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ebster’s dictionary defines paradox as "a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true". The word itself comes from the Greek para and doxa meaning "beyond belief".

In a world flooded with information, advertisers use paradox to catch our attention and influence our behaviour. We look twice at film titles such as Back to the Future, Eyes Wide Shut and True Lies because they look impossible. Other advertising uses paradox in more subtle ways. In the booming 1960s in London, Roy Brooks was the best writer of property advertising in the history of the British press. For an advertiser, he did something totally paradoxical — he told the truth. Brooks was so successful that he could not get enough houses and apartments to sell.

More recently, a brilliant campaign by Sixt Rent-A-Car in Germany used self-deprecation to attack the service culture and to position itself as an "honest vendor". Sixt may provide excellent service, but would we really believe them if they simply said so?

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In advertising, as in life, counter-intuitive, paradoxical messages can sometimes be far more effective than straightforward communication. In his book The Paradoxicon Nicholas Falletta describes paradox as "truth standing on its head to attract attention". Here lies an important clue as to how we can create our own paradoxical solutions. By trying the exact opposite of what is expected, we can sometimes discover a totally original answer to a tough problem.

Anyone visiting modern Turkey today finds it hard to believe that just 80 years ago the majority of women hid their faces behind veils. The unveiling of Turkish women was achieved in a few short years through the paradoxical solution of one man — Kemal Ataturk, Turkey's revolutionary leader. As women were reluctant to show their faces, Ataturk issued an edict that read "prostitutes must wear veils". This problem was solved paradoxically: not by forbidding veils, but by permitting them, albeit for a special group.

What relevance can paradox have to modern business practice? Imagine that you are in an important sales negotiation with a potential new client. Here are three surprising methods that could strengthen your position:

Nearly everyone criticizes the competition, so why join the crowd? It is your job to know the areas in which your competitors are cheaper, faster and better than you, and saying this up front will impress your clients with your market knowledge and your frankness. By crediting your client with the intelligence to make the right decision, you increase your chances of winning.

Few salesmen like to admit it, but no offer is perfect. To admit weakness takes honesty and confidence, qualities your client will respect. If your customer doesn’t already know your area of weakness, she soon will. Tell her yourself before the competition does, then show her how to ameliorate any negative effects. Prove that the upside of your offer is so compelling that the downside doesn’t matter. Result: you win points for honesty and also build trust.

One of the most powerful paradoxical techniques in a negotiation is to walk away from business that everyone expects you to accept. If you don’t feel that the conditions are right for you to provide the best solution for your client’s needs, it is usually better to say "no". That client will either re-discuss your terms of reference or choose another vendor. At the highest level, you cannot lose because you save your resources for those clients where you can add the highest value. The "lost client" will silently thank you and may even come back at a later time.

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© Copyright by Paul Smith 2001