A Persuasion Secret Toddlers Teach

Everything we do is dictated by the “why” behind it.

As in, the only reason why we would change our behavior to get a certain outcome. And the only way to persuade others is to answer the “why” behind what drives them too.

This is a pretty long-held idea in advertising. There’s even the famous book on it, “Reason Why Advertising” by copywriting legend John E. Kennedy.

Adding that insight to your hardwiring, while you’re coming up in the copy world, can be tough. Having a toddler in your life, however, is like a shortcut to the same education.

Take our son. He’s a teenager now, but naturally we’ve got all kinds of memories that still linger, left over from his very early years. See, like most new parents — and don’t tell him I told you this — we were faced with a dilemma.

“The Boy,” as we’ll call him here, was slated to start pre-school. At what age, I don’t quite recall. But long before he would listen to… well… reason.

And by the rules of the school, he had to be, er… let’s just say that, regal as he was, he and a certain porcelain throne had yet to build a natural relationship.

In our son’s preschool, that was grounds for non-admittance. Potty-trained or no place at the table, they commanded. But here was the big problem. We were clueless about how long that would take, it turned out. Naively, we’d passed through the summer thinking it would take, what, maybe a week? He’s a bright boy, after all. Or so we told ourselves.

When the time came, about 11 days before he had to show up for his first day, I did what any modern dad would do. I Googled it. And got gobsmacked why what I’d found. “Don’t rush the kid,”
they said. “This could take a month… two or three months… even half a year.”

I could see my exhausted wife’s world collapse when I told her the news. “He won’t be able to go,” she panicked, “They’re going to turn us away at the door.” And she, like I, had a career to get back to.

Not one to be daunted, I was sure we could beat the odds. First we tried begging. He thought that was alternatingly funny and confusing. Then we tried the “no safety net” technique. This is where you take off the diaper and hope the kid hates making a mess so much, he’ll run for the toilet.

No go on either, and we’d already ticked away two of our 11 days remaining.

Ever trusting of the copywriting toolkit, I decided to try a different tack. I would come up with a more precise, audience-targeted incentive. What did “The Boy” like most? Cartoons, stickers, affection and chocolates. So we’d build our own new program out of that.

First, I drew a chart with a cartoon of the potty in the corner. Then we bought and showed him the stickerbooks with characters he knew from Disney movies. And dangled in front of him his — and our — favorite kind of caramel chocolates. Every “performance,” we told our son, got a reward.

I know, I know… you can’t believe I’m turning this into a copywriting lesson.

But did it work? Like gangbusters.

Just over a week later, we not only had a chart full of stickers, but a fully world-ready kid who (sniffle) was just growing up too dang fast. We successfully shuffled him off to school.

Now, I’m not saying you need to work a stickers-and-chocolate system into your next sales offer. But you get the idea. So often, what’s missing in a sales piece isn’t the right headline, the right catchy phrasing, or the right layout… but a properly tailored incentive to buy.

Get that and everything else should fall in place.




  1. You only think it’s easy, When they hit the teenage years, you find DRM to be a trivial problem. 🙂 Especially with a teenage Girl.
    It is a good metaphor of typical Human Behavior. People don’t react that quickly, or well, but they will. You have to use incentives with a much higher personal value. Even then, you can only choose the reaction by types, not specifics. Men will react to one, and women, generally to another. Another reaction will vary by age. Whether adult reactions to rewards being different is better, I’ll leave to others. 🙂

  2. Ha ha… don’t take me “gee, this is easy” too literally. We’re under no delusions! Actually, the part of the story above that I didn’t tell is a good illustration of your point. With our daughter, the chocolates didn’t work at all. She turns out not to have much of a sweet tooth. Lucky for her, but it left us scrambling for a different incentive. Butterfly stickers turned out to do the trick. Lesson being, the incentive has to be relevant to the recipient, as you point out.

  3. There are some of us out here who would not hesitate to buy your subscription based products if you offered us free chocolate. However, I have yet to figure out how to download it.

  4. Hi Joyce,

    Recently, Bob Bly gave a kind recommendation for the CR to his e-letter file and — while over a thousand of his readers signed on successfully — a few also ran into problems.

    It may have been because so many came searching at once or maybe it was because some weren’t clear on how to get the reports once they signed up.

    So just in case, how about this: I’ll post here some steps anybody can use to sign up for the CR…

    1) Go to this link:


    2) Enter your email address and click “Get Your Reports”

    3) Check your email inbox for a confirmation message. Inside the confirmation message, you’ll find the link to the page with the free reports — each of the three downloads in PDF format when you click on their titles.

    That should be it.

    If you still run into any problems, just let me know and we’ll find another way to make it work.

  5. Hello,

    We tried it as well. With chocolates, stickers… Nothing works. He won’t a potty training. He stands before the toilet (ours, not his potty), leans afterwards en says (says not: does): “Pssjjj!” And than with twinkling eyes he says: “Like papa!”. He believes that a potty is for baby’s not for big bosses like him. So: wet diapers. Still…

  6. Sounds familiar, Katleen… but stick with it! I’ve yet to meet the person who never kicked the diaper habit ; )

    P.S. How old is he? There’s definitely a “too young” phase. If you start too early, you’ll just end up frustrated… and so will he. Better to wait, if that’s the case.

    Not that you asked, but try finding out what he thinks of as a better bribe. Might be that he just doesn’t care for chocolate (our daughter didn’t) or the kinds of stickers.

    (A copywriting lessong for all of us… the incentive has to be right. If you’re not getting the results, test a change to the incentive!)

    Also, the chart is key. One block for every successful visit. And as for the use of the adult toilet rather than the potty… how about just getting a step stool and one of those kiddie toilet seats that fit over an adult seat?

    Being able to use the same toilet as daddy might actually be part of that incentive you’re looking for.

    One last tip… try a pantless, diaperless weekend. Let him run around with nothing for a day or so. Can it get messy? Yes. But it also has a way of upping his sense of urgency to use the bathroom.

    It’s a last resort… but it works!

    Good luck.

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