Unlock Your True Business Potential

The Power of Persuasion

The ability to influence and persuade others is a critical skill if you’re in business. Dr Robert Cialdini, who wrote this article with Steve Martin for the December 2006 edition of the always excellent Training Journal, has spent over 35 years researching the science behind how people are persuaded; written books about them; and is regarded as one of the world’s top authorities on the subject.

This article explains how the influence process works. It is reproduced here with the publisher of Training Journal’s kind permission.

N.B. Although this article was written specifically to help training professionals, its content can be adapted for any business, and it should be read in that way.

Robert Cialdini Ph.D & Steve Martin explain how L&D professionals can persuade key decision-makers of the importance of training

One of the primary roles of learning and development professionals is to research, develop, deliver and evaluate various forms of skills and knowledge training programmes in the organisations for which they work. While these roles can often be challenging, what can often be even more challenging is persuading stakeholders and decision-makers of the value of training and development. This is equally true of internal training professionals as it is of external providers.

If the ability to influence and persuade others is such a critical business skill for training and development professionals, what do we know about how the influence process works? All of us will almost certainly know people who have that apparently inborn ability to influence others. Those lucky few, who appear able to very skilfully and elegantly engage others, sway the opinions of those that are undecided and persuade their colleagues and co-workers to see their point of view. What can be frustrating about these born persuaders, though, is that they are often unable to explain how they have come to possess such an important and essential business skill. They may consider their ability to influence and persuade others to be a skill they have been born with, while we stand back in admiration and witness them practising their art, often frustrated at the fact that they can get others to say yes to their requests when we can’t, even when sometimes we are asking for the same thing!

The problem with viewing influence as a skill with which we are born is that it makes it difficult for those who have it to explain and pass down their skills to others. Artists generally are better at doing than explaining. But if we consider influence as a science, something else happens: something much more empowering and efficient.

For more than 35 years now, my social scientist colleagues and I have been researching the science behind how people are persuaded. In fact, there is now some five decades-worth of recorded scientific study into social influence and persuasion, and the results are clear: there is a science behind how we are persuaded. There are universal laws that guide how we are influenced, and these scientific laws can be learned in much the same way we can learn other scientific principles. No longer do we have to trust to hope that the approach we take will be effective. No more do we have to adopt a trial and error approach when we want to convince another. By understanding the scientific principles of influence which appeal to just a handful of deep-rooted human needs, we can be assured that our requests, our proposals, our presentations and training can be significantly more persuasive and influential.

Modern Life and Information Overload

In order to better understand how learning and development professionals can become more effective influencers, it is important to firstly consider a phenomenon that pervades every corner of our society – we call it information overload. We live in a world today where we are quite literally inundated with information, facts and data. Often this information is presented to us as an attempt to change our behaviour, to influence and persuade us in some way. Whether it is advertisements for new motor cars, emails, brochures from a conference organiser informing us of an HR seminar we should attend or colleagues seeking our support on projects, every one of us is increasingly overwhelmed with information and requests for our attention.

When faced with this plethora of information how do we decide what to do with it?

Wouldn’t it be marvellous if we were like computers, able to absorb all the relevant information we receive, rationally process it and arrive at informed decisions about the best course of action? However, people are anything but computers. They are people who, every day of their lives, are inundated with an ever-increasing amount of information and data.

It is currently estimated that the average UK citizen is exposed to up to 1,700 advertising messages every day, and that number is increasing.

One might expect that, faced with access to this sea of information, we make more rational and better-informed decisions. But the surprising fact is that we often do not. Ironically, there is simply too much information for us to deal with and, therefore, in order to deal with this information overload, we use decision shortcuts or rules of thumb to help us to make choices.

