Whether it’s a creepy groaning noise that wakes you up from a sound sleep or the thought of losing something important such as the new house you’re negotiating for or, worse, the use of your limbs or eyesight in a violent accident, asking what role fear plays in human beings is like asking what role H2O plays in.

When confronted by perceived danger, our bodies universally respond in specific ways. The sympathetic nervous system prepares us to take action. We sweat. The adrenal glands pump adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream. To ramp up energy and send oxygen to our muscles, our heart rate and blood pressure skyrocket. We are now more capably equipped to run or fight.

Sound primitive? It is, of course. Our bodies weren’t constructed to sit behind computer monitors, er, like I’m doing right now. Mother Nature didn’t predict such a thing. Rather than giving us a way to deal with the type of panic you experience when your hard drive crashes after you’ve written 25 pages of a big sales proposal without auto save enabled, Mother Nature equipped us to respond to the dirty, salivating chimp that wants to eat your child.

The Most Powerful Motivator: Fear.

fear as sales motivator

The primitive emotion of fear alerts us to danger, whether real or vividly imagined. Fear kept our ancestors alive. In fact, if your great-great-great-grandfather didn’t fear walking in front of that speeding horse-drawn cart one otherwise calm Sunday morning, you wouldn’t be reading this article right now. His fear kept him alive. Come to think of it, you exist largely because of fear. It’s an emotion we cannot fully break free from, nor would we ever want to.

The essence of fear’s power comes from the first principle of the LifeForce-8 human desires: survival. We are genetically engineered to want to survive, to protect our existence and the lives of our offspring. Committing suicide therefore is a feat of will that exceeds the physical strength of the six-foot three-inch 400 pound Lithuanian Žydr unas Savickas, widely acknowledged as the strongest man on earth.

The good news is that as salespeople we can tap into that powerful emotion and make it our profitable friend. How? By creating a script that includes the suggestion of the loss of any of the LifeForce-8 elements, such as loss of life (LF8, number 1), loss of social approval (LF8, number 8), and loss of comfort (LF8, number 5), with survival and protection of our loved ones being the strongest.

Four Steps to Fear Induction

In Age of Propaganda (2001), Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson claim that “the fear appeal is most effective when:

  1. It scares the hell out of people,
  2. It offers a specific recommendation for overcoming the fear-aroused threat,
  3. The recommended action is perceived as effective for reducing the threat, and
  4. The message recipient believes that he or she can perform the recommended action.”

First, it’s important to note that an effective induction of fear requires all four steps. You can’t simply say, “Boo! Now buy my stuff.” Creating a “box of fear” establishes the context in which your sales message will live. Once it’s created, you still need to convince your prospect that your product is the perfect solution, prove it, and convince him that he can alleviate the fear by using the product you want him to buy.

Some copywriters go too far with the fear approach and scare people into inaction. After reading their ad copy—say, for life insurance—men will be freaked out to the point of inertia by sales copy describing how one day their wives and kids will be looking at their dead body lying cold in the casket, “his cold, dry mouth sutured shut with a curved needle and string stuck into the jaw below his gums, through the upper jaw into to his right nostril, then carefully threaded through the septum into his left nostril and finally fished back down into his mouth and tied off.” All this, of course, so that Dad’s mouth doesn’t snap open during the funeral service.

Ghoulishly intriguing, perhaps, but an unnecessary cascade of facts and a terrible turnoff for most prospective buyers. Fear is best used to motivate prospects away from the alternative, not away from your product: the thing that’s intended to be the alternative. You’re looking for a “I really need this” response from your prospects, not, “Good God, I can’t bear to read another word!”

For example, if you sell smoke alarm systems, don’t focus on all the cool hightech features until you’ve expressed a potential threat to one of your prospect’s LF8; that’s where the power of the sale lies. Asking, “Will your family die in the night?” (LF8, number 1 [survival] and LF8, number 7 [care and protection of loved ones]) is a lot stronger than “This digital display tells you when to replace the batteries.” (This suggests the loss of none of the LF8, although it could if worded differently: “This digital display tells you when to replace the batteries so you’re not in bed snoozing while the other side of your house is engulfed in flames. By the way, on which side of the house is little Noah’s bedroom?”) Ouch.

If you sell life insurance, for example, don’t start talking about how it’s smart to buy a policy that’s worth at least five and a half times your client’s income. Instead say, “The purpose of me being here today isn’t to sell you a policy. It’s to help prevent your wife and kids from losing the house and car and crying every night because their husband and daddy isn’t there to help feed, protect, and take care of them.” Ouch.

