“Psychological priming” is a term coined by behavioral scientists and popularized by author Malcolm Gladwell in his bestselling book, Blink.  Although priming dramatically impacts our ability to sell – or not – many of us may in fact know nothing about it. 

In my sales career, I never received formal training on this powerful phenomenon. When someone is “primed” with specific ideas, thoughts and concepts, they behave in measurably different ways than their peers who’ve not been so conditioned.

What is priming?  It’s exposing a person to specific words or images that, by themselves, create a particular psychological state within the subject.  The priming is done without the knowledge of those in question; in fact, to be successful it must fly under the conscious radar.  In studies of priming, participants are often given word jumbles that key on certain types of words that conjure up specific images.  In other permutations, images are flashed that correspond to a particular stimulus.

Why is this important for sales and marketing teams? Read on.

To a hypnotist / sales trainer, like me, this is precisely what hypnotic suggestion achieves.

For the salesperson, it means that the words you utilize in your communications may be “priming” your prospects to buy… or to run for the hills.

University of Minnesota researcher Kathleen Vohs primed subjects with words and images directly related to money, often by simply having different screen savers running in the background:  one with a blank screen; one with pictures of fish; and the last with pictures of money.

Take a look at these remarkable results:

           – Physical Distance: After participants were primed with pictures of money, partners sat 50% farther away from each other.

            – Generosity: Money-primed participants donated less to a request for charity than did the control group, 39% vs. 67%.

            – Cooperation: Participants not primed regarding money were 120% more likely to help others than peers so primed.


We already know that our communication, whether in person or in writing, directly impacts the behavior of the person with whom we’re interacting.  The conclusions of this brilliant study show us that talking about money with our customers and prospects will tend to create in them less cooperation, more physical distance and less generosity: not exactly the most successful state for our goals!

So what do we do with this information and how do we adapt in a profession that requires us to discuss cost? Clearly, focusing on price is not to our advantage.  Shifting the conversation to the prospect’s needs or desires as quickly as possible is far more effective.  Once their unique situation is understood, we can then craft our solution to meet those newly uncovered priorities and requirements.

Keep cost as simple as possible to vastly reduce the amount of time explaining how a product or service is priced.  Even if your pricing model is relatively complex and you have no personal control over changing this structure, there are things you can do.

1)     Understand the pricing backwards and forwards.

2)     Practice with different ways of explaining cost until you find something simple and elegant.  Maybe you only have to reveal what is specific to the individual person or company you’re dealing with.  If you’ve discovered that they’re only interested in part of your service, avoid wading through more pricing details than might otherwise be necessary. 

3)     Express pricing differently — as in per unit or per user — and thereby help to simplify the cost structure.  Do whatever you can to clearly and concisely help the customer understand pricing. This will keep the influence of money as a negative priming agent to a bare minimum.

4)     Finally, keep the focus as much as possible on the desired outcome. Remind the prospect, in his own words, what your product or solution will do for him. 

Bottom line?  Prime your customers for a successful conclusion and close more business.

About the author

Peter McLaughlin

Peter McLaughlin is a salesman at heart. In his 25-year career in sales he…

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