This phenomenon affects us in learning and development. It is simply not enough just to have the best training workshop or proposal anymore. It is the proposals that are presented in the most persuasive way that will often win the day. In the same way that consumers will often use decision shortcuts to make decisions, those of us looking to have influence within our organisations can utilise these same shortcuts to make our communications more persuasive and influential. Understanding these shortcuts and using them in an effective and ethical way can provide tools to create more compelling messages and more effective attempts at persuasion, and can build mutually-rewarding and long-lasting relationships with colleagues and customers. There is another advantage, too: understanding these shortcuts will make us more individually persuasive, with potential benefits in both our professional and personal lives.

In this article, we seek to present these decision shortcuts – the six universal principles of influence – by explaining each of them and then, in turn, providing some insights into how L&D professionals can use them in a responsible and ethical way to become more influential while building mutually-rewarding, long-term relationships with those with whom they interact.

There is now some five decades-worth of recorded scientific study into social influence and persuasion, and the results are clear: there is a science behind how we are persuaded

Principle 1 – Reciprocity: The good old give and take

Application for L&D professionals
Give to other first what you want to receive back

The principle of reciprocity says: ‘We are obliged to give back to others the forms of behaviour that we have received from them.’ It is a principle that pervades all societies and cultures. We intuitively know how this works in our personal lives: if a friend invites us to their house for dinner or remembers our birthday with a card, we are obliged to return the favour. We know only too well that we should say yes to those we owe but what we may not know, and what social scientific research has found, is that reciprocation also works effectively outside of our everyday contacts and networks. This means that we can use this principle of persuasion to develop networks and access to decision makers and sponsors who we need to influence.

Scientific research goes on to tell us that the gifts we give are more likely to be effective when they are viewed as meaningful, tailored to an individual and unexpected. Ultimately, though, gift-giving is one of the cruder applications of this principle of persuasion. A more sophisticated approach which would confer genuine advantages to L&D professionals, who are attempting to improve relationships and co-operative working in the office, would be to display the behaviours they desire in others first. The same holds true for sharing information and resources: if you lend a hand to a colleague or manager of another team when they need help, you will significantly increase your chances of getting support from them when you need it. Research shows that your odds of future support improve even further if, after your colleague or client has thanked you for your help, you say something like: ‘I’m glad to help you as I know you’re the sort of person who would help me if I ever need support.’

Principle 2 – Scarcity: We want more of what we can have less of

Application for L&D professionals
Highlight unique features of your proposals and point out what others stand to lose

Judging by the results of many years of research, few would disagree with the principle of scarcity, which suggests that people typically associate greater value with things that are rare, dwindling in availability, or difficult to acquire. Notwithstanding the scientific research, there are many everyday examples that also support this claim. In recent years, many parents have gone to great lengths to purchase the most popular Christmas toy that happens to be out of stock in all the stores. In the UK, the petrol shortage in the summer of 2000 resulted in some extraordinary behaviour as people scrambled to acquire limited fuel and, in October 2003, the notion of losing something caused many thousands of people to stop their cars and block a major motorway just to see the final take-off of the Concorde, a sight, we would point out, that had been a familiar one every single day for the last 30 years or so. What makes the Concorde such an apt example of the power of this principle is the fact that, immediately after British Airways announced in February 2003 that it would be stopping Concorde flights, the sale of seats when through the roof. Ironic, then, that the reason that BA cited for stopping the flights was that it was no longer economically viable with reports that, on certain flights, there were more cabin crew than paying customers.

So powerful is the concept of loss that researchers from the University of California found that householders were 350 per cent more likely to carry out energy efficient measures in their home when they were told how much money they would continue to lose if they didn’t, rather than how much money they would gain if they did.

The same phenomenon can be used by training professionals to make their proposals and presentations more persuasive. According to a study in the Journal of Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, potential losses figure far more heavily in managers’ decision-making than gains. L&D professionals who respectfully and honestly point out what managers or clients stand to lose if they fail to consider their proposals, or the unique attributes that they could miss out on, will find themselves benefiting from a very powerful way of presenting information.

