A Revolutionary Way to Influence
What separates effective communicators from truly successful persuaders?
Since I read hundreds of books each year, I am always talking about them. Some books are quickly forgotten and others stay with you. And then there are a few books that are so extraordinary that they merit a second read and deserve a prominent place on your closest shelf. Not to impress, but to be there when you need to refer to an idea or refresh your mind.
The book I’m talking about in this post is in that rare category. The author, Dr. Robert Cialdini, is best known for his groundbreaking work, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, which is a perennial bestseller. It’s so good that it’s become part of our collective thinking. From social media to sales to leadership techniques, it’s a classic.
When I heard that Dr. Cialdini wrote a new book, Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade, I couldn’t wait to read it. And I’m certain it’s one you’ll want to read again and again.
I enjoyed the opportunity to ask him about his research and his new book.
What High Achievers Do Differently
You spent time infiltrating the training programs of numerous companies. What was the biggest surprise for you during this time?
You’re right. As a kind of secret agent, I once infiltrated the training programs of a broad range of professions dedicated to getting us to say yes. In these programs, advanced trainees were often allowed to accompany and observe an old pro who was conducting business. I always jumped at those opportunities because I wanted to see if I could register, not just what practitioners in general did to succeed, but what the best of them did. One such practice quickly surfaced that shook my assumptions. I’d expected that the aces of their professions would spend more time than the inferior performers developing the specifics of their requests—the clarity, logic, and desirable features of them. That’s not what I found.
The highest achievers spent more time crafting what they did and said before making a request. They set about their mission as skilled gardeners who know that even the finest seeds will not take root in poorly prepared ground. Much more than their less effective colleagues, they didn’t rely merely on the merits of an offer to get it accepted; they recognized that the psychological frame in which an appeal is first placed can carry equal or even greater weight. So, before sending their message, they arranged to make their audience sympathetic to it.
Surprising findings from Dr. Cialdini:
You are more likely to choose a French wine if you’ve just been exposed to French music.
You are more inclined to buy inexpensive furniture if the website wallpaper is covered in pennies.
You will likely be more careful if you just viewed a picture of Rodin’s The Thinker.
You are more likely to feel someone is warmer if they have just handed you hot chocolate.
You are more likely to purchase a popular item if you start to watch a scary movie.
How Seating Arrangements Influence Your Perception
Let’s talk about our point of view. Even the subtle change of seating arrangements or the view of the camera changes everything. What are some implications of this finding?
Imagine you are in a café enjoying a cup of coffee and, at the table directly in front of you, a man and woman are deciding which movie to see that evening. After a few minutes they settle on one of the options and set off to the theater. As they leave, you notice that one of your friends had been sitting at the table behind them. Your friend sees you, joins you, and remarks on the couple’s movie conversation, saying, “It’s always just one person who drives the decision in those kinds of debates, isn’t it?” You laugh and nod because you noticed that, although he was trying to be nice, it was clearly the man of the couple who determined the movie choice. Your amusement disappears, though, when your friend continues, “She sounded sweet, but she just pushed until she got her way.”
Dr. Shelley Taylor, a social psychologist at UCLA, knows why you and your friend could have heard the same conversation but come to opposite judgments about who produced the end result. It was a small accident of seating arrangements: You were positioned to observe the exchange over the shoulder of the woman, making the man more visible and salient, while your friend had the reverse point of view. Taylor and her colleagues conducted a series of experiments in which observers watched and listened to conversations that had been carefully scripted so neither discussion partner contributed more than the other. Some observers watched from a perspective that allowed them to see the back of one or another discussant and the face of the second; other observers’ perspectives allowed them to see both faces equally (from the side). All the observers were then asked to judge who had more influence in the discussion over its tone, content, and direction. The outcomes were always the same: These ratings of responsibility corresponded with the visibility of the discussants’ faces. Whoever’s face was more visible was judged to be the more influential.
This means that, if we can get people to direct their visual attention to a person, product, or event, it will immediately seem more influential to them. People believe that, if they’ve paid special attention to an item, it must be influential enough to warrant that attention. But that’s not true because attention can be channeled to an item by factors unrelated to its significance, such as distinctive colors, which nonetheless increase observers’ estimation of the item’s significance.
Your What Depends on Your Where
I love the personal example you share about the geography of influence. When you wrote on campus, it was radically different than when you wrote at home. It immediately resonated with me, too, because I’ve seen styles change when writing at a courthouse, in a corporate office, or at home. Based on your research, to maximize effectiveness, what recommendations would you share?
When I began writing my first book for a general audience, I was on a leave of absence at a university other than my own. Of course, I filled my campus office there with my professional books, journals, articles, and files. In town, I’d leased an apartment and would try to work on the book from a desk there, too. But the environment around that desk was importantly different from that of my campus office–newspapers, magazines, tabletops, and television shows took the place of scientific publications, textbooks, filing cabinets, and conversations with colleagues.
