In the first Star Wars film, released in 1977, the seemingly humble Ben Kenobi is confronted by a squad of Imperial Storm Troopers. With a slight hand gesture and a confident stare, he convinces the Storm Troopers that there is no reason to search his vehicle and to leave his droids unmolested. The audience later learns that “Ben” is actually Jedi Master Obi Wan Kenobi and the persuasion technique he deployed is called the “Force.”
Unfortunately, non-fictional entrepreneurs cannot draw upon the Force. However, there are Jedi mind tricks that really do work - words, techniques and patterns of behavior that cause people to act in a highly predictable manner. Just like the Storm Troopers, victims of these mind tricks are usually unaware of the degree to which they have been manipulated.
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Many of the persuasion techniques which proved effective within primitive tribes have become ingrained modern societal norms. To understand why these techniques are so effective, one must explore the work of ethnologists who analyze and compare human cultures. Although these scientists are unconcerned with devising effective sales strategies, their hard work has become the basis for a number of highly effective sales and marketing techniques. Many veteran salespeople utilize these techniques without understanding why they work. However, understanding the underlying tribal forces which trigger automatic responses is especially valuable to entrepreneurs, as effective persuasion skills are crucial to an entrepreneur’s success.
Over the years, I have been asked to recommend a “good book on sales.” As I made clear in Why Most Business Books Suck, I have a low opinion of business books. However, I recently discovered a highly effective book that was not written for the purpose of educating salespeople. Robert Cialdini’s Influence – Science and Practice, was written as a textbook to be used in undergraduate communications classes. It is a nice compliment to The Art of Woo, which also addresses methods of persuasion, as further discussed in To Woo Or To War.
Due to this focus, there are aspects of Influence that some business readers will likely find somewhat superfluous, such as the “Study Questions” at the end of each chapter. Cialdini also tends to support each of his suppositions with two or three more studies than seem necessary. However, given his intended academic audience, this approach is understandable. To address these issues, Cialdini’s Publishers repackaged Influence with a slightly different title, while excising the academic aspect of the original text (Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion).
Even with these minor faults, I found Influence to be a rewarding and enlightening read. Although I encourage everyone to read the entire book, I extracted a few of the key points below, annotating them with suggestions as to how they might be applied to your startup. I only cover the first five chapters of Influence in this article, as they are the most relevant to startups. If you care to read a summarized version of Influence in Cialdini’s own words, download the Harvard Business Review article, Harnessing The Science Of Persuasion.
Because The World Is Round – It Turns Me On
“Because” is a very powerful word. It falls within the category of “judgmental heuristics” or mental shortcuts that generally served tribal humans (as well as their modern brethren) well. Such powerful words can be exploited by those attempting to persuade us. A number of judgmental heuristics are used to persuade consumers, such as “expensive = high quality,” “popular = good” and “expert = valued, unbiased opinion.”
Cialdini cites research that shows that the inclusion of “because” in a request greatly enhances compliance, even when the reason given for the request is nonsensical. Persuadees, the people who are the target of the persuasion, prefer to know the reason for their actions. Thus, persuadees are more comfortable conforming to a request if they are first told “why” they should do so. For instance, in one study, a woman attempted to cut to the front of a long line at a library copier by saying, “Excuse me, I have five pages, may I use the Xerox machine?” This request was granted 60% of the time. However, when the request was augmented with the word “because,” the compliance rate escalated to 93%, even though no real reason was given. In such cases, the request was modified to, “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?” Even though the “reason” was not informational, the word “because” triggered a much higher rate of persuasion.
The same phenomenon is evident in the enhanced panhandling techniques described in Personal Pitch. Donors are much more apt to assist an entrepreneur when they understand why their assistance is being solicited.
Lesson: When attempting to persuade, include the word “because” as a means of explaining why your request should be satisfied. “Because = valid reason to comply”
Perceptual Contrasts – “That One Looks A Lot Better”
Scientists have repeatedly proven that subjects assign extreme attributes to an item when it is preceded by a contrasting item. For instance, if you are asked to estimate the weight of a light object after holding a heavy one, you will tend to underestimate the weight of the light object. This principal has been effectively applied for thousands of years in primitive markets all over the world. Ancient rug merchants, potters and similar craftsmen would routinely show buyers several mediocre items before pulling out the more expensive (remember, “expensive = high quality”) item that they hoped to sell.