It is currently estimated that the average UK citizen is exposed to up to 1,700 advertising messages every day, and that number is increasing

Principle 3 – Authority: People defer to experts

Application for L&D professionals
Present your expertise; don’t assume that it is self-evident

Few of us fail to recognise the power of expert endorsement. After all, it is a neat and efficient way to decide on the right course of action. Why, in our overloaded lives, should we go to the trouble of finding out all the information ourselves when there are experts who have already done it for us and on whose wisdom and knowledge we can rely? When we are ill, we seek the advice of our doctor; when deciding what toothpaste to purchase, we may pick a brand that has been recommended by the British Dental Association. Training professionals can increase their authority by seeking accreditation to a recognised professional body or institute. Since it makes good sense to defer to authorities, it also makes sense for L&D professionals to establish their expertise when communicating with groups, whether these groups are decision makers or participants in workshops.

So what makes someone an authority? Research shows that the most persuasive authority is a credible one, and credible authorities possess both expertise and trust-worthiness. One way that L&D professionals can be seen as having expertise is to have that expertise introduced by someone else, especially someone who is also seen as an authority in their own right.

But how often do we fail to get around to arranging this or, worse still, introduce ourselves and our expertise? We would be well advised to avoid this trap and to seek the power of an introduction. Even when we are unable to secure a personal introduction, sending a letter or email in advance of a meeting or workshop, which includes information about your expertise, training, qualifications and experience, is a very powerful and persuasive thing to do and infinitely more effective that doing it yourself at the start of a session, when you are more likely to come across as big-headed or full of yourself.

Surprisingly, L&D professionals will often assume that others recognise and appreciate their experience when, in fact, the opposite is the case. One suggestion would be to develop a two-line biography of yourself, setting out your key achievements, experience and qualifications, to give to someone prior to being introduced to a group. We think you will be pleasantly surprised when you see the reaction of your audience.

Principle 4 – Consistency: We align ourselves to previously puhlic-declared commitments

Application for L&D professionals
Make commitments actionable, public and voluntary

Have you ever in your professional life come across individuals who appear to support you or give the impression that they are willing to commit to your ideas or proposals, only at a later date to back down or retreat from what you thought was a genuine commitment?

Our principle of consistency suggests that people feel strong pressure to be consistent within their own words and actions. Making a commitment ties a person’s sense of self to a particular course of action. However, just gaining a commitment is often not enough. In order to cement a commitment and persuade the individual to act on it, there are three things that also need to be present. These are that the person owns the commitment, he has an action associated with the commitment and that he is willing to make that commitment jteMi.

Negotiating initial voluntary commitments and making them effortful and action-based as well as public is a powerful way to change and influence behaviours. In one study, people spent significantly less time in the shower following a work-out in the gym when they were first asked if they supported and would sign up to a ‘use water responsibly’ campaign. Training professionals can use similar strategies to encourage people to make commitments to practise new skills the and apply them to their job roles. Asking people to imagine how they will apply a new skill or piece of information and getting them to write such an action down and share it with a colleague can be a very effective change process.

Principle 5 – Social Proof: People follow the lead of many, similar others

Application for L&D professionals
Use peer power and testimonials wherever possible

Suppose that, this year, you decide to take an evening class, perhaps to learn a new language or skill that you have promised yourself. How do you choose the best way to achieve your goal? Do you join a local college or night school, take up an interactive internet course or perhaps investigate that audio language programme that you heard a friend at work talk about? Most likely, you’ll look outside of yourself and to others around you for at least part of the answer. The principle of social proof says that, when we are uncertain and we are attempting to make the right decisions, we will often look to the behaviour of others around us for direction about what choices to make. This is compounded when those around us are similar to us in terms of age, education, social standing and experience.

Social psychologists refer to what people commonly do in a given situation as a descriptive norm. Descriptive norms typically provide people with useful information about which courses of action to take if you hear your colleagues at work raving about a restaurant, chances are you might be influenced to try out the restaurant too. Looking to see what other people are doing is a quick and easy tool for making decisions in uncertain circumstances. Indeed, social proof has the greatest persuasive power when the ‘right’ choice in a given situation is somewhat ambiguous. For example, organisations trying to decide on a new training and development initiative could be persuaded to take the plunge if they are first offered information about the success achieved by other organisations of a similar size and in a similar industry.

