We skeptics are often eager to share the wonders of critical thinking with family, friends and associates. Good.

Some of us unabashedly and not very artfully seize the smallest opportunity to bring the topic into any conversation. Friend: “I have a new recipe for cookies.” You: “Sylvia Browne looks like she eats lots of cookies. Speaking of which, here is what the evidence says about psychics…” 

Some of us find subtler ways. How many of you, like me, keep a copy of Why People Believe Weird Things in plain sight in hopes of prompting questions?

Once we get a conversation started, we trot out evidence, debunk, and recommend websites, books, magazines and podcasts. We hope that at least some of the people we thus regale will embrace skepticism.

There’s a word for that kind of activity. “Selling.”

Sure, you can call it something else. “Presenting,” “sharing,” “enthusing,” “helping,” whatever, but let’s be honest. When we rave about skepticism, selling is exactly what we’re trying to do. And we hope that what our listener is doing is buying.

There’s nothing wrong with that. To paraphrase what early American patriot Patrick Henry probably never said: If this be selling, then make the most of it.

In that spirit, here’s a tip to make selling-presenting-sharing-helping-enthusing-whatever go over a little better: People buy benefits more than they buy features.

feature is an attribute. Like: “This pole is 11 feet long.” A benefit is what the feature does for you. Like: “Keeps you safe from cooties.”

You can identify a benefit by following the feature with the words “so that.” Say you want to sell parents on child immunizations. The feature by itself, “serum delivered by means of sticking a needle in your child’s arm,” is hardly compelling. But by adding “so that,” you might end up with, “…so thatyour child can escape pain and possible death from a horrible disease.” I don’t know about you, but I find that a bit more persuasive.

You might think that benefits are implicit and that people don’t need you to connect dots. Tests show that you would be mistaken. Pointing out benefits increases sales.

That’s important to remember when we talk about skepticism — because the likes of evidence, logical fallacies, the scientific method, what has been debunked, what has been proved, the Million Dollar Challenge, and so on, though exciting to us, are all features. Listing them without drawing dots to the benefits they represent risks missing an opportunity to help people understand skepticism in terms of what’s in it for them.

This may be tough for some skeptics to fathom. To many of us, skepticism’s benefits appear self-evident. One obvious benefit, for instance, might be knowledge for its own sake. As Michael Shermer wrote, “I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe but because I want to know.”

Another obvious though less talked-about benefit is what I refer to as the “neener-neener” factor: Some of us love lobbing disruptive contradictions into a conversation, confounding the unsuspecting, looking smug, and later bragging to our skeptical friends. I’m not going to call it laudable or effective. But let’s concede that it tempts a lot of us, a lot of the time.

The prospect of broadened horizons or the allure of the neener-neener factor may be all you need to attract some people to skepticism. Often, however, you will be presenting skepticism to someone who doesn’t love knowledge for its own sake and has no interest in showing off. In that case, the first step to coming up with a relevant benefit will be to figure out what matters to the person in front of you. This requires recognizing that what intrigues you about skepticism may not intrigue him or her. You’re going to need some empathy, along with the discipline to listen — to hear — before launching into the admittedly more tempting activity of lecturing.

Such discovery can be fruitful. When a friend recently asked about skepticism, I drew a breath to indulge my woo peeve du jour when, at the last minute, it occurred to me to ask what prompted his question. He was thinking about investing big in a scheme represented to him as inspired by a deity. Setting aside my peeve du jour, I joined him for a look at the scheme’s features. Namely: No supporting, yet ample refuting, evidence. But again, features have limited power, especially in the face of a hoped-for benefit like quick riches. So, next, we looked at the benefits of not investing. These included avoiding the overwhelming likelihood of an unsustainable loss, of having to feel stupid and — the real clincher — of having to explain to his wife why 30 years of savings had suddenly vanished. These benefits dramatized for him the flimsiness of the quick-riches hope. He declined the scheme, later saw it fail from a safe distance, and emerged not a full-fledged skeptic, but with greater appreciation for critical thinking. It was a step. One that I’d have utterly blown had I not bothered to find out what mattered to him instead of to me.

While failing to point out benefits can mean a missed opportunity, so can failing to recognize how skepticism threatens benefits that people have already “bought.” Suppose you’re talking with astrology buffs. To them, astrology offers benefits like knowledge of the future, purpose, entertainment, hope, pick-up lines for singles bars, and more. Trot out all the real astronomy and empirical tests you want, and see how far you get. From the buff’s perspective, all you’re offering to do is remove their fun and leave nothing in its place. Good intentions aside, that’s not a smart way to go about selling.

Let’s see if we can come up with some benefits of skepticism for astrology buffs (so that you’ll have a better chance of making inroads). We might tell them, “You can trade alleged knowledge of the future for real data, so that you increase your odds of sound decisions. You can quit waiting for the stars and planets to guide you, so that you’re free to take action and seek your own purpose. There’s “Mythbusters,” “Penn & Teller’s Bullshit,” BadAstronomy.com, TAM, Quirkology, etc., etc., so that you can enjoy plenty of entertainment. And, as for hope, there is no better resource than critical thinking. It gives you tools so that you can truly have ‘…the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.’”

(I shall remain silent on the subject of pick-up lines for singles bars. I never was very good at that sort of thing. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I don’t imbibe and I never was an adept flirt.)

Let me not be guilty of overselling benefits as a tool of persuasion. I am not suggesting that infusing your pitch with benefits will compel millions of zealots to beat their zodiacs into astronomy textbooks. Most proven selling techniques, including this one, work no such miracle. When you hear marketers talk about “techniques that work,” they could equally say, “techniques that fail less often.” It’s not unusual for a direct marketer to celebrate when an offer jumps from earning a 0.25 percent to a 0.50 percent response — even though that’s the same as going from not selling to 99.75 percent of the market to not selling to 99.50 percent.

Why do they celebrate such a small gain? Because when the gross numbers are big enough, incremental increases add up. So it is with “selling” skepticism. By presenting skepticism’s features with meaningful benefits, we increase our chances of getting through. And with enough of us out there speaking up, even an incremental increase can make a significant difference.


Editor's Note: Steve Cuno is the founder of the RESPONSE Agency, an evidence-based marketing firm in Salt Lake City. He has spoken at the last two TAMs, and has been invited to write for Swift to share his knowledge of marketplace behavior as it pertains to skepticism — and vice versa. You can contact him and view his company's website and blog at ResponseAgency.com.