Writing in those separate places produced an effect I didn’t anticipate and didn’t even notice: The work I’d done at home was miles better than what I’d done at the university because it was decidedly more appropriate for the general audience I’d envisioned. Surprised, I wondered how it could be that despite a clear grasp of my desired market, I couldn’t write for it properly while in my university office. Only in retrospect was the answer obvious. Anytime I lifted or turned my head, the sightlines from my on-campus desk brought me into contact with cues linked to an academic approach and its specialized vocabulary, grammar, and style of communication.
It didn’t matter what I knew (somewhere in my head) about the traits and preferences of my intended readers. There were few cues in that environment to spur me to think routinely and automatically of those individuals as I wrote. From my desk at home, though, the cues were matched to the task. There, I could harmonize with my audience much more successfully. So here’s my recommendation for leaders: When writing for any particular audience—clients, colleagues, employees—put a photo of a typical member of the audience in the corner of your computer screen as you write. That photo will be an automatic, unconscious reminder of your audience and their communication styles, which will allow you to write in a way that is aligned with those styles. I do that regularly now, and it works for me.
Relationships Determine the Result
Since my name is Skip, it’s only appropriate I ask you about “Unity.” What role did (another) Skip play in your learning about this concept?
For years as part of a university class lecture, I would describe a study showing that sending holiday greeting cards to complete strangers produced a surprisingly large number of greeting cards sent dutifully in return. In class, I’d attribute the finding to the operation of the principle of reciprocity, which obligates people to give back to those who’ve first given to them—even, apparently, under wholly puzzling circumstances. After one of those lectures, an older student (one who had returned to school after raising a family) stopped and thanked me for solving a decade-long mystery in her home. She said that, ten years prior, her family had received a Christmas card from the Harrisons of Santa Barbara, California. But neither she nor her husband remembered knowing any Harrisons in Santa Barbara. She was sure there must have been a mistake, that the Harrisons misaddressed the envelope. Yet her family had received a holiday card from them; so, true to the principle of reciprocity, she sent one in return. “We’re in the tenth year of exchanging cards with these people,” she confessed, “and I still don’t know who they are! But, now, at least I know why I sent them that first card.”
Several months later, she came to my office, declaring that she had to bring me up to date on the story. Her youngest son, Skip, was about to begin college at the University of California at Santa Barbara. But, because of a repair problem, his dormitory room wasn’t ready, and he needed a place to stay in Santa Barbara for a few days until the problem was fixed. Although the University offered him temporary housing in a motel, his mother didn’t like that idea. Instead, she thought, “Who do we know in Santa Barbara? The Harrisons!” So she called and was relieved to learn that they’d be happy to have Skip as a houseguest. She left my office claiming to be more amazed than ever by the influence the principle of reciprocity had on human behavior—in this case, her own and the Harrisons’.
I was less convinced, though. Certainly I could see that my student’s initial decision to send a card fit with the obligation to reciprocate. But the Harrisons’ decision to let Skip stay with them didn’t fit with that obligation at all. Holiday cards had been exchanged equally; thus, in terms of obligations, the two families were even. It seemed upon reflection that, although the rule for reciprocation may have started the process, it was the 10-year resultant relationship between the families that compelled the Harrisons to open their home to an 18-year-old they’d never met. That realization made me appreciate the freestanding power of social connections to generate assent. There’s a lesson here. Our ability to create change in others is often and importantly grounded in shared personal relationships (feelings of unity), which create a pre-suasive basis for assent. It’s a poor trade-off, then, for social influence when we allow present-day forces of separation—distancing societal changes, insulating modern technologies—to take a shared sense of human connection out of our exchanges. The relation gets removed, leaving just the ships, passing at sea.
You share so many examples and stories about every concept in the book, which is why I think your work is so loved. Would you share just one memorable story or example that demonstrates the power of our associations with informational cues?
There’s a key moment that allows a communicator to create a state of mind in recipients that is consistent with the forthcoming message. It’s the moment in which we can arrange for others to be attuned to our message before they encounter it. That step is crucial for maximizing desired change. For example, in one study, when researchers approached individuals and asked for help with a marketing survey, only 29% agreed to participate. But, if the researchers approached a second sample of individuals and preceded that request with a simple, pre-suasive question, “Do you consider yourself a helpful person?” now 77.3% volunteered. Why? When asked before the request if they were helpful, nearly everyone answered yes. Then, when the request occurred, most agreed to participate in order to be consistent with the recently activated idea of themselves as helpful people.
How to Keep Your Audience Long After the Show Ends
At the end of the book, you mention post-suasion. It seems fitting in a world where, right after hearing one thing, we are bombarded by five others. What’s the best way to keep your audience from wandering away from your message?
Traditionally, behavioral scientists have offered a straightforward answer to the question of how to make a person’s initially affirmative response persist: Arrange for the individual to make a commitment to that response, usually in the form of an active step. Consider how this recommendation can reduce a costly social problem. Patients who fail to appear for medical and dental appointments are more than an inconvenience: they represent a sizable expense to the healthcare system. A standard practice designed to reduce these no-shows involves calling patients the day before to remind them of the appointment. In a study led by my colleague Steve J. Martin and conducted in British medical clinics, such efforts reduced failures to appear by 3.5%. But the reminder calls required time and money to deliver and didn’t always reach their targets. Compare that to the wisdom of employing a commitment procedure. When making a future appointment after an office visit, we all know what happens. The receptionist writes down the time and date of the next appointment on a card and gives it to patients. If, instead, the patients are asked to fill in the card, that active step gets them more committed to keeping the appointment. When this costless procedure was tried in the British medical clinic study, the subsequent no-show rate dropped by 18%.