Training professionals can become significantly more influential and persuasive, not by using their own powers of persuasion, but by using the testimonials and recommendations of others that are similar to their targets.

Principle 6 – Liking: People like those who like them

Application for L&D professionals
Look for and present genuine similarities and praise

Put simply, the principle of liking says that people prefer to say yes to, and comply with, the requests of those they like.

So what characteristics influence people’s liking for others? Social scientists point towards three specific elements of liking: similarity, praise and co-operation. We’ll take them in turn.

Firstly, people tend to like others who are similar to them. For example, a training specialist wishing to persuade people to adopt a new approach to a work assignment might point out certain areas of similarity that they share with their audience (like them, they used to use a similar approach but, upon investigation, they have found a new, more time-efficient method that they probably wouldn’t want to lose out on).

Secondly, people will tend to like, and therefore be more persuaded by, those who pay them compliments and give them praise. There is strong evidence to suggest that people are extremely receptive to the requests of others immediately after they have received a compliment. In fact, recent research points to the fact that people are more likely to respond positively to a request immediately after the person making the request has paid them a compliment.

Thirdly, we like people who co-operate with us towards mutual goals. Attempts to influence others that involve joint working or partnerships are often more successful than those that do not.

Conclusion: The power of persuasion

Application for L&D professionals
With power comes responsibility — always be honest and ethical

We have sought to provide not only interesting and scientifically- validated evidence of how L&D professionals can increase the chance of people being persuaded by their recommendations and presentations, but also some practical applications for the use of these principles (see figure 1 below).

There are some additional points we would like to make regarding the use of the principles we have described. Firstly, although these principles are conceptually distinct, you are likely to be most effective at fostering influence and persuasion when using several of these principles at once. For example, consider how one might influence a new manager in an organisation. Perhaps one could first point out how a number of other managers, who happen to be of a similar age and in similar circumstances, have benefited from working with you. One may then go on to compliment the manager and offer some new personalised information or data that helps him in his new role. By doing this, the L&D professional creates a powerful communication that, in this example, utilises three of the social influence principles we have presented, namely social proof, liking and reciprocity.

Research shows that the most persuasive authority is a credible one, and credible authorities possess both expertise and trustworthiness

Secondly, it should be clear that, although people use these mental shortcuts when making decisions, it doesn’t mean that people consciously use them. It is not the case, for example, that someone will say to himself: ‘Well, I’ve done this for so long now my sense of commitment dictates that I continue!’ Nonetheless, whether or not the operation of the principles of persuasion is consciously recognised, the existing evidence indicates that they will still be influential.

Thirdly, because information is sometimes highly relevant to their goals, people may consequently be motivated (although not always able) to process deeply the content of these messages. Indeed, the effectiveness of a message will depend upon a combination of the substance of the message and the way that message is delivered. Thus, the principles we have discussed are not an alternative to providing people with substantive information but more a vehicle for ensuring those important messages are communicated in a persuasive way.

And finally, and most importantly, we should realise that the reason people use these shortcuts is because. in most circumstances, they tend to steer them in the right direction. It is not the case that people are being stupid or making mistakes when they use these mental heuristics to guide their choices. They are often merely overwhelmed with information and know subconsciously that these shortcuts have served them well in the past. It is for this reason that we would only encourage the honest and ethical use of these powerful principles of persuasion. In modern business we are all, after all, looking to foster long term and prosperous working relationships.

Professor Robert Cialdini is Regents Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University and has been awarded the 2006 Peitho prize for his contributions to the world of social influence. Steve Martin is the Director of Influence At Work (UK) and a business colleague of Professor Claldini.

Figure 1 Cialdini ArticleFigure 1: Influence — A Quick Guide for learning and development professionals

Please share your thoughts and add your questions to the comments below. I’ll try to provide as many answers as possible in my future online videos, seminars, workshops, masterclasses and blog posts.

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