The Importance of Knowing What is Top of Mind (Cialdini)

Robert Cialdini has practically made a career on the observation that nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you’re thinking about it. Whatever is top of mind, even for a fleeting moment, drives our ultimate behavior. The best marketers (and salespeople, and politicians) know exactly how to control for this variable. As consumers and professionals, we have to understand the way we are wired in order to get what we want.

Cialdini explains that once we find a feature we feel is “the most important thing” (including when someone else finds it for us and/or we automatically adopt it), we will then base our decisions off of that feature. Typically, this means we’ll be more willing to overlook the broader evidence, as well as more susceptible to the influence of our own emotions. When we combine top of mind with a most important thing, we have a mental shortcut to decision making ready to go.

Consider any over-the-counter painkiller. When a headache strikes, what do you reach for? Do we tinker with lots of different brands reading all of the labels in the CVS aisle, or do we automatically connect our headache to Ibuprofen, to the look and feel of the bottle, to the caplets, etc.? Our brains love having these shortcuts, and many great marketers have built storied careers around paving them.

In the professional’s world of delivering complex information to regular people, the same logic holds as does for the painkiller. The true professional gets inside of the client’s head to understand what is top of mind for them, what the most important thing is, and what emotional attachments are present.

Consider a long-term planning recommendation. The professional can’t make the suggestion if the client is short-term panicked over an insignificant detail. The initial headspace must be addressed before the recommendation can be introduced. Once addressed, however, a new most important thing along with an emotional attachment is the path making the process feel as easy as reaching for the headache medicine. Cialdini calls this magical shortcut “click, whirr” for a reason.

When we approach our clients from the perspective of listening first and determining what is top of mind, we can jumpstart our ability to how we’ll need to frame our recommendations. It’s not hard, but it is a habit that we all can form. For more Cialdini, listen to his recent interview with Barry Ritholtz, and/or check out his books Influence, and Presuasion.

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