What The FBI Can Teach You about Persuasion


Some of your content is meant to entertain or inform, but much of what you publish is also designed to persuade. Emails that include a call to action, newsletters with links to your latest product and landing pages that lead to conversions must convince your audience, but conventional advertising gets lost in the torrent of marketing most people see every day. The FBI – yes, the federal agency featured in Tom Clancy novels and “The Sopranos” – might seem like an unlikely source for inspiration, but the organization has done a great deal of research on a far more serious type of persuasion: hostage negotiations.

Hostage negotiators face vastly more pressure than your marketing department, obviously, but they and your sales team both share a need to get someone to come around to a new way of thinking. The FBI trains negotiators to follow five steps to defuse a tense situation and lead a discussion to someplace more constructive. Most people fail when trying to be persuasive because they jump ahead to the fourth or fifth step. Incorporate all of them into your marketing content, and you’ll find a more receptive audience.

Active Listening

You always want to listen to what your customers say, but you also need to let them know you hear them. For FBI negotiators, active listening means focusing on what the other side says instead of using the time the other person’s speaking to formulate a response or rebuttal. In marketing, it means paying attention to your social media streams and blog comments with an open mind. You can also ask questions that show you’re listening. For example, if a customer is concerned about your turnaround time, you might ask if emailing a tracking number at shipping would help with planning.


The point of active listening is to develop a deeper understanding of another perspective. Until you have that understanding and can empathize, you can’t make much headway when trying to persuade others to a new way of thought. For content creators and marketers, empathy demonstrates that you see your audience’s individual needs. It’s more difficult to express empathy when people are being critical, but understanding why they’re criticizing is fundamental to turning critics into fans.


Empathy puts you in another person’s shoes; rapport lets you swap footwear. When your clients feel rapport with you, they identify with your company. Consumer electronics companies are masterful at creating rapport with their customers. Just look at any Mac-versus-PC or Coke-versus-Pepsi argument, and you’ll see how strongly people identify with their favorite brands. For an FBI negotiator, building rapport means creating a common space with an individual; for companies, it means creating that space for your audience.


This is the step where most advertisers jump in without having laid any previous groundwork. Only after you know where your audience is coming from can you realistically recommend a course of action for them. You’ve listened to them, earned their trust and defined some common ground, so you’ve earned the right to help them find solutions to their issues together. Your call to action is the culmination, not the start, of your marketing campaign.

Change in Behavior

Only after you’ve put in the work can you hope to persuade others, but if you’ve followed the previous steps and built a genuine relationship with your readers and website visitors, you’re well on your way to convincing them to change their behavior. While FBI negotiators aim for surrender, your goals are much simpler and more achievable. Making a sale, getting a referral, subscribing to your newsletter – these are all you’re hoping to accomplish, and that’s considerably easier than what the FBI does.

These techniques aren’t short-cuts or gimmicks. They involve more investment in your audience than slapping together a quick banner ad or using spray-and-pray tactics for your email marketing. For that extra effort, you gain a relationship with your customers, one that can last for years if you nurture it.

© Business Content, Inc. 2014 All Rights Reserved.

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