I love to analyze incidents of persuasion that exist beyond the realm of sales and marketing …
Religious sermons, political debates, and criminal court arguments are rich sources of ideas and inspiration. All of the tools, tactics, and techniques of persuasion are there.
Another remarkable source I’ve come across is a book called My Voice Will Go With You — The Teaching Tales Of Milton Erickson, published by W.W. Norton with commentary by Sidney Rosen. For those of you who don’t know, Erickson was an M.D. who used hypnotherapy to cure patients of physical and psychological disorders.
In essence, Erickson persuaded his patients to see themselves and their world in new ways. And in so doing, allowed them to make new choices, rejecting self-destructive ideas and behaviors in favor of empowering ones.
His remarkable ability to effect positive and permanent change in his patients is legendary. When training other practitioners, Erickson would often tell stories to make his points, hence, the teaching tales.
Erickson’s methods were many, and as I read and reread the teaching tales, I begin to notice commonly used patterns of persuasion. I thought it would be fun to reprint a few of the teaching tales here, and see if you can spot one of his favorite techniques.
In each of the following tales, Erickson deliberately does something that you can do in your promotions to increase your sales and profits. Can you spot it? Read the tales and write me a note in the comments section at the bottom of this page, explaining the technique.
Here’s the first one: A tale of …
TWO JESUS CHRISTS
I had two Jesus Christs on the ward. And they spent the entire day explaining, “I am Jesus Christ.” They buttonholed everybody and explained, “I am the real Jesus Christ.”
And so I put John and Alberto on a bench and told them, “You sit there. Now each of you tells me you’re Jesus Christ. Now, John, I want you to explain to Alberto that you, not he, are Jesus Christ. Alberto, you tell John, you are the real Jesus Christ and that he is not.
I kept them sitting on that bench, explaining to each other all day long that they were the true Jesus Christ. And after about a month, John said, “I’m Jesus Christ and that crazy Alberto says that he is Jesus Christ.”
I said to John, “You know, John, you say the same thing that he says. And he says the same thing that you say. Now, I think that one of you is crazy, because there is only one Jesus Christ.”
John thought that over for about a week. He said, “I’m saying the same things as that crazy fool is saying. He’s crazy and I’m saying what he says. That must mean I’m crazy too, and I don’t want to be crazy.”
I said, “Well I don’t think you’re Jesus Christ. And you don’t want to be crazy. I’ll have you work in the hospital library.” He worked for a few days and came to me and said, “There’s something awfully wrong: Every book has my name on every page.” He opened the book, showed me JOHN THORNTON. On every page of the book he found his name.
I agreed, and showed him how on every page of the book MILTON ERICKSON appeared. I had him help me find Dr. Hugh Carmichael’s name, Jim Glitton’s name, Dave Shakow’s name. In fact, we could find any name he thought of on that page.
John said, “These letters don’t belong to a name. They belong to that word!
I said, “That’s right.”
John continued working in the library. Six months later, he went home free of his psychotic identifications.
Hint: As a child Erickson suffered from polio. He couldn’t walk or even speak. In fact, he was almost totally paralyzed from head to toe. The only parts of his body he could move were his eyes. And luckily his hearing remained intact.
Lying in bed on the family farm, all he could do, literally, was watch and listen. To “entertain” himself, he became a very active listener, and also grew unusually attentive to the way his brothers and sisters, parents, and nursemaid communicated with one another through facial expression and body language.
As a result, he also became extremely empathic. He discovered that when his sisters said “yes”, it could mean “no”. And when they said “no”, it could mean, “yes”. Later, after making a near total recovery, he used this skill in therapy to help people.
When people came to them with their problems, he had an uncanny knack for reading them very quickly …
One day a college girl passed flatus loudly in the classroom while writing on the blackboard. And she turned and ran out and went to her apartment, drew the blinds, and ordered her groceries over the telephone, and collected them long after dark. And I got a letter from her saying, “Will you accept me as a patient?”
I noticed the Phoenix address that she gave, and I wrote back. “Yes I would.” And she wrote back. “Are you really sure you want me as a patient? And I wondered about it — and I wrote back, “Yes I would like you.”
It took her about three months and then she wrote me and said, “I would like an appointment with you after dark. And I don’t want anybody to see me. Now, please don’t have anybody around when I come to your office.”
I gave her a ten thirty appointment, and she told me about passing flatus loudly in the classroom and running out of the room and confining herself to her cabin. She also told me that she was a converted Catholic. Now, converted Catholics are always so ardent, and I questioned her, “Are you really a good Catholic?” And she assured me she was. And I spent a couple of hours with her, questioning her goodness as a Catholic.
And then in the next interview I said, “You say you are a good Catholic. Then why do you insult the Lord … why do you make a mockery of him? Because you are. You ought to be ashamed of yourself — making a mockery of God and calling yourself a good Catholic!”
She tried to defend herself.
I said, “I can prove that you have little respect for God.” I hauled out my anatomy book, an atlas, showing all of the illustrations of the body. I showed her a cross-section of the rectum and anal sphincter.
I said, “Now, man is very skilled at building things. But, can you imagine a man being sufficiently skilful to build a valve that contains solid matter, liquid matter, and air — and emits downward only the air?” I said, “God did. Why don’t you respect God?”
Then I told her, “Now, I want you to demonstrate earnest, honest respect for God. I want you to bake some beans. They are called whistleberries by the navy. Flavor them with onions and garlic. And get in the nude and prance and dance around your apartment, emitting loud ones, soft ones, big ones, little ones … and enjoy God’s work.”
And she did that. A year later she was married, and I made a house call to check up on her. She had a baby, and while I was visiting her, she said, “It’s time to nurse the baby.” She opened her blouse, exposing her breast, and fed the baby and chatted casually with me. A complete change of reference.
Do you see the commonality between these two stories? Here’s a third one to lock it down for you before you post your comment. I can’t wait to hear what you think …
My daughter came home from grade school and said, “Daddy, all the girls in school bite their nails and I want to be in style too.”
I said, “Well, you certainly ought to be in style. I think style is very important for girls. You are way behind the girls. They have had a lot of practice. So I think the best way for you to catch up to the girls is to make sure you bite your nails enough each day. Now I think if you bite your nails for fifteen minutes three times a day, every day (I’ll furnish a clock) at exactly such-and-such an hour, you can catch up.”
She began enthusiastically at first. Then she began beginning late and quitting early and one day she said, “Daddy, I’m going to start a new style at school — long nails.”
OK, now here’s your assignment. In the comment box below, describe the persuasion strategy Erickson used in all three of these teaching tales.
Then tune in again next week for my debriefing.