Marketing Meet

Four Words That Double Persuasion

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free to chooseWant to double your success in persuading people to do as you ask? Four simple words, and even other phrases with the same meaning, have been shown to double the success rate in dozens of studies worldwide.

What are these magic words? Here’s a clue: they aren’t, “But you have to!” or, “You absolutely must, really!” In fact, it turns out that reminding people they have the freedom to choose makes them much more likely to be persuaded. This technique is known as But You Are Free (BYAF). After making the request, one simply adds, “but you are free to choose.”

This technique has been studied extensively. Christopher Carpenter of Western Illinois University conducted a meta study of worldwide research on BYAF and came up with 42 studies that involved 22,000 participants. BYAF was found to double the success rate in this huge data set.

The exact language doesn’t seem to be important. Pointing out that the person isn’t obligated to do as you ask seems equally effective. The key is to give the person the security of knowing they are free to choose.

Why isn’t this used more often? I think BYAF may seem counter-intuitive to sales people. A typical sales effort often focuses on showing how the customer’s other choices are less desirable or won’t work at all. To wrap up a lengthy persuasive discussion with a reminder that the customer is free to choose seems, at first glance, like a recipe for failure. To some salespeople, it may seem to indicated a lack of confidence in their solution.

The way to use BYAF without seeming wishy-washy is to express your confident opinion while still pointing out that the customer is free to choose. For example,

The numbers show our solution will cut your monthly expenses by 15%. But, of course, you are free to choose.

In my opinion, it’s important to express that sentiment in a serious way. Implying that the customer is free to choose, but would be an idiot not to choose your solution, would be less likely to work.

One caution: BYAF seems to be somewhat less effective in sales situations, perhaps due to the general skepticism regarding anything the salesperson says. On the other hand, BYAF seems to work very well in more altruistic requests. For example, non-profits seeking volunteers could say,

I know you’d be a great tutor and the kids would love you. Of course, you are free to make your own choice.

The Persuasion SlideSo, next time you are in a situation where you need to persuade, do the unexpected: emphasize that the other person is free to choose. It may seem risky, but, on average, you’ll have a much higher chance of success!

Have any Neuromarketing readers actually tried this? Share your experiences in a comment! (But, of course, you are free not to share, too.)

24 Comments
  1. Joseph H. Willis, Jr. says

    Roger,
    I can recall using BYAF in a few situations where I was sincere.
    The most common one is similar to: “My son/daughter wants the newest gaming system, which one should I get them?” Result was that their choice was that even though they agreed with me, they let the child choose…the child chose the system they believed was best for them (persuaded by someone they look up to and possibly had the same system.)

    I might classify this one as, “The younger generation would know what is best, because I have no clue.” It’s somewhere along the lines of ‘I cannot trust someone else because they may have a hidden agenda and I fear making the wrong choice’ (And will have to live with it).

    It used to frustrate me, but I figure if people ask, the least I can do it humor them with an honest response and give them both sides of the picture to help guide them to discovering the right answer for themselves. What is best for me, may not be what is best for them.

  2. David Cooke says

    This post (and the whole blog) begs the question of why anyone would ever want to persuade others to do as they ask. Not to mention the other question of whether it is ever morally right to persuade or control others.

    The need to be persuasive seems to be part of what has been called the neurotypical disorder. Neurotypicals are the opposite of autistics: they are obsesssed with convincing and controlling others.

    1. Roger Dooley
      Twitter: rogerdooley
      says

      David, all of us need to be persuasive every day. If we work, we need to get cooperation from peers, subordinates, bosses, etc. If we aren’t persuasive, our projects won’t get approved, our work requests will go to the bottom of the pile, etc.

      We often need cooperation from friends and family, too. I think it’s important to distinguish between persuasion in something that will be satisfying for both parties and manipulation, as in selling someone a product that won’t work for their need. A hammer is a useful, even essential, tool, but it can cause injury if someone wants to use it in that way. Ads, sales techniques, etc., are no different – they can be used for good or evil.

  3. Neil Butterfield
    Twitter: neilbutterfield
    says

    I think that this is a great strategy Roger. When the sales person displays a “no attachment to the outcome” attitude, prospects are less likely to feel pressurized to buy.

    1. Roger Dooley
      Twitter: rogerdooley
      says

      Agree, Neil. Push potential customers, and there’s a tendency for them to push back.

  4. Steve Freeman says

    I sold real estate for 20 years. I liked real estate because it gave me the opportunity to build a strong relationship with my clients.

    Often the buyer would bring a parent or trusted friend to a home they liked but just weren’t sure. I had no relationship with the new person. My main idea to get across to this person was that the buyers had choices and based on what we’ve seen this one seems good. I would then ask the buyer questions about their process and others we’ve seen.

    Within 20 minutes I was no longer the issue in the eyes of the friend. It really is exactly what you’re talking about. Showing that there are options and the client is free to choose.

  5. Roger Dooley
    Twitter: rogerdooley
    says

    Great example of how this can work in real-life, Steve. And while the studies showed this technique was less effective in sales than in other situations, they generally tested using the short phrase. Your example shows that in a sales situation, it may take a bit more time.

  6. Tim Gray says

    I too agree with this, and use it on every single one of my potential clients/pitches.