Leaders Always Act Ethically
Both of your books beg the question of ethics and manipulation. What’s your view of balancing influence and ethics?
I’m convinced that, when it comes to influence practices, good ethics and good profits go hand in hand. In fact, we’ve recently completed research that makes this point. Here’s what we’ve argued and demonstrated: An organization that regularly encourages or allows the use of deceitful persuasion tactics in its external dealings (with customers, clients, suppliers, and so on) will experience a nasty set of internal consequences. Three features of a commercial organization known to ravage its health are poor employee performance, high employee turnover, and prevalent employee fraud and malfeasance The costs of each can be staggering. Our evidence indicates that organizations possessing an unethical influence culture—in which employees participate in or simply observe regular dishonesty—will be beset by the three outcomes.
We found that in such organizations, employees perform their jobs more poorly, which naturally leads to reduced profitability. Second, many find the dishonesty personally stressful and want to leave the organization when they can, which generates high turnover costs. Finally, when those people who are unhappy with the dishonest culture leave, what remains is a group of people who are comfortable with dishonesty. And our research shows that they will cheat the company. They steal equipment, call in sick when they’re fine, pad expense accounts, and make under-the-table deals with vendors and customers. Those are the kinds of costs that do great harm to company profits. Consequently, there will be significant damage to the bottom line of an organization that allows influence tactics to be used in unethical ways.
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, now famously, covers: reciprocity, scarcity, authority, consistency, liking, consensus/social proof. In all of the years since, which one do you think is most misunderstood or just missed?
I’d say the principle of Authority is most often misunderstood for two reasons. First, a lot of people think it refers to the idea of being in authority—that is, of being in charge, of having the hierarchical power to command compliance. But, actually, I mean it to refer to the idea of being an authority—someone who is a credible source of information on the topic. Second, a lot of people think the way to establish themselves as a credible authority is to communicate their expertise in the matter at hand. That’s only half true. Research around the world indicates that authority communicators are most influential when they possess two elements in the minds of the audience. Expertise is one, and the other is trustworthiness. Even acknowledged experts won’t be persuasive unless the audience perceives the expert information as coming from a trustworthy source.
It turns out to be possible to acquire instant trustworthiness by employing a clever strategy. Rather than succumbing to the tendency to describe all of the most favorable features of an offer or idea upfront and reserving mention of any drawbacks until the end of the presentation (or never), a communicator who references a weakness early on is immediately seen as more honest. The advantage of this sequence is that, with perceived truthfulness already in place, when the major strengths of the case are advanced, the audience is more likely to believe them. After all, they’ve been conveyed by a trustworthy source, one whose honesty has been established (pre-suasively) by a willingness to point not just to positive aspects but to negative ones as well.
The approach can be particularly successful when the audience is already aware of the weakness; thus, when a communicator mentions it, little additional damage is done, as no new information is added—except, crucially, that the communicator is an honest individual. Another enhancement occurs when the speaker uses a transitional word—such as “however,” or “but,” or “yet,”—that channels the listeners’ attention away from the weakness and onto a countervailing strength. A job candidate might say, “I am not experienced in this field, but I am a very fast learner.” An information systems salesperson might state, “Our setup costs are not the lowest; however, you’ll recoup them quickly due to our superior efficiencies.” Savvy leaders do it, too. For example, Warren Buffet has done it in each of the past 20 annual letters to his shareholders.
Both of your books are known for surprising stories and facts. Looking back, what one concept was the most head-scratching to YOU when you first learned it?
A central contention of the book Pre-Suasion is that, to get desired action, it’s not necessary to alter a person’s beliefs or attitudes or experiences; in fact, it’s not necessary to alter anything at all except what’s prominent in that person’s mind at the moment of decision. The most striking example of this comes from a study designed to stimulate helpfulness in its subjects shown a series of photographs that included a pair of individuals standing close together. The experimenters predicted (correctly) that, because togetherness and helpfulness are linked in people’s minds, observers of these photos would then become especially helpful. Indeed, compared to other subjects who’d seen photographs of two individuals standing apart or of a single individual standing alone, those who’d seen the togetherness images were three times more likely to assist the researcher in picking up some items she “accidently” dropped. So, by making togetherness prominent in subjects’ minds, they became much more helpful in that moment. But, besides the size of the effect, one additional aspect of the study got me to whistle under my breath when I read it: The study’s subjects, whose helpfulness tripled after they saw images of individuals standing together, were 18-months old—still in their infancy, hardly able to talk, barely able to review or reflect or reason. Yet the mechanisms of pre-suasion are so fundamental to human functioning that even babies were powerfully mobilized into action by them.
Subscribe to Leadership Insights, the blog that transforms.
Join thousands of subscribers in the Leadership Insights community for a regular diet of ideas to fuel your success.
Thank you! Please check your email inbox to confirm your subscription.
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade