When it comes to persuasion, email is tricky. I recently stumbled across a blog post by David G. Cohen, a start-up investor, in which he describes the experience of getting a particularly persuasive email, among the 500 (!) emails that grace his inbox every day.
The fact that he wanted to write a post about it demonstrates not only the persuasive nature of the email, but the lasting emotional impact it had, so I thought it would make a nice example of persuasion tactics. In this article I will breakdown the email, using the 8 steps described in my book.
But it’s what the writer didn’t say that was most impressive.
I’ve got a startup related question for you that I think might be right up your alley.”
The email begins like many others, but note that it uses a first-name only rather than a full name, or a “Mr.”, or any kind of false-respect-for-authority. In other words, the writer is treating David like an equal. This is how a VC friend would start a letter to David, not a small entrepreneur. If you’re a salesperson that sells to executives, take note.
On top of that, the writer creates interest by making it sound as if he has specifically chosen David for this question, rather than carpet-bombing VCs for info. It is even phrased like a gift, instead of a favor. “I’ve got something that you will like” instead of “Can you answer this for me?”
Rather than diving directly into the question, Glenn Farrant took a moment to establish himself in the conversation. While he had used a good choice of tone, David still had no idea who he was.
“We’re starting CriticalArc and we’re focused on providing solutions to problems that depend on streaming status and location in real time. Things like duress and critical incident response. We’re building a very robust back end to support these mission-critical applications. We’ve got a preliminary landing page up here: www.criticalarc.com and we’re planning to demo our first system at a startup event here in Sydney on 31st March….we’re currently engaging customers and coding like hell.”
So now Glenn has created a persona for himself within David’s area of expertise: start-ups. He has also shown himself to be serious, self-motivated, and — to be blunt — not one of the hundreds of money-seekers in David’s daily inbox. All without explicitly saying any of it. As mentioned in The Composite Persuasion: act valuable, don’t say you’re valuable.
Once interest has been created and Glenn’s personal reputation is on the table, it’s time to create needs. In this case, the motivations being used are a cunning combination of status and affiliation:
“I know that you have a background in dispatch systems with Pinpoint and I was wondering if you had an opinion here:… “
Glenn has researched David’s background and knows they share a history with similar businesses, and that David’s specific insight is valuable. Status and affiliation, all in one little package. The affiliation part is nothing more complicated than having something unlikely in common. You would use the same approach on a first date. The status tactic is the cunning part, although not unusual. Telling someone that they have a particular talent and should therefore be chosen for a particular task is a favorite among girlfriends, wives, and moms everywhere: “You’re a big strong man, can you carry this up to the attic?”
The letter continues, adding details, and quickly gets to the point:
“As a startup seeking investment and a scalable business, do you think we should be focusing on an infrastructure or solution play? Or could we do both to start with and decide to focus on either a general web infrastructure business or a dedicated solution business some time down the track?
Basically, out of the box, should we be SimpleGeo for realtime, or should we provide a solution like what you did with RightCAD at Pinpoint?
I’d love to know your thoughts.”
Now at this stage Glenn has introduced further information, added complexity that would have been confusing without previous paragraphs, and gotten to the heart of his problem. Then, just to be clear, he re-stated his question again, and closed, simply and confidently. i.e. — he asked for David’s thoughts.
Glenn then chose to tag on what looks like an additional question at the end of his email, which can be tricky. However, in this case, it was masterfully executed. In most persuasion, you should only try to get one major “yes” at a time, and do your upselling before you ask for commitment, like super-sizing at McDonald’s; they ask before you pay not after. But…
In this case Glenn has wrapped a seemingly innocent question in a raw demonstration of industry knowledge, and then ended his letter with even more insight about David himself. A brilliant version of Step 8: Summarizing with bias.
All persuasions should end with something that summarizes the persuasion and focuses on the positive aspects. End on a high note. But in email — or any one-way communication — you can’t summarize what they liked, because you can’t interact with the other person. So an extra layer of butter (status and affiliation in this case) is a good method.
“As a separate bonus question, I was also wondering if you’re seeing much activity in this area at the moment? Is real time location hot like the groupon-clone thing that you’re probably being pitched every other day? Or do you think there is some space here? It’s a bit hard to judge from Australia presently.
Hey, thanks for reading this… you’re probably up to your eyeballs with Techstars applications at the moment. Good luck with the summer program.
I could end this article here. But that would ignore the best part of this email. The subtext. While most people (including David) would believe this email was about a question, Glenn has beautifully executed a different persuasion than the one that appears on the surface. While he appears to be asking a question, he has actually begun spinning a pitch for investment.
During this email, he has explained his business, said they were looking for investments, asked which version of their company David would prefer, compared it (favorably) to David’s portfolio companies, and described why David would be the perfect investor for their business.
Step 3 of the persuasion formula is “Open & Disarm”. Glenn’s first sentence does a good job of opening, but he disarms by not opening with something related to “please invest in my company”. And then goes on to not ask for anything more than information.
And if you read David’s own opinion of what he liked about the email, you will see that David’s own self-interest (which is no more inflated than everyone else’s self-interest) and their common interests is almost all of it, and the rest is the reputation Glenn built for himself. A whole email about a company and David’s main take-away was how happy Glenn made him feel. Persuasion in action.
I recommend reading David’s article.