Influencing and persuading: five insights from the science of persuasion and ‘nudge’

By Hassan Saeed

One of the very first self-help books that I owned is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. That was in my mid-teens and I have always wanted to know more about making people say yes to me.

We all strive to be more convincing and persuasive. How well we are able to convince or persuade someone to believe us, cooperate with us, trust us and follow us depends on how much influence we have on them.

Whether it is in our closest circles of family and friends or at work professionally, we are constantly trying to influence and persuade others. Not being able to achieve this causes frustration.

Here are five insights from influence and persuasion literature that I have come to successfully apply in my managerial career. I hope this will be helpful to you. These are based mainly on the writings of Robert Cialdini and colleagues (Influence, Yes!, The Small Big, Presusasion), and the concept of ‘nudge’ first introduced by Thaler and Sunstein and popularised by David Cameron’s ‘Nudge Unit’ in the British government.

Be pro-social

From an early age, we are told to be assertive, genuine and authentic. This is somewhat not aligned with the principle of pro-social conduct.

Prosocial behaviour should not be confused with altruistic behaviour. Pure altruism, many say, is non-existent these days. Pure altruism is when we are completely selfless and have the best interest of the other person as the core motive of our actions.

Pro-social behaviour, on the other hand, can be for one’s own benefit. People like those who are ‘seen’ as caring and responsible. Pro-social behaviour also includes adherence to social norms and upholding of rules regulations.

Volunteerism and community development too can add value to an individual’s pro-social capital. Some commonly cited prosocial behaviour includes helping, sharing, donating, co-operating, and volunteering.

Understand your audience

Understanding what makes your audience tick is key to influencing their behaviour and thoughts. Getting to know them sometimes requires methodical inquiry.

Professor Cialdini’s latest book Presusasion suggests that persuasion starts way before any words are spoken. Prepare in advance and know what you are aiming for. Knowing the audience means taking time to understand them; asking questions and most importantly, listening.

One of the first psychology books I read is Eric Berne’s What Do You Say After You Say Hello? This was my introduction to Freudian concepts and transactional analysis. Transactional analysis and Kurt Lewin’s work before that offers great insight into understanding people. Work done by these pioneers offer windows of understanding to the human psyche.

If you want to understand someone, look at his/her interactions with other people. Politicians do it very cleverly. Door to door campaigns, rallies and town hall meetings are all about getting to know the audience.

It is true that psychology, unlike physics, chemistry and biology, does not have theories or rules like gravity or laws of motion. For this reason, as Rory Sutherland often cites Charlie Munger, social psychology lacks a latticework to hang the many assumptions and hypotheses on.

Understanding humans, therefore, still remains a work in progress.

Harness the power of effective communication

Visual, verbal and subtle priming cues can be a powerful tool to influence and persuade.

Flash fiction has for a long time established that humans can be emotionally moved with just mere words, just six words to be exact! One of the most talked-about six-word stories is ‘For sale, baby shoes, never worn’. This is commonly attributed to Ernest Hemingway, though there is some evidence that it predates him.

Technology too is a great enabler to this end. Most of us are oblivious to the fact that we are constantly being bombarded with subtle advertisements through artificial intelligence. We may have bought many things that we don’t actually need. We probably spend a lot more time than we realise simply browsing through social media timelines because the perpetual scroll just keeps us engaged.

Building a powerful personal brand is a deliberate process. This is made much easier by the many social media platforms where individuals with little or no resources can reach thousands of people with any message or messages they want.

In a world of instant mass communication, reputations can be made or lost in the just the blink of an eye.

Use the universal principles of persuasion

Professor Cialdini and his colleagues including Steve Martin have narrated this video. One of the principles of persuasion, reciprocity and one of the studies that are often cited, is by Professor Michael Lynn of Cornell University. I first read Professor Lynn’s guide Mega Tips probably around 20 years ago and the phenomenon has still been quite fascinating after all these years.

There are five more principles: Authority, Liking, Consistency, Scarcity and Social Proof.

I have also published a previous blogpost, in which I discussed how these principles can be applied in the hospitality setting for win-win customer experiences. These principles are universal and applicable across all cultures, though the context may have to be considered for maximum effectiveness.

One of the things that I learnt with persuasion science that you can apply as many of these principles for a particular context, crowd or purpose to increase effectiveness and they are mostly free and very ethical.

Use the concept of ‘nudging’ to influence and change behaviour

Now more than ever, we are trying to get people to adopt certain behaviours.

Community health professionals are coming up with ideas to increase the effectiveness of public health and good hygiene messages. Washing hands, social distancing, wearing masks are all behaviours that we are trying to promote.

Habits relating to personal finance, microeconomic decisions, healthy eating and maintaining a healthy lifestyle — all require an individual to form habits and integrate these habits into their lives.

Nudge, as introduced by Thaler and Sunstein over a decade ago, is also known as libertarian paternalism and nudges are about choice architecture. Simply put, nudging is about designing an environment where the desired behaviour becomes the default choice.

An example of this is changing the placement of food items on a buffet. If we wish to promote healthy eating, vegetable and fresh produce should be the first thing someone sees/comes across.

It is about making the desired behaviour effortless or less effortful. Where a less desired or undesired behaviour is likely, the choice architecture will be designed to provide more information so that the person will be prompted to use their more deliberate and analytical thinking skills.

Remaining relevant in an ever-changing world requires a lot of deliberate work. Thomas Friedman calls this the age of accelerations and he points out that markets (globalisation of trade), mother nature (climate change) and Moore’s Law (technology) are changing our lives every day. In the age of acceleration, the best insights come when you stop, sit or stand still and pay attention.

I will end with a couple of realisations that hit me last night. My wife was attending an online class for poetry writing and as I listened to what was going on, I realised why collaboration is such a complex thing to master. They were merely trying to stitch some words/phrases together; it was supposed to be a fun exercise with no punishments or rewards but the process was still long and arduous. Next, a friend tags my wife on a Facebook post and this happened to be an alert for her to join a live solo music show where a gentleman with a karaoke setup and an internet connection was broadcasting his songs live. He was singing for, interacting with a very active audience. He was building his brand. I find this fascinating.

We live in an interconnected and interdependent world where the best results in anything comes by collaborating with other people. It is difficult, that is why we need to learn and master the skills to influence and persuade others. Luckily for us, we have very effective tools within our reach that will enhance our efforts to become more effective.

Note: This op-ed was originally published on LinkedIn by Hassan Saeed, a highly experienced hotel/resort manager from the Maldives who currently serves as the Resort Manager at Dhigali Maldives, a luxury resort in the northern Raa atoll. To view the original article, please follow this link.

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