Personality type and persuasive communications: understanding your client’s communications needs

By John Hackston

Here’s a quick quiz. When you are talking to a salesperson, what works for you, and what doesn’t? Specifically, when someone is trying to influence you, which of the following approaches would be the least effective? 

  1.   Idealistic, using emotive arguments with little relevance to real life
  2.   Detached, impersonal and with a complicated rationale
  3.   Closed-minded, narrowly focused, and impersonal
  4.   Poorly thought-through arguments with irrelevant detail and few possibilities.

Probably none of them appeal — but which would be the worst? I’ll come back to your answer in just a while.

We are all individuals. The messaging that works for you will irritate or turn off others, and vice versa. And our natural approach, especially when we are seeking to persuade or influence others, is to communicate in a way that would work for US. Unfortunately, that won’t always work well for the other person. One factor that can help us, and which has a huge impact on the way people want to be communicated to, is their personality type, as measured by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) assessment.

The MBTI framework looks at four aspects of our personality that combine dynamically to capture the fundamental elements of who we are. When it comes to persuading and being persuaded, two areas that are especially important are the sort of information that we prefer to use (Sensing or Intuition, S or N), and our preferred decision-making process (Thinking or Feeling, T or F). Combining these two preferences means that each of us can be sorted into four categories: ST, SF, NT, or NF.

  • When they are communicated to, people with a preference for Sensing and Thinking will focus on specifics and details, and will then want to make a logical, objective decision based on this information. To persuade or sell to these people, it is important to state the facts, listing tangible features and benefits. 
  • For Sensing and Feeling, again specifics and details are important, but the decision will be made on how those specifics impact on the people they care about. Treating those with SF preferences as individuals and making an effort to meet their specific individual needs will be important. 
  • For Intuition and Feeling, the focus will be on the big picture, and the decision made on how this impacts on people and their values; speak to their vision and their values. 
  • For Intuition and Thinking the emphasis is on possibilities and logical options, often with a focus on the future. Acknowledge their expertise and present them with innovative options from which they can make a logical choice.

This may seem a little theoretical, but it does work. For example, in a 2012 article, researcher Holly Buchanan described her work with an online women’s fitness clothing retailer, who were not achieving the sales return from electronic mail that they were hoping for. The sales copy was written by an owner of the company, who had preferences for Intuition and Thinking, and this was reflected in the style and content of the messaging. However, Buchanan’s analysis suggested that many of the customers had preferences for Sensing and Feeling. She rewrote the copy in a way that was more likely to appeal to people with a SF preference, and this resulted in increased sales, with a 27% higher click through rate on the website.

Now, given that you are reading this article in California Broker, you probably aren’t working as a copywriter for a clothing company. However, the same principles apply in other contexts where you need to sell to people or persuade them to your point of view. Research by Pia Hautamäki shows that while business buyers expect a number of things from a salesperson, the most important factor is a sales approach that matches their personality. 

Remember that quiz question I asked at the start of this article?

Damien Killen and Richard Thompson included this in a study about the link between MBTI type and influencing.

Based on the responses of 2,800 people,

• Option A: 89% Sensing and/or Thinking preferences
• Option B: 77% Sensing and/or Feeling
• Option C: 93% Intuition and/or Feeling
• Option D: 83% Intuition and/or Thinking

Here are some dos and don’ts for persuading each type:

Sensing and Thinking (ST)

  •       Do: outline pros and cons, provide facts and evidence, be clear and direct
  •       Don’t: be too personal or emotional, logically inconsistent, or appear to lack confidence

Sensing and Feeling (SF)

  •       Do: show you have listened, use personal facts and information, and demonstrate loyalty
  •       Don’t: be too dry and factual, ignore details (especially personal details), or appear to be impersonal

Intuition and Feeling (NF)

  •       Do: engage with their values and fire their imagination, show energy and passion, and emphasize harmony
  •       Don’t: use too much detail, miss out the big picture, or appear to lack passion

Intuition and Thinking (NT)

  •       Do: present and discuss possibilities, outlining pros and cons, acknowledge the individual’s expertise, and appear competent yourself
  •       Don’t: be too personal or emotional, lack evidence or focus, or use irrelevant detail

Of course, in practice you probably don’t know for certain the personality type of the person you wish to persuade; you likely won’t have had the luxury of them having taken the MBTI assessment, deciding what type fits them best and sharing this information with you. 

However, if you listen carefully, you can pick up cues about a customer’s type from what they say and do. This is easier if you’ve completed a type assessment and had feedback yourself; you will have a framework for evaluating other people’s behavior and compare it with your own. You’ll also better understand your own default communication style, which will give you a head start in adapting your own behavior to match that of the customer. And this isn’t just important for selling; it applies to any situation where you need to influence and persuade other people, or even to situations where you just want to build a good relationship with a client.

 John Hackston is a chartered psychologist and head of Thought Leadership at The Myers-Briggs Company where he leads the company’s Oxford-based research team. He is a frequent commentator on the effects of personality type on work and life, and has authored numerous studies, published papers in peer-reviewed journals, presented at conferences for organizations such as The British Association for Psychological Type. Hackston has written on various type-related subjects in top outlets such as Harvard Business Review.