What do Road Signs and Selling Have in Common?

By Tim Riesterer, Chief Strategy Officer

March 4, 2015

oldway-newway-signSimple, concrete visuals have been used in roadside signage for a long time. But, what happens when you tweak them just a bit by adding more “drama” to the visual? Can you actually increase the influence of these signs on human attitudes and behaviors?

Yes, you can. Turns out the best driver is a slightly threatened one, according to a recent article in The Atlantic. And altering road signs to make driving seem a bit more perilous heightens the sense of driver awareness and urgency, making them more attentive behind the wheel.

There’s actually something marketers and salespeople can learn from this too. Simple, concrete visuals are powerful. But, just using visuals in your selling messages will not necessarily create the urgency and reaction you are looking for. Ideally, your visuals will increase the perception of risk about the current situation to cause your audience to engage with the concepts you are presenting.

Road Rage-ish

Which brings us back to the road signs. The Atlantic article specifically dealt with a study from the Journal of Consumer Research, which found that more “dynamic” images were better at grabbing drivers’ attention and, by extension, raising their level of vigilance about their surroundings. In this case, a more dynamic image is a falling boulder instead of an inert one, or a sprinting stick figure instead of a strolling one.

In the article, co-author Luca Cian said the following: “From evolutionary psychology we know that humans have developed systems to maximize the chances of detecting potential predators and other dangers.” She added: “Perception of movement within a traffic sign prepares the driver for actual movement.”

The key takeaway is that the more uncertainty you can create, the more influence you have in terms of changing peoples’ behavior. And as the traffic signs demonstrate, if you can create that uncertainty visually, through powerful, concrete images, you stand to enhance your persuasiveness even more.

The same is true for your customer conversations. To tell a compelling “why change” story, you need to be great at creating unexpected urgency around your prospects’ status quo. But the concrete visual component is especially key. That’s because the emotional part of the brain (or the “old brain,” which Cian alluded to in the article) doesn’t have the capacity for language. Instead, the “old brain” relies on images to create contrast and simplify information, and it shuns abstraction and complexity.

We’ve talked in the past about the power of whiteboard style visuals, and how an assembled visual story can maximize the Picture Superiority Effect. But to be truly persuasive, any old whiteboard image won’t do. When developing a compelling visual story, there are a few things to keep in mind if you want to dislodge the status quo:

  • Are you providing context? To visually present your prospect’s status quo as unsafe, your visual needs to highlight the shortcomings and deficiencies in the prospect’s current situation. In other words, you need to vividly show how such problems make their current situation unsustainable and in need of a change. Your images should depict emerging issues and industry trends that have the potential to create significant risk if your prospect doesn’t find a pathway to change. By creating a high level of uncertainty and urgency around a prospect’s current situation, you make them more open to persuasion.
  • Are you creating contrast? If you fail to establish clear contrast between your solution and your prospect’s status quo, your deal has a good chance of ending in a “no decision.” To avoid that outcome, you should look employ a “to and from” approach to your visuals that powerfully demonstrates where your prospect is now, and where they could be if they agree to a change management project led by you. That clear, side-by-side contrast places your prospect’s status quo situation up against a proposed alternative, allowing them to visually discern the difference in value.
  • Are you keeping it concrete? Remember, the simple, decision-making part of the brain craves simplicity. As a result, complex, abstract visuals will confuse this part of the brain, undermining your ability to convince someone to change. Instead, use numbers, stick figures, shapes and arrows to translate potentially complex ideas into more digestible concepts. That, in turn, helps guide your prospects toward the decision-making process.

The implications are clear as far as what visual storytelling techniques based on decision-making science can do for your ability to defeat your prospect’s status quo. Whether it’s a government agency trying to create better driving habits, or you trying to move a prospect on a pathway to change, simple concrete that speak to the “old brain” can persuade people to do something different.

Want to learn more about how you can take advantage of the Picture Superiority Effect? Check out our research brief, which tested the effectiveness of whiteboard-style visuals vs. traditional PowerPoint.