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Reasons why


The art of persuasion

Businessman with devil or angel

“Small changes can spark big influence,” claims the marketing and persuasion expert Bob Cialdini, who recently gave a seminar at Cambridge Judge Business School that explored some of the fundamental principles of the influence process. Follow his advice and you just might find others follow you.

Are your networking skills in need of a boost? Want to know how to work a drinks party like a pro? Bob Cialdini, the US Professor of Psychology branded “the world’s most cited living social scientist”, has a suggestion that might help.

First find an area of “commonality” says Cialdini – or in other words, something you are both interested in. “If you don’t have anything in common, then you won’t be able to do business together anyway. People are influenced by the behaviour of other individuals who they believe are most similar to them.” People like us, in other words: we like to follow the social norm.

Practical proof of this comes in an exercise one of the co-authors of his latest book, Steve Martin, undertook for the Inland Revenue. The standard response to the typical letter sent by HMRC is around 67 per cent: but if a sentence is added to the letter that truthfully informs the recipient that “most people pay on time”, that figure rose to 72 per cent. If informed that “the majority of people in your post code pay on time” the success rate increased to 78 per cent, and if it was “most people in your town” the figure was 83 per cent.

Have you ever wondered why your company brainstorming sessions don’t match up to expectations? “Hold them in a room with a high ceiling,” says Cialdini, “where the atmosphere encourages creative thinking. Then, when the brainstorming has run its course, move back to a room with a lower ceiling to narrow the focus and iron out the details.” It seems obvious – when it is pointed out to you.

Many of his tips are something most of us do anyway but it is helpful to be reminded of them. Want to sell something? Then give a very precise figure. “It’s a mistake to round down,” believes Cialdini. “My father used to say to me: ‘Show me your worth, don’t just give me the number.’ So if you’re selling a car for example, ask for $7,008, but point out what features bring you to that price – demonstrate you have done your homework. The potential buyer is more likely to make an offer than if you ask for a straight $7,000.”

But here’s the rub. Cialdini is so sure that his tips work that his primary interest at the seminar he recently gave at Cambridge Judge Business School was in making sure they are not applied dishonestly.

He is “not crazy about” the sobriquet often applied to him as the “Godfather of Influence”, with all that that implies. As he sees it: “We are providing a form of dynamite, that can be used for good or ill”. As a practical example he cites research from Beijing that shows an asterix beside a menu item marking it as popular can create a 15 per cent swing towards the dish being ordered. “Which is great if it is done honestly – everybody benefits. But if the restaurateur uses the technique to offload food that the kitchen has too much of, then that damages the fabric of trust with the customer.”

The point is that most people don’t expect to be caught:

The techniques we suggest are often so minimal that they are often not noticed by those at whom they are aimed. For me a critical issue is to what extent can these principles be applied dishonestly to fool people into assent? And how do we deter individuals from taking the low road?

Cialdini and his colleagues have proved empirically that a culture of organisational dishonesty creates employee anxiety about ethical conflicts, which in turn leads to below-par job performance and increased employee turnover. If unethical behaviour is detected then expensive controls have to be put in place, so it makes economic sense to encourage honesty from the outset.

His claim “that small changes can spark big influence” is undoubtedly true. And this best-selling author is not averse to following his own advice to his advantage. “When a book has been out for a while we get the publisher to print new copies with how many books have been sold on the jacket. They don’t like it because it means extra expense upfront, but it works.”

He should know – his books have sold nearly three million copies. He is clearly a very persuasive man. So be on your guard; someone you work with may be employing his principles to get you to say yes.