    Not only does it say ‘I’m not forcing you into anything’ but on an unconscious level it’s saying that you are confident enough with your product/service/pitch (this could be a potential bluff, depending on how good the ‘product’ actually is) that you don’t need to pressurise them. It’s one thing most people hate about sales people (pressurising) and that makes You different. (we all know we notice differences)

    I often say on my pitches that I encourage them to get quotes from 2 other companies (implicit ‘you are free to choose’), as many people decide on a number of times (3 times convincer) – but no one seems to, and trusts me as a result.

    1. Roger Dooley
      Twitter: rogerdooley
      says

      Thanks for sharing that strategy, Tim. If someone encouraged me to compare, that would probably make me less likely to bother with getting more quotes!

  7. Zied says

    Hi Roger,?

    You put the words on what I do.?
    I make “affordable” websites for my clients.?
    And from the beginning all I wanted to do is building relationships based on trust.?
    ?(in short) So I always tell them that they should hire someone else for the copywriting or do it ?themselves because I am “expensive” for that part. (unexpected – Beyond the freedom of choice ?or is it an implicit freedom of choice?)?
    Then I explain my “expensive” costs in copywriting are linked to the great job I do (commitment, ?long term relation/work, time investment, creativity, search…) and I point them to examples. ?

    Here is usually what I get:?
    ?60% of them ask for a quote and compared to the curve of learning, to the time they need to ?invest… I seem to be not so “expensive” (unexpected again) so they hire me for copywriting.?
    ?20% do it on their own and hire me for consulting services (guidelines, ideas, optimization…)?
    ?10% come back a month or a year later with a real and long term collaboration and an augmented ?trust.?
    ?10% never come back (but they have nothing to complain about except I’m being too honest) :-)?

    And these first 90% are my assets, they’re spreading the word and that’s how I get new clients.?

    1. Roger Dooley
      Twitter: rogerdooley
      says

      Interesting approach, Zied, thanks for sharing it and your results!

  8. Rezwan Razani says

    Great post! I have added the information to my post on the Persian pleasantry, “extiAr dArid”.

    This phrase is commonly used in conversation, and means, “You have the choice/power/free will.” Essentially, “BYAF”. More here (including a vine that will help you pronounce that phrase). http://ajaban.com/index.php/blog/article/extiar-darid

    Enjoy! (Or not…up to you).

    1. Roger Dooley
      Twitter: rogerdooley
      says

      Thanks, Rezwan. There are often cultural and language differences that cause a different reaction to the same stimulus. Good to know the concept exists in Persian!

  9. Peep Laja says

    Running an a/b test on a headline using this technique right now 😉

    1. Roger Dooley
      Twitter: rogerdooley
      says

      Awesome, Peep. I wonder, though – this seems more like a closing line vs. a headline, at least in the research. But, maybe using it as a headline will take some of the “sales pressure” off right away. Let us know how it works out

    2. Tim Gray says

      How did the test go Peep?

  10. […] his article titled Four Words That Double Persuasion, Roger Dooley – primary author at Neuromarketing and somewhat of a maverick on the subject (900+ […]

  11. Pau says

    I definitely get put off by people, salesmen or not, when they imply I have no choice or that if I don’t choose what they say then I’m stupid. This is a great tip and article really, and I will use it in my blogs as well as in my personal life haha.

    Maybe this is also why it’s more successful to promote products with the aim of helping the consumer rather than trying to make a sale.

  12. Alan Glasby says

    Hi Roger, I find my Small Business Clients make assumptions about what their clients want and only give one option. A very simple example was a tradesman who was getting riled about his eftpos machine. It wasn’t working properly and he was having problems with Cash flow. He just went on about the 4% charges. I convinced him to offer a higher price for card transactions,Let the client choose! Surprise, surprise some clients happy to pay and were totally understanding.Thanks for the article.Alan

  13. Peter Watts says

    That earliest form of persuasion, rhetoric, had three components that were thought essential: Logos, Pathos, and Ethos; the appeals to logic, emotion, and credibility. Of these three, ethos was often the trickiest. As the audience sits thinking “..and why exactly should we trust you?” the speaker has to find some quick ways to prove the honour of their intentions. I’m thinking that BYAF may be playing an ethos function. “But you have a choice….” constantly reminds the audience that they are in the driving seat.

    Fascinating post Roger. I haven’t across anything similar in the huge canon of the classical tools of rhetoric.

  14. Femi says

    Excellent, I believe with enough conviction that BYAF is a true and powerful marketing force. I was in primary 3 in 1981, during an exam, the teacher laid out his objective questions on the black board and provided an example, (Y/N) of which he chose the right answer and asked us not to follow the example but make our own choice. I managed not to listen to him by also choosing the answer he used in the example. And I passed.
    Marketers knows how to cross the sales and leave the customers with the questions of choice where the only confidant is the same marketer when taking advice on whether to go ahead and agree completely with the marketer or not. Sales are easy to make with the right iq strategy in place.

  15. […] you are free.” I usually use them in the form of: “but it’s your decision.” According to this article, “but you are free” doubled the success rate over 42 […]

  16. Reggie says

    Thanks for this post. Do you have any data/insight on how BYAF would translate online in an e-commerce context? In other words, would reading BYAF in an appropriate place on a site have a similar effect as somebody verbally saying it?

    1. Roger Dooley
      Twitter: rogerdooley
      says

      That would be a great hypothesis to test. I think there’s less pressure on an ecommerce site than in a one-on-one sales encounter, so my guess is the effects wouldn’t be huge. But that’s why you test stuff!

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