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I hate being sold. New-product propagandists annoy me. Innovation entrepreneurs oozing charisma over their brilliant ideas also fail to persuade. As the poet observed, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” In other words, while I’m happy to change my mind, I’d really rather change it myself.

That do-it-yourself attitude is at the stubborn heart of a major marketing dilemma for innovators. Persuading potential customers that your innovation is indispensable is one thing; getting them to persuade themselves of that fact is quite another. This is a critical distinction. Some potential customers desperately want or need to be convinced. In the larger marketplace of novelty and innovation, however, many people prefer the opportunity to convince themselves.

Expanding the question from “How do we persuade people?” to “How do we persuade people to persuade themselves?” poses provocative design choices for innovators. Companies spend appalling amounts of money designing models, prototypes, or simulations that amplify the persuasiveness of their salespeople. But that’s a profoundly different task than devising media and methods that empower people to persuade themselves. Precisely because innovators offer the different and the new, they should appreciate that their customers might want to choose how they will be persuaded.

Consider the awkward conversations surrounding retirement planning. Many people are understandably reluctant to discuss the subject for fear of exposing their ignorance or out of concern that they’ll be pitched a plethora of “retirement products” from a financial planner working on commission.

Of course, financial-service firms arm their retirement advisors with the latest data and the most sophisticated spreadsheets in an effort to persuade customers to revise their retirement portfolios. Might financial-service firms with innovative offerings be smarter to send those customers very simple spreadsheets that let them see what their retirement income might look like at different savings rates, inflation rates, rates of investment return, and rates of expenditure? These spreadsheets wouldn’t be about persuading people to buy; they’d be about giving people the opportunity to play with the possibilities and probabilities for their financial futures. They’d be media for “autopersuasion”-tools with which people could convince themselves that they needed to learn or do more.

The challenge for innovators is to get potential customers to taste, sample, and play with technologies that reduce their natural-or acquired-resistance to innovation. Let’s build on that retirement-planning example. The future is never a simple extrapolation of the present; a truly forward-looking simulation would offer some sort of “Monte Carlo” capacity to survey probabilistic scenarios so people could see how minor shifts in the environment might lead to vastly disparate retirement holdings.

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