Contemporary real estate agents are trained to first show would-be buyers less appealing homes before taking them to a home that closely matches the buyer’s criteria. In this way, the “appropriate” home appears even more suitable, in contrast to the sub-optimal homes they just viewed. If you know anyone who has ever worked at an electronics store, ask them about the games the retail chains play with the various television displays. Amazingly, the TVs they are most motivated to sell look “much better” than the TVs surrounding them.
One of my favorite anecdotes in Influence brilliantly illustrates the power of contrasts. Cialdini cites Leo Rosten’s example of Sid and Harry Drubreck, who ran a tailoring shop in the 1930s. They developed a clever shtick to incentivize customers to accept their preferred price, while making the customers believe they were getting a bargain.
While Sid was helping a new customer, he would repeatedly ask the customer to repeat things in order to make it clear that his hearing was “impaired.” When the customer asked the price of a particular suit, Sid would call to Harry, who was working in the back room. Harry would shout an inflated reply, such as “forty-five dollars.” Sid would pretend to hear a lower amount, such as “twenty-five dollars,” which he would then repeat to the customer. Thinking they were getting a great deal, most customers quickly paid for the suit and exited the store, in the hopes that the “mistake” would not be caught before they could escape with their bargain. Although I do not agree with the Drubreck brother’s ethics, it does make for a great illustration of the power of contrasts (and human greed).
Lesson: Before making your “ultimate” request, precede it with one or more contrasts to enhance its appeal.
Reciprocity – Heads I Win, Tails You Lose
In tribal societies, the concept of quid pro quo was paramount. If every individual had to fend for itself at all times, the tribe’s overall chance of survival would be precarious. In addition, if a subset of the tribe were forced to consistently provide for the wellbeing of everyone, without reciprocity, the tribe’s ability to exist would be significantly compromised.
In order to ensure that assistance would be forthcoming in a time of need, tribal members fostered and rewarded quid pro quo behavior. This virtuous circle of “paybacks” created a strong societal bound and ensured the tribe’s collective survival.
This tribal instinct still permeates modern society, as evidenced by the Starbucks, “pay it forward” phenomenon, which began when a man at a Starbucks drive-through was harassed by the car behind him, for taking his time placing his order. Rather than becoming angry, he paid for the coffee of the person who honked at him. This random act of kindness between two strangers resulted in a chain reaction in which dozens of coffee buyers paid for the orders of total strangers just because someone else had paid for their coffee. The “pay it forward cheer chain” (as dubbed by the media) continued for nearly an entire day. This incident was subsequently repeated with similar results at several geographically disparate Starbucks across the U.S. The indebtedness associated with a gift, even an unsolicited one from a stranger, is a powerful reflex that can be readily exploited to encourage persuadees to act in a desired fashion.
Companies attempt to exploit the concept of reciprocity with declarations such as “Our gift to you.” Non-profits often include an unwanted and often nearly worthless “gift” in their solicitations, such as address labels, holiday cards or pocket calendars. Why? Because it works. As Cialdini points out, 35% of such solicitations that include a gift result in a donation, compared to a donation rate of 18% arising from solicitations that do not include a gift.
Ever wondered why some restaurant waitstaff include a mint or candy with your check? They know from experience that the inclusion of this small “gift” results in larger tips.
Lesson: As noted in Personal Pitch, entrepreneurs need Donors. When reaching out to Donors, consider what you can “gift” them in order to invoke the Reciprocity Principle. For instance, you might send them a link to an article that they might find of interest or introduce them to someone they may want to meet. Even if your “gift” is small (think address labels), the likelihood that they will reciprocate in some manner is relatively high, especially if you have effectively developed a healthy rapport with the Donor before invoking the Reciprocity Principle.
Commitment and Consistency – I Am A Man Of My Word
In a tribal community, clear communication of each member’s commitment to a collective action was of vital importance. Equivocation is not something most tribes could indulge in. Once fundamental survival decisions were made, such as when to migrate or where to camp for the winter, there was little time to debate and second-guess the decision.
Cialdini does an excellent job of explaining how the Chinese “brainwashed” U.S. soldiers captured during the Korean War. Rather than deploying sophisticated cadre of psychological weapons, the Chinese simply encouraged the U.S. soldiers to write down their thoughts and sign them. The soldiers were initially rewarded for stating minor criticisms of the U.S. (e.g., “I agree that no country is perfect”), which eventually escalated to damning indictments of the U.S., its policies and capitalism in general. The secret of the Chinese approach was to incrementally increase the level of commitment associated with each statement. The tribal desire to act consistently with written, signed affirmations did the rest.
