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"A good example of what not to do: Lay out the facts of the case and expect them to be persuasive on their own."

How Tim Cook Could Have Made a More Persuasive Case

If his message was intended to persuasive, Cook might have taken a cue from the emotional connection achieved so often in his products.

There was a time when it seemed like Apple didn’t have to work very hard to be tremendously persuasive. It was as if everything it touched became the object of deep desire across multiple markets and demographics. The truth, of course, is that Apple has always worked very hard indeed to persuade customers and opinion-makers alike.

Making the arduous look easy is one of the hallmarks of great design, whether in performance or product or communication, and is inherently persuasive because it lowers the barriers to adoption, or change, and is in itself so customer-centric. Steve Jobs himself was relentless in his focus on ease and elegance. And not just in products, but in all aspects of the Apple brand experience. The advertising. The presentations. The turtlenecks.

These persuasive attributes are conspicuously absent from Apple’s current attempt to make a public case for its non-compliance with government demands to engineer the release of data from one of its products. Some would even argue that Apple is losing the public relations contest.

Support is Emotional

From a purely neurological perspective of persuasion, wherein the emotional brain is chief executive and taskmaster of human decisions (logic and reason are lowly minimum-wage workers), Tim Cook’s Customer Letter is a good example of what not to do: lay out the facts of the case and expect them to be persuasive on their own.

The following is an admittedly presumptuous attempt to second-guess one of the world’s most influential CEOs. But we do know quite a bit about the mechanisms of persuasion, and when you start mapping this communication with some triggered alternatives (supplied in obviously simplistic form), it becomes fairly easy to see how it might have been a more persuasive message.

Here is the icon key for the emotional triggers profiled in The 7 Triggers to Yes, and which are used to tag the letter analysis below.


By having the neuroscience underpinnings of what constitutes truly persuasive messaging, and by applying a framework or formula of designated emotional triggers, it actually becomes a relatively straightforward exercise to turn a piece of logical communication into something that actually connects with people and draws them to your cause, your perspective, your proposal.

How to Draft the Emotional Appeal

The first consideration is strategic: Know your audience and adopt their perspective rather than focusing on how to articulate your own. In the case of Cook’s letter, it seems unclear who exactly he is addressing. The letter says “A Message to Our Customers,” but it reads like a deposition; complete with a spate of technology references that many Apple customers would likely not understand (Apple customers were at one time on the higher end of the technology sophistication spectrum, but if we’re talking iPhones, nowadays not so much).

The second consideration is tactical, and involves crafting messages that activate specific emotional triggers in the brain. It takes some practice to refocus and redraft messaging that aligns with specific triggers, and the differences may at first glance seem nuanced or incremental, but the payoffs in persuasive power can be substantial.

Hope or Fear?

Perhaps the strongest example here is in the last section of the letter. Cook chose to rely on fear. Fear is a legitimate and potentially powerful motivator; persuasive in its own right, and an element of what we call the Consistency Trigger, which centers around issues of risk. But Cook might have chosen Hope, often the most powerful emotional trigger of all, and by doing so emphasized Apple’s commitment to its customers and its principles, rather than its resistance to the government.

It’s hard to know whether Cook’s objective was even to be in any way persuasive. Maybe he just wanted to get his “deposition” out there for stakeholders, the government and the press. But public opinion appears to be something of a toss-up right now, and Cook may well have been more influential in that regard had he used some of the principles of persuasion we now know from neuroscience.