Messages that Matter: Minimizing Cognitive Dissonance


Posted By Dr. Tom Sant | May 21, 2012


What is Cognitive Dissonance?

For a number of years I have been using the term "cognitive dissonance" to describe a phenomenon that everyone experiences. I'm probably using it incorrectly, but I have a confession to make: I'm not going to stop.

The term was coined by Leon Festinger, who studied a Chicago cult that had expected the world to end on December 21, 1954. (By the way, what is it with apocalyptic prophecies and December 21? That's the date the Mayans have supposedly predicted the world will end this year.)

Festinger was curious what would happen when the world didn't end and the flying saucer they were expecting didn't come down to scoop them up. Would they stop believing? Would they admit they had been fools?

No, of course not. They simply adjusted some details of the cult's beliefs and kept on believing. In the case of the Chicago cult, the woman who led them received a new prophesy telling the cult members that their devotion and purity had been so great that the end of the world was delayed.

Cognitive dissonance is a kind of discomfort that arises from holding contradictory ideas. People try to reduce dissonance by altering their existing cognitions or adding new ones that bring the whole system into harmony.

Experiencing Cognitive Dissonance in the Sales Process

So what does this have to do with successful sales processes and winning proposals? And why do I like to use the term?

Human beings are hardwired to recognize the differences between themselves and others before they notice the similarities. The more differences there are, the greater the distrust we feel. In a situation where we are trying to sell a product or service, buyers will find it hard to trust us because we are not like them. They are male; we're female. They are Canadian; we're German. They work for their employer; we don't.

Therefore, one of the primary goals of our sales messages, particularly our proposal executive summaries, is to reduce cognitive dissonance by raising awareness of what we have in common.

But how do we do that?

Focus on Your Buyer's Needs

First, we need to focus on them and what they care about. The buyer's first question is always, "Are we getting what we need?" Related to this question is, "Does this vendor understand our business?"

If our sales pitch starts with 12 slides packed with information about us—who we are, how big we are, where we are located, how many employees we have, what our revenue numbers were last year—we are not answering the important questions. Instead we are increasing our buyers' awareness that we are different from them. Cognitive dissonance goes up.

Prioritize Content the Way Your Buyer Would

Second, we need to focus on what they care about in the order of priority they think it matters. We should address their business needs first, since that addresses their first question. And in presenting a summary understanding of those needs, we should put the need that they consider to be most important right up front. Whatever we mention first, they assume we think is most important. By prioritizing the content the way our buyers would, we reduce cognitive dissonance.

Speak Their Language

Third, we need to use their language and avoid our own. Few things are more alienating than dealing with someone who speaks in jargon and acronyms that we don't understand. Even your product names are a form of jargon. Everyone around your office may know what the Turboencabulator Model 3000 is, but very few of your customers will recognize the name and immediately understand what it represents.

So, I probably owe Leon Festinger and his colleagues an apology for misappropriating the term and using it imprecisely. But it certainly seems to capture the essence of what we need to overcome in our sales presentations and proposals: the fear our buyers have that we do not think like them, do not have the same concerns they have, and are not focused on delivering the results that they think matter.

Reduce Cognitive Dissonance with Sales Enablement Technology

Modern sales enablement technology is designed to empower sales people to create a specific, personalized message for each customer. The same is true of a well-designed proposal automation system. Check out the Qvidian sales enablement and proposal automation tools to see how they can reduce cognitive dissonance between you and your buyers.

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