FBI + Empathy

What marketers can learn from FBI Interrogators


May 2022

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Once upon a time, a guy looked at his breakfast and saw the future of athletic footwear. Bill Bowerman’s waffle shoes became the stuff of legend, and Nike became a $30-billion brand.

Ingenuity and business success can often be mapped to an intersection of incongruities. So it should make perfect sense to look for marketing design inspiration from an FBI interrogator.

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Consider the findings outlined in Gartner’s Top US Consumer and Cultural Trends for 2022, which describes current conditions as an “inadvertent social experiment, creating the space for consumers to ask big questions and test alternative ways to live.” In addition to the world’s rapid adaptation to virtual interaction of all kinds, business is increasingly expected to take the lead in solving key issues in culture and society. Consumers are “toggling and blending on-line and in-person experiences” and expectations are shifting “toward evolving forward.”

An atmosphere of swirling possibilities — loaded with both risk and opportunity — demands strategic recalibration. Brands may hunger for clarity and aim to be decisive, but impetuous action too often ultimately runs counter to an organization’s goals. Common missteps include grasping at trendy but untested solutions, or conversely, clinging intractably to processes no longer capable of producing desired results.

Meeting the moment wisely requires radical empathy — cultivating the ability to see the world deeply from other perspectives. Their hopes. Their fears. Their aspirations. Both spoken, but more importantly, unspoken. Those behaviors that they can’t readily explain. How do you create a map of what inspires and drives audience behavior? Let’s go take a look at how the FBI uses empathy to stop the bad guys (without using torture).


On a recent episode of the podcast FBI Retired Case File Review, former Special Agent Charlie Price shared his insights on conducting artful interviews, and securing confessions and signed statements. Price has taught FBI agents, and local, state, and national law enforcement and intelligence partners as an adjunct faculty member at the FBI Academy. His techniques were used to conduct subject interviews that led to the convictions of three sitting members of congress, white-collar criminals, corporate executives, lawyers, CPAs, child pornographers, bank robbers, drug dealers, enemy combatants, terrorists, and a spy. In retirement, he continues to give lectures on both interviewing and on how to be a good case agent.

The same techniques that make agents like Price and his students effective can be applied to design evolution and honing marketing strategy in times of flux.

For starters, Price’s advice requires myth busting. In his experience, truly artful suspect interviews require jettisoning ego and preconceived notions.

Picture a classic Hollywood hero versus villain battle of wills — the laying out of evidence, cajoling, threatening, posturing, or even torturing until the subject “breaks” and concessions are won. That image may make for great movie scenes, but it isn’t so effective in real life.

Conventional wisdom can actually work against you according to Price. He doesn’t even like to use the word “interrogation” because it is adversarial and associated with coercion, which is not the goal. He doesn’t want a false confession, he wants the truth. Similarly, expert marketers don’t just want to close a single sale. They want to grow a loyal and expanding customer community.

What actually works is a combination of science and art. According to Price, “The science is behavioral science and there’s a mountain of it…it helps us understand, predict, and influence human behavior. If we understand human behavior enough, we may be able to predict it; and if we can predict behavior, we may be able to influence it.”

Price explains that “when you take this mountain of behavioral science and boil it down to gravy,” there are two fundamental truths:

People want to be understood and accepted.

People do what’s in their perceived best interest.

For the FBI interviewer’s purposes, “You have to understand the specific unique human being on the other side of the table and what motivates that person, and then change that person’s perception” of what constitutes their best interest, says Price. And since all people want to be understood and accepted, this is accomplished through conversation rooted in empathy.


Though not generally concerned with investigating high-stakes crime, the expert marketer must approach customers and potential partners through the same empathetic lens — particularly in times of upheaval when your established customer personas or traditional market base may be experimenting with new ideas and behaviors or questioning old habits and assumptions. You have to open a new conversation.

The best mindset for assessing strategy in tumultuous times is to view the situation as your adversary, and your customers as your counterparts and collaborators. You are working together to address the situation and arrive at a beneficial outcome.

To do this, you must consider their point-of-view and genuinely try to understand changes in perspective (wants, fears, limitations, goals) to more effectively communicate for your brand. Be open minded. Seek to unveil negative impressions about your business so that you can remediate and diffuse them.

Ask questions. You may not even know what’s actually driving apparent shifts in preferences or whether they’ll have any lasting impact on your current operations or long-range plans. 

You want your customers working with you to solve a problem or develop better relationships and experiences, not against you to “win” a transactional battle. All of your touchpoints should serve to:

Consciously engage in listening to and trying to understand customers to build rapport and trust.

Convey curiosity. Your goal shouldn’t be simply to get what you think you want; you should seek to elicit information lest you completely miss interest in solutions and practices that are far more attractive to both you and your target market.

It’s important to note that none of this happens by mere good intention or serendipity. Bowerman was actively engaged in redesigning running shoes when he made his waffle iron breakthrough. FBI agents undergo deep training to actualize the kind of empathy required in artful interviews and investigation. Process underpins methodical openness and the ability to connect and achieve greatness.

When achieved, leveraging this open and empathetic stance consistently produces results for innovators — just as it does for expert FBI investigators. It can also inform expert design and marketing strategy for your business.

EX Squared is a creative technology agency that creates digital products for real human beings.