Many years ago, I was the co-owner of a small start-up public relations agency. My partner and I were desperately trying to close a piece of business with a Fortune 500 prospect. The problem was, the prospect was looking for a technical writer, which neither of us were. Not only that, but he wanted someone on site for several months. We had an agency to launch.

But what the heck. We were there. Might as well give it a shot.

What I meant to say next was that we could provide a top-quality technical writer at his site, and that my partner and I, as professional writers with decades of experience, would personally ensure that the product met the client’s exacting standards.

What I actually said was something like, “Look, if you need a body, we can get you a body.”

As soon as the words were out, I knew I’d stepped in it pretty deep. My partner jumped in right after me. “What we’re trying to say,” he helpfully explained, “is that it doesn’t matter who does the work, as long as it gets done, right?”

Apparently it did matter.

Intentional mistakes
All salespeople trip over their tongues from time to time. (Say that fast three times and you’ll see what I mean.) But my partner and I might have taken some solace in a research study of something called the “foot-in-mouth effect.” It turns out the right kind of slips (not the kind we did) could actually help you win sales.

The right kind is something called “disrupt then reframe.” The idea is to say something that disrupts buyers’ expectations, which makes them more open to hearing whatever comes next. For example, in one experiment, researchers asked people to buy a set of Christmas cards to support a charity. Then they’d say, “The price is 300 pennies … I mean three dollars … which is a bargain.”

Buyers were expecting to hear a typical sales pitch. The 300 pennies confused them, which made them pay more attention to the next statement: “which is a bargain.” In some tests, this “slip” nearly doubled sales.

What’s intriguing to me isn’t the pennies per se, but the idea behind it. When you talk like a salesperson, buyers respond automatically: Not interested. No time to talk. Send me some literature. When you surprise buyers – even in small ways – they stop and pay attention.

If I’d understood that at the time, I might have had a more successful conversation with the prospect. Perhaps I might have started out by saying something like, “We are definitely not the people you want to hire to write your technical copy.” Then, once I’d gotten his attention, I might have continued, “I know that because we work with some of the best technical writers in the business. If you like, I can refer several. But I also know that great writers have great editors, and if you want the absolute best result, we can create a team that will deliver it.”

It might have worked, or it might not. But it would have been a better conversation than the one we had.

The study: Davis B.P., Knowles, E.S. (1999). A disrupt-then-reframe technique of social influence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 76: 192-199.

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