If you’re a dog groomer, you don’t want to start by saying, “We can beautify Fluffy with her choice of 10 different popular grooming styles.” Instead, start the conversation by saying, “Before I tell you about the 10 great styles I can offer Fluffy, you first need to know that we never use any dangerous tranquilizing drugs like some other groomers. And we never, ever use the deadly groomer’s noose to control Fluffy when she’s on the grooming table. That’s because if she falls off the narrow table, the noose would literally break her trachea, snapping her little furry neck like an Old West bandit swinging from an oak tree.” Ouch.

Think you’d get their attention? You’re darned right you would. But it’s about more than just getting attention. It’s about beginning your sales pitch—after the opening niceties have been exchanged—with a powerful zinger. You want something that not only taps into their fears but also separates your company from the competition right off the bat. Chances are that your competition is not doing this.

It’s important to install this thought in your prospects’ heads at the beginning of the pitch, not halfway through the presentation and not after you’ve explained all the features and benefits. You want it stewing in their brains from square one.

“But why, Drew?” Because—and this is vital—your prospects will be continually silently comparing and contrasting your product and service with others they may already have been researching before making the purchase. By immediately tapping into fear—the number one driver of both positive and negative behavior (the mind thinks almost all behavior is positive and somehow aids survival)—you’re setting up your competitors to fail. When this is done properly, you’re using an emotion with so much prewired power that in contrast with what prospects might be using to silently judge your product, you can effectively quash their rebuttals whether they verbalize them or not.

In other words, a fear appeal, when skillfully presented, will often trump most, if not all, of a prospect’s objections because it taps into the root of their biology. It’s not superficial. It’s not just “We’ve been in business for 20 years and our customer service is the best in the industry,” (Yawn!) nonsense. Suggesting a loss of one of the eight critical human desires easily trumps those silly, generic and robotic claims.

Want an example? Okay. Let’s say I run a karate school and you’re the father of eight-year-old Diego, who has been getting bullied at school. You’ve already checked out three other martial arts centers, so you have a good idea of what’s important to you and how the schools compare. In short, you have some ammunition that you’ll mentally or verbally use against me, the salesperson for my school.

If I didn’t understand how to use consumer psychology—and most karate school owners don’t—I’d say something like this:

“Well, we teach Wing Chun—Bruce Lee’s number one style—a 300-year old Chinese kung fu that’s excellent for self-defense. It features a simultaneous block and attack strategy, so it’s very fast and efficient. It’s also easy to learn and safe and is perfect for a smaller person to use against a larger attacker. Our classes are Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 6 to 7 p.m. and 12 to 1 on Saturdays. We charge $150 a month and there are no contracts to sign, but you do get a discount if you enroll for at least six months. Would you like to try a free class, Diego?”

What’s wrong with this pitch? It seems perfectly fine, doesn’t it? I mean, the guy talks about the product, gives some benefits that seem tailored to little Diego’s bullying problem, gives the class hours and the price, and even mentions an available discount and invites participation. Great pitch, right?

Wrong. It’s terribly deficient, and the timing of the presentation of data is horrible. It is, in fact, the sales pitch of an amateur. It’s the kind of presentation that will probably cause the prospect to base his buying decision more on the salesperson’s personality and looks and the appearance of the facilities than on what the salesperson said. Any sales that result are due to pure luck or a fatigued father who just wants to “get the boy into a class already because they’re all about the same, I’m sure.”

Let’s take a look at the right way to do it, using the psychology of fear to separate ourselves from the competition, make duds of the prospect’s objection ammunition, and have Diego’s father begin to construct questions of dissatisfaction about the three other schools he visited.

This script begins after the preliminary pleasantries have been exchanged.

