In his new book, This Is Marketing, Seth Godin draws a critical distinction between constructive tension and fear. Commercial teaching focused on fear can have the opposite effect of what is intended and miss an opportunity to motivate customers to action.

Many marketing gurus will argue the benefits of using fear to capture attention, and point to solid behavioral science to make their case. This blog by Neil Patel is a good example. Loss aversion is a powerful motivator. But having learned this, the temptation is to crank the fear dial as high as it can go. A more balanced strategy is needed, and Seth Godin has a great perspective on it.

Seth’s new book is out. It’s fantastic! At one point he talks about the concept of “tension” in a commercial teaching situation. This got me very excited, given our focus at Challenger, both on commercial teaching, and for many years on the constructive use of tension in commercial teaching conversations.

Seth brings an interesting caveat to the tension idea. In a related blog, he writes, “Tension [not fear] is the hallmark of a great educational experience.” He’s put his finger on a critical nuance. How often do we conflate tension and fear, looking for ominous arguments that will scare the customers we teach to action? We center the message on grisly details meant to shock; YOUR CUSTOMERS WILL HATE YOU!, YOUR EMPLOYEES WILL LEAVE! We throw these out like a monster suddenly jumping from the shadows in a cheap horror movie.

Avoid the Monster in your Marketing Tactics

Horror stories come with an undesirable consequence. Fear is not constructive. Rather, it’s distracting and, worse, debilitating. Customers become more cautious, more uncertain and feel less in control of their circumstances when we teach with fear. If they catch on to the tactic, they feel manipulated.

Constructive tension when teaching customers is the subtle anticipation of learning something they don’t already know. As Seth Godin writes, “The tension of if I learn this, will I like who I become?”

Playwright David Mamet says of great plays, “we wish for a closely fought match that contains many satisfying reversals, but which can be seen, retroactively, to have always tended toward a satisfying and inevitable conclusion.”

In marketing, like art, the audience engages in uncertainty, not because they fear the outcome, but because they curiously anticipate it. Here are a few ideas for building tension, not fear in your commercial teaching.

  • Focus on the story, not the product: The horror movie motif where the bad guy suddenly springs back to life serves only one purpose – to startle us. It’s a cheap trick. We’ve all seen fear-based teaching content that is a thinly veiled attempt to push something. Recoil in fear – buy something. The tone is not genuine concern for the audience, but self interest. If you make a sincere attempt to educate and enlighten your audience with commercial teaching, the story and the tension you create will lead clearly and directly to you. Less is more.
  • Present the truth, don’t manipulate or exaggerate: For most customers, the truth – once presented – is plenty concerning and motivating. Marketers don’t need to ham up their teaching with insights full of hyperbole, just to strike fear in the audience. Think about a 1 to 10 continuum with 1 being low interest, low motivation insight and 10 being ridiculous, unbelievable insight. Higher is not always better. Optimal is an insight that is right at the top of “interesting/motivating”, but doesn’t push into “ridiculous/unbelievable.”
  • Don’t rush the ending: There is a reason for three acts in a play. Anticipation and drama are an essential part of good communication and should be savored, not rushed. Let tension grow from the customer’s subtle anticipation of what he/she will learn next. You want to let the residue of your insight settle on your audience. This will make it stick and keep them thinking and motivated to act. If you pour your insight on them, their reaction will be to wash it off.  Whether it’s a sales presentation, or a piece of marketing content, the best teaching is a slow drip of just enough to keep your audience thinking and engaged.

Marketing as a Subtle (and Informative) Drama

Like creating good art, building commercial teaching messages filled with tension is a craft refined over time. Not everyone can do it well, which means the talented have a comparative advantage. Writing a horror story to give your audience a startled reaction is the easy path, but it’s formulaic and quickly forgotten. Don’t take the easy path. Take the dramatic, true and sustained path; it leads to a better ending.

See the drama unfold with Arco

We recently hosted an event in Europe where Arco, a UK-based workwear and safety equipment supplier, presented a commercial insight message with a dramatic teaching narrative they used to motivate customers to action.

Challenger, Inc.

Challenger is the global leader in training, technology, and consulting to win today’s complex sale. Our sales transformation and training programs are supported by ongoing research and backed by our best-selling books, The Challenger Sale, The Challenger Customer, and The Effortless Experience.