We’re constantly being presented with information, ideas and options. The way we act upon this information becomes increasingly important, in an age where decision making is happening at an ever-accelerating pace.
By understanding what creates our perceptions, biases, and motivations, professional persuaders (marketers, salespeople, lawyers, politicians) have refined their techniques to make their pitches more convincing – whether it be campaigning for votes, negotiating better deals or getting products off the shelves – they are experts at influencing behavior.
What can we learn from these professionals to become more persuasive in our business, home and elsewhere? And more importantly, what do we need to know to prevent being blind-sided by the same techniques?
Here are the four most commonly applied principles of persuasion.
#1: Appeal to Fear: Fear is a powerful persuader, but only if you offer a solution.
Fear sells. An effective persuasion tactic is to suggest scenarios that arouses fear if our cause is not supported. In marketing, appealing to fear is often used to sell products and services. Some of the most effective advertisements appeal to our fears. See this man with his receding hair line? Don’t let this guy be you. Try Rogaine. While you’re at it, here are some scary statistics on home burglary and invasion. Concerned? Call this toll-free number and we will install a fancy state-of-the-art alarm that’ll sure to keep the crooks at bay.
However, if the fear is presented without a clear action plan to reduce the threat, then it paralyzes rather than persuades. The audience may ignore or deny there is a problem, and the next time you bring up the topic, it may fall on deaf ears.
Don’t just be the bearer of bad news, be the solution provider. Instil the fear of the possibility, and then offer a specific, actionable solution.
In our day to day communications, to avoid people from tuning out our message, we can define a “bad” scenario, then follow up with a clear plan of attack. The audience is much more inclined to find merit in your proposal. One caveat: this “bad” scenario must be realistic, else the persuader run the risk of losing credibility with the audience.
#2: Appeal to Reciprocity: Give, give and give before the ask.
Humans are evolved to return favours to one another. This has allowed our ancestors to rely on each other for survival. Ten thousand years ago, if Caveman Bob shared food with Caveman Tim when Caveman Tim was down on his luck one day, Caveman Tim would do well to return the favour if their situation reversed in the future. If he didn’t, word would soon get around the cave that he was an moocher and the next time Caveman Tim goes hungry, he would be shunned. Caveman Tim did not fare well in the gene pool.
To this day, we often feel an almost unconscionable need to repay those who have done something for us. When somebody does us a favour, we are hardwired to respond in a reciprocal manner. If there is no opportunity to return the favour, most of us would feel “indebted” to the other person. This rule of reciprocation is pervasive, and for good reason, it allow us to establish networks of value exchange. We are free to share resources with reasonable expectations that others would do the same. For example, it is common practice for businesses to engage clients in free consultations, trial products and give away “free swag” as a way of enticing customers. Studies have shown that when done properly, the return on investment for these businesses can be astounding.
How can knowing this make us more influential? For professionals in any field, it should encourage us to share our expertise and knowledge. Not only does it establish our authority on a subject matter, but the eventual “ask” for compensation for our services or even a completely unrelated favour in the future would flow much easier.
#3: Appeal to Consistency: I was, therefore, I am.
People have a tendency to be consistent with their past actions. To avoid being labelled as “flaky” or “wishy-washy”, we behave (often times stubbornly and irrationally) in ways that are congruent with our previous decisions.
Case in point, a popularly taught sales strategy commonly known as “upselling”, where the sales rep persuades a prospect to make a small purchase, and then convinces them to make a larger ticket purchase. The point of the small purchase is not to make a profit, but to commit the prospect. Even a much larger purchase would flow much easier from a committed prospect, who is now a returning customer. The customer wants to feel consistent with their previous purchase decision, even if it means digging out the wallet.
When trying to persuade a particularly resistant person, we would do well to start off with a small request – even if the request is trivial. Get the person to comply to a smaller, seemingly inconsequential request, then follow up with your real request. For example, say you’re trying to persuade somebody to donate to a forest conservation cause. You may have more success if, some time before the donation pitch (the real request), you ask that the prospect sign a petition to acknowledge how deforestation can adversely affect the environment (small, inconsequential request).
But beware, the rule of consistency is a double-edged sword. Successful persuaders try their best to prevent the target from taking a stance that is opposite from our own, in whatever shape or form. If, prior to your pitch, the prospect announced to their friend that he thinks forest conservationists are a bunch of hippies, it would be very difficult to make him bite (and thus contradicting his prior sentiment), no matter how strong your proposal.
#4: Appeal to Social Proof: Monkeys See, Monkeys Do.
Whether we are conscious of it or not, we are very much guided by the behavior of others, even complete strangers. In an experiment conducted by social psychologist Stanley Milgram in the middle of a busy New York street, a research assistant stood and gazed towards the sky for no obvious reason. A few moments later, a few pedestrians, curious of what the research assistant might be looking at, also followed his gaze. A small, puzzling looking crowd gathered as more pedestrians joined in.
Enter social proof. When people are uncertain about a situation, they typically look externally to others to guide their decision making. Social proof is also the basis behind one of the most powerful selling tools: testimonials. Testimonials are everywhere. On book covers, movie trailers, T.V. infomercials, internet marketing websites… Testimonials tell consumers a product is pre-approved. It is safe. It is good. You should buy it.
Why does it work? At the risk of sounding flippant, people are generally lazy. Choosing between options requires thinking, which requires effort. And the less effort, the better. So people look to others to make up their minds.
Social proof is a shortcut we can use to becoming more influential. Smart persuaders create the perception that their ideas are already accepted and adopted by others. That means getting people behind your ideas. If need be, create the perception that people love your ideas (ethically, of course). A tipping jar with planted paper money will receive bigger tips. A petition that is filled out half way will gain more traction than an empty one. Businesses who promote their success stories are better positioned to attract new clients.
Convince Yourself, Convince Others
It is said that the best persuaders allow prospects to persuade themselves. Sounds a lot like a Jedi mind trick? It may very well be. Research shows we have limited ability understanding the factors that influence our behavior. Let’s face it, we are always selling something – our ideas, our values and ourselves. The better we understand the elusive persuasive forces that affect decision-making, the better consumers, professionals and businesspeople we can become.
Recommended resources on persuasion:
Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive – A top ten business book recommended by Guy Kawasaki. Tons of useful, practical ideas for businesses broken down into very readable chapters.
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion – The classic on understanding the science behind how to influence others. But remember, with great power comes great responsibility… You might just laugh menacingly to yourself reading this.