“Thanks again for stopping by. Before I tell you about the style we teach and our classes, hours, and pricing, I want to first mention something more important than all of that. [setting the space/credibility generator] It’s about real-world effectiveness. There are lots of martial arts schools in this city, and most are run by good guys. Some are even friends of mine. [statements of reasonableness] But the fact is the styles they’re teaching and the way they teach them could get their students in a lot of trouble. [dissatisfaction generator] Because what they don’t teach is how to avoid getting into a fight in the first place. [primary statement of difference] That would be smart, right? [appeal to common sense] They’re so busy showing kids how to kick and punch, they spend zero time on the psychology of dealing with bullies and how to avoid confrontations altogether. [dissatisfaction generator] The idea isn’t just to be able to hit faster and harder. If that’s all you’re looking for, this school is not for you. [the takeaway] I’m more interested in teaching Diego exactly how to rip the bully target off his back. [Visualization generator: salesman gestures as if ripping the sign off, then pauses to allow the prospect to construct visualization.] Kids need to learn how to carry themselves so these confrontations never occur in the first place. Most parents don’t want their child to continually be tested by every bully that comes along. [affirmation generator] We teach kids how to stop being targeted before the confrontation ever occurs. [affirmation generator] Other schools don’t even broach the subject. [dissatisfaction generator] We teach them how to carry themselves so they stop looking like an easy target. [affirmation generator] But if bullying does happen, our style and teaching method show Diego exactly how to end the problem quickly, easily, and in the safest way possible. [benefit string] Other schools teach flashy Hollywood-type martial arts that look good on the big screen but are very dangerous in real life. [dissatisfaction generator] And guess when most students find out that their style doesn’t work? Yep, when they need it most—when the bully has them pressed up against a wall and is threatening to punch them in the face and break their nose and jaw.” [situational language/visualization generator]

Quite a difference, isn’t it? And it’s much more than just a quantitative difference. It’s wholly qualitative. Let me explain.

In the first example, the salesperson was doing little more than reciting what you might find on his business card: standard—(Yawn!)—Yellow Pages fare: who we are, what we do, when we do it, and how much it costs. It is a “just the facts, ma’am” sales pitch. It’s great if you’re a cop investigating a crime, terrible if your income and family depend on your sales pitch to eat.

In the second example, the salesperson incorporated consumer psychology— utilizing the grand motivator of fear—into the pitch. His goal was to force the prospect—Diego’s father—to construct questions of dissatisfaction about the other schools:

  • Why didn’t those other schools say anything about this stuff?
  • Why didn’t they talk about avoiding confrontations in the first place?
  • Why didn’t they talk about teaching Diego how to carry himself in a way that takes the bully target off his back?
  • Why didn’t they mention anything about the practicality of their style? It did look pretty flashy. I wonder if it’s really practical or if their students are being set up to fail.

This double-pronged use of the sales power of fear is shockingly effective. You’re essentially draining your prospect’s bucket of satisfaction for your competition and simultaneously filling his or her bucket of desire for your product. Not only does it create a bold statement of your USP—unique selling proposition— causing your prospect to question the value of the competition’s product, it also taps into multiple LF8 elements, including freedom from fear, pain, and danger (LF8, number 3), survival, enjoyment of life, life extension (LF8, number 1), and care and protection of loved ones (LF8, number 7).

What’s more, by informing your prospect of these things—some of which he may not know—you’re acting like a consumer advocate. You’re helping him make the best decision on the basis of facts. You’re telling him things that the other guy did not.

If you’re feeling particularly aggressive, add this final knockout blow that causes the prospect to question your competitor’s integrity, transparency, and intention to do the right thing:

“Didn’t those other schools say anything about teaching Diego to avoid being bullied? Didn’t they talk about a specific process for deescalating confrontations? Didn’t they talk about teaching only simple and practical moves that work in stressful situations? Complex, memorized moves are almost impossible to pull off when the body is flooded with adrenaline. No? Hmmm, really? That’s weird. Actually, it’s downright irresponsible, especially for a school that’s teaching young children, if you ask me.”

These scripts dramatically show the difference between a business owner who simply knows her business and one who also knows how to sell. Your goal as a business owner or salesperson isn’t to simply tell prospects what you do (“We teach Wing Chun kung fu”), it’s also not to simply tell them what you offer (“If Justin enrolls today, he’ll get a free school T-shirt and water bottle and you get a $50 discount on the first month’s dues”). Your goal is to convince them that your X is better than your competitor’s X, as demonstrated by the dialogue we just examined.

Question: If I gave you five minutes to sell me your product or service, how long would it take you to start tearing into your competition?

“But Drew, my incredibly wise sales manager who says he wears a watch that costs more than my car told me, ‘Since our product is so great, we don’t need to talk about the competition. Just talk about our product and that alone will make the sale.’”

Hogwash, and here’s why: today’s consumers are way more informed than they were years ago, especially before the Internet took over our lives as a tool for prepurchase shopping research. The net has transformed ordinary consumers into super sorters. The fact is that while you’re explaining your product, consumers are already comparing and contrasting (sorting by sameness and differences) it with what they’ve already learned about your competition’s offerings.

Here’s the crux of the issue: the prospect may know more about what your competition offers than you do. (I hope this isn’t the case because having total knowledge of your competitors’ offerings gives you a powerful opportunity to quash them in every possible way and lets you take full advantage of what’s known as heuristic buying.

Saying a few things about your product and trying to persuade prospects to buy it is one thing. Whipping out a spreadsheet showing how your item delivers more features and benefits in multiple categories, detailing where the competition is deficient, illustrating graphically with little check marks and X’s so that they quickly see the big picture at a glance, and demonstrating in black and white rather than just in words dramatically different and impressive. You’re taking what’s probably an amorphous consumer mind state and giving it order, clarity, direction, speed, and economy. Do this, and your prospect is likely to think, “Ah, nice! I can actually see what I’ve been struggling with. I can see all the elements of my decision in front of me.” Do you see the incredible power you can wield this way? In sales, confusion typically leads to inaction, whereas clarity encourages action.

Most important, if you don’t take time to sell against your competition, you’re leaving your prospects’ attitude toward your compet-itors’ products unchallenged. Don’t you see? They’re battling you inside their heads, and you have no idea that’s happening. It doesn’t matter if your product is superior because they probably don’t know that. You need to convince them of its superiority. Simply assuming that your prospect hasn’t started shopping around or conducted at least a few minutes of web research could be sales suicide.

What your expensive-watch-wearing boss apparently doesn’t get is that not all human beings can be persuaded the same way. You can’t realistically tell a salesperson, “Sell it only this way.” That’s ridiculous, and it’s why the best salespeople have more than one instrument of influence in their toolboxes and why this article teaches more than one principle.

Consider your prospect’s convincer strategy, for example. This term simply means that different people need different things to be convinced of something enough to whip out a credit card.

For example, let’s say I am selling a miracle spray that once applied to your car seats makes it virtually impossible for anything to stain them. We’ll call the product No-Stain-O.

My prospect, Joe, may need to hear a sales claim three different times before he’s convinced. With that in mind, I can simply tell Joe how amazing No-Stain-O is, tell him stories about how my customers can’t believe how well it works, and tell him how No-Stain-O actually puts a harmless seal on the fabric, making it impenetrable to liquids. Then I can end by informing him that I’m happy to let him try it for 30 days with a full money-back guarantee.

Boom! Convincer strategy satisfied. Joe’s reaching for his wallet.

Prospect Lindsay, in contrast, may need to hear my claims only once, but she won’t buy until she has also seen the product demonstrated and compared No-StainO with the half dozen competitive products readily available online. In other words, she needs to see me apply No-Stain-O by drizzling grape juice and chocolate syrup on the seats and then effortlessly removing the sticky mess with zero evidence of it left behind. Once she sees that—boom—convincer strategy satisfied. Lindsay’s cautious-consumer hand slips into her purse for her credit card.

The point? You can’t simply say, “It’s sufficient to talk only about my own product.” Every consumer on the planet expects you to say, “Ours is the best.” Unless you attack your competitors head on, how can you compare yourself effectively with them? Bottom line: you can’t. And if you’re leaving that task to your prospect to do, you’re delusional. It’s not going to happen, or if it does, you’ll have no control over the outcome.

So unless your boss is wearing the $2.7 million, 36-complication Franck Muller Aeternitas Mega 4 watch, tell him you’re not impressed with his keyhole perspective on sales psychology or his “budget-minded” $30,000 Rolex President.

Remember that to properly use fear to sell, you have to imply that the competition’s product will not satisfy one or more of the eight primary human desires and then present an easily attainable way to avoid that tension while also achieving the prospect’s goal.

First, look for aspects of your product that, compared with your competitor’s offerings, will help your prospect avoid some type of significant loss or injury relating to one or more of the eight LifeForce-8 elements. At the outset of the presentation, tell the prospect that you’ll get to the standard features and benefits in a moment, but only after telling him about the critically important issues regarding X.

“I have a lot to tell you about _________, but before getting to that, it’s more important that I explain _________. The competition will say X, but what they probably didn’t tell you is _________. Did they tell you this? No? Really? Hmmm. Well, here’s why that’s important to you. Without X, here’s what’s likely to happen: [description of pain].”

It’s important to be as specific and demonstrative as possible when explaining how the prospect could be negatively affected. Describe, as appropriate, how this loss could look, sound, feel, and taste. For optimal results, employ consumer advocate positioning to maximize the credibility of your claims and use richly detailed situational language when describing how your prospects will be negatively affected if they choose a competitor’s product.