Such techniques are also used by marketers to strengthen consumers’ brand commitments. Crowd-sourced ads, such as the Converse “Gallery,” are similar to the contest of a bygone era when marketers would ask consumers to write a short essay describing why they “love product XYZ,” The purpose behind such crowd-sourced ads and essay contests is to enhance the persuadees’ brand loyalty. “Hey, I just spent ten hours creating a video that proclaims that this product is great, of course I am going to continue buying it.”
Once commitment is established, most people strive to act consistently with their commitment, even when such actions are not in their best interest. Cialdini references a study which showed that people overwhelmingly agreed to install a large, unattractive sign in their front yard which read “Drive Safely” after they had previously responded to a phone survey asking them if they felt “safe driving was an important issue.” Even when such subjects were not reminded of the survey, which took place two weeks before the request to install the sign, they still accepted the eyesore sign at a much higher rate than subjects who were not first asked to verbalize their “commitment” to safe driving.
It is important for entrepreneurs to understand the various levels of commitment, in order to secure it from customers, employees and Donors.
Levels of Commitment
If the commitment is not explicit, it is much easier for the persuadee to act inconsistently. Your presumption that a customer agreed to something is usually not adequate commitment to trigger a desire for the customer to appear consistent.
Head nods and other forms on non-verbal communication are more powerful than presumptive commitment. However, because such non-verbal actions are open to interpretation, it is relatively easy for the persuadee to act inconsistently.
A verbal response confirming the persuadee’s commitment is significantly more effective at establishing commitment than a non-verbal or presumptive exchange. Cialdini cites a restaurant that asked people calling to request a reservation to, “Please call us if you have a change of plans.” This presumptive approach resulted in 30% of the persuadees not notifying the restaurant of their intent to cancel their reservation. By simply turning the statement into the following question, “Will you call us if you have a change of plans?” and waiting for the persuadee to reply, decreased the unnotified cancellation rate to 10%.
Salesmen have long known that requiring customers to fill out a portion of the sales agreement greatly reduces the degree of buyer’s remorse following a sale. As the Chinese prison guards understood, the very act of completing the name, address and other trivial aspects of a sales contract solidifies the buyer’s commitment to the purchase.
I often asked Big Dumb Company (BDC) partners to sign “non-binding” term sheets. Since they were not legally binding, I was usually successful, even when such documents included terms that were not advantageous to the BDC. I often referred to these non-binding terms when a partner attempted to deviate from them and I was seldom reminded that the term sheet was not binding. Although I was not always successful, more often than not, our final binding agreement was usually highly aligned with the non-binding terms.
Do not underestimate the power of such “social contracts.” The fact that you “reach agreement” and validate it with your respective signature is a powerful means of establishing commitment.
Signed, Public Commitment
Tribes understood the importance of public commitments. Across a variety of societies, weddings are ritualized, community affairs in which the bride and groom publicly pronounce their commitment to each other. In many western societies, the nuptials also include a Marriage License that is signed by the bride, groom and the presiding authority.
Press releases, as described more fully in Pulp Facts, and negotiating space in a partner’s tradeshow booth (see Best Of Show) are two ways to publicize a BDC’s commitment to your adVenture. Such public pronouncements will increase the likelihood the BDC will act consistently and attempt to foster an ongoing, mutually beneficial partnership.
As noted in Excludesivity, I seldom agreed to exclusive terms. However, in the few instances in which I did, I always required the BDC negotiator to “sell” me as to why exclusivity would be good for my company. This inevitably led to the Bro Foe indicating that her company could generate tremendous revenue for my company.
I would take copious notes during such discussions and then email the forecasted sales figures to my BDC counterpart, asking them to “confirm in a return email that these figures properly capture the spirit of our conversation.” I purposely did not ask them to “commit” to the numbers. However, the simple act of replying to such an email served the purpose of closing the social contract regarding the proposed sales figures.
After I received the confirming email, I would later ask my Bro Foe to propose a minimum sales threshold, as a means of offsetting the opportunity costs associated with exclusivity. The sales figures that they had previously communicated while trying to sell me on the value of exclusivity served as the basis for our exclusivity threshold. The social contract established in the prior email exchange made it difficult for them to act inconsistently by proposing lower sales figures.
Lesson: Obtain written, signed commitments, even when they are not legally binding, as a means of ensuring the persuadee’s consistency. If possible, publicize such commitment to further strengthen the degree to which the persuadee will act consistently with the initial agreement.
Social Norming – 50,000,0000 Fans Cannot Be Wrong, Can They?
This is the most difficult persuasion technique for startups to utilize. At its outset, your adVenture will have minimal customers and partners that you rely upon for third-party validation. However, if you properly manage your Messengers, your company will appear much larger than reality.
Tribal members look to the actions of others for validation of their decisions. The reaction of the other members of the tribe is another form of mental shorthand. In the business, this heuristic translates to “popular = good.” Authors are described as “best-selling,” musicians as “hit-makers” and products as “award-winning.” We want to know that other members of the tribe have validated a purchase we are contemplating.
Ironically, as shown in the accompanying photo, the cover of Influence includes the marketing burst, “Over One Million Copies Sold.”
Lesson: Leverage third-party validation from customers, partners and industry experts to elicit social norming signals that will drive additional Stakeholders into your sphere of influence, thereby increasing your gravitas, as described more fully in Old Gray Advice.
Liking – Me Like, Me Buy
We buy from people we like and we like people we perceive to be similar to ourselves. Just like a tribe was naturally suspicious of anyone whose appearance was “different,” modern humans also value familiarity. Unlike the tribe’s focus on appearance, in contemporary society, such similarities include a variety of characteristics, including opinions, background, socioeconomic standing and interests. As noted in Bro Factor, every successful salesperson knows that they will discover some level of commonality with a prospect if they ask the right questions and actively Listen.
Cialdini cites a number of studies that support the “Liking” principle. For instance, in one study conducted in the early 1970s, experimenters dressed as “hippies” and “straights” and asked for money for a phone call. When the experimenter was dressed similar to the persuadee, money was given over 67% of the time. When the experimenter was dressed differently from the persuadee, less than 50% of the requests were granted.
Although the principle of Liking is real, be careful of the manner in which you attempt to leverage its power. In the early 1980s my wife and I, who are both Caucasian, entered a furniture store in the Washington, DC, area. The store was located in a predominantly African American neighborhood, so we thought nothing of the fact that nearly all of the salespeople were black. We struck up an engaging conversation with one of these salespersons, which was abruptly interrupted by one of the few available white salespersons. We thought this was odd, but we assumed that the African American salesperson probably had another prospect they wanted to speak with. We thought it was even stranger when our first salesperson approached a few other idle salespeople and starting a casual conversation.
We did not buy anything on our initial trip to the furniture store. However, we returned a couple weeks later with a firm idea of what we wanted to purchase. To our dismay, the same series of events took place. We initially spoke with an African American salesperson and asked him a few questions. We then told him we knew what we wanted and we were ready to place our order (this was pre-Ikea, when you ordered furniture and waited weeks for it to be delivered). Rather than take our order, he handed us off to another white salesperson. The African American salesmen then went over and introduced himself to an African American couple who were clearly browsing and had no rapport with the salesperson.
At this point, it was clear that the store’s policy was to match white people with white people and (presumably) black people with black people. My wife and I found this blatantly racist approach offensive and we departed without making a purchase. Someone within the furniture corporation (which has long since gone out of business) was clearly an advocate of the Liking principal. However, the transparent, heavy-handed manner in which they attempted to implement this approach backfired. Twenty-five years later, I still recall how offended we were with the assumption that we would be more likely to purchase something from a white person.
Lesson: Establish commonality with the persuadee in order to enhance your likeability. Make them feel you are part of the same tribe.
According to Obi Wan Kenobi, “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power.” A similar power is granted to those who understand the why behind the tribal ties that bind. Knowing why something works provides insights as to when to deploy that tactic. If you appreciate the underlying principles of persuasion techniques, you will also fall victim to them less often, as you will more readily recognize them, irrespective of the form in which you encounter them. As Robert Walker notes in his excellent book, Buying In, 61% of the respondents to one statistically valid survey indicated that their knowledge of persuasion was “above average.” Clearly, a significant portion of these individuals are deluding themselves regarding their knowledge of persuasion.
Just as Obi Wan was able to convince the Storm Troopers to let him pass, your use of tribal persuasion techniques will allow you to effectively align customers’, partners’, employees’ and other Stakeholders’ competing interests with those of your adVenture. May the Force be with you and your adVenture.
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