Learning from the persuasion scientists

BigSmall book coverInfluencing people and decisions is complex, but there’s much we can learn from persuasion scientists. This past weekend I read the great new book, The Small Big: Small Changes That Spark Big Influence, by Steve Martin, Noah Goldstein and Robert Cialdini. Here are some highlights, all based on fascinating research studies that the authors explain in the book.


  • Before a meeting or interview, write about a time you felt powerful and/or adopt a high-power physical posture. “High power” people are more persuasive.
  • Make sure to present your credentials before trying to influence a group. Authorities’ opinions dominate people’s minds, shutting down cognitive consideration of other factors.
  • Focus first on the possibilities and potential of your proposal, as potential arouses more interest than realities. Once the attention is focused on the potential, provide supporting information about the benefits, e.g., testimonial, research data.
  • Admit uncertainty vs. convey over-confidence. A person’s expertise, when coupled with a level of uncertainty, arouses intrigue. As a result --  and assuming the arguments that the expert makes are still reasonably strong -- this drawing in of an audience can actually lead to more effective persuasion.
  • Similarly, consider using a list of “worst practices” instead of “best practices.” People pay attention to and learn from negative information far more than positive information. Also, downside information is more memorable and is typically given more weight in decision-making.

Influencing Decisions

  • Ask people to choose between two options vs. offering just one.  Then influence them to opt for your preferred option by pointing out what could be lost if they don’t select that option.
  • Similarly, people make decisions based on context and comparisons. By first presenting an option that people think is a bit too costly, or one that they might think will take to much time, you can achieve the desired impact of making the target proposal seem even more like the “Goldilocks proposal that it is – just right.
  • Determine whether you’re trying to get buy-in or follow-through. If it’s getting people on board, make the sequence of steps as flexible as practical and emphasize that flexibility when announcing the initiative. If the bigger issue is execution, give the rollout sequence a very structured order and emphasize how, once in place, the program will proceed in a straightforward, uncomplicated fashion.

Forming Relationships

  • Explicitly use someone’s first name more often when seeking to influence them.
  • Identify uncommon commonalities between you and another person, fulfilling people’s desire to both fit and still stand out.
  • When meeting someone for the first time dress at a level that matches your true expertise and credentials. This is in keeping with a fundamental principle of persuasion science – authority. Authority is the principle that influences people, especially when they are uncertain, to follow the advice and recommendations of those they perceive to have greater knowledge and trustworthiness.

Getting Commitments

  • Remind people of the significance and meaningfulness of their jobs, and show how what you’re asking them to do is related to that meaning.
  • To get people to follow through on promises, e.g. I’ll bring up your idea in the executive staff meeting, ask how they’ll go about accomplishing the promise they’ve given to you. This specificity helps them follow through.
  • If you believe that you will encounter resistance with your requests for an immediate behavior change, you might be more successful if you instead ask for a commitment to change at a given time in the future, say three months from know.
  • Appeal to people’s sense of moral responsibility to the future version of themselves.


  • Ask people to submit information before a meeting. This often increases the number of voices that are heard, potentially leading to a greater number of ideas generated. Similarly, ask people to spend a few moments quietly reflecting on their ideas, writing them don, and submitting them to the group. Doing this can help ensure that any potentially insightful ideas from quieter members won’t get crowded out by people with louder voices.
  • The person who leads the meeting always speaks last. If a leader, manager or family elder contributes an idea first, group members often unwittingly follow suit, leading to alternative ideas and insights being lost.
  • If you want to create an atmosphere of collaboration and cooperation, have people sit in a circular seating arrangement.
  • Creative sessions are often more fruitful when held in rooms with high ceilings.

Building your network

  • Just ask! People tend to underestimate the likelihood that a request for help will result in a yes. Plus, those who can help often don't  offer because they wrongly assume their help isn't needed. Why?  Simply because it wasn’t asked for.
  • People who help others but don’t ask for favors in return are much less productive than their colleagues. The way to optimize the giving process in the workplace is to arrange for exchange: a) be the first to give favors, offer information or provide service, and b) be sure to verbally position your favor, information or service as part of a natural and equitable reciprocal arrangement. (“I was happy to help. I know that if the situation were ever reversed, you’d do the same for me.”)
  • Provide explicit thanks and genuinely communicate your appreciation for the favors done and the efforts made on your behalf.

Why Bosses Say No

No!“There’s no money in the budget for that” is the most common management response to new ideas. The more creative or risky the idea, the quicker our bosses’ “Sorry, no budget” reflexes. We walk away thinking, “Well there’s no sense on pushing that idea forward. There’s no money to fund it.”

But here’s an important truth:

Money is rarely the real reason ideas get shot down.


Six real reasons and how to get around them

1. It’s just not that important: When an idea helps an organization accomplish something that’s important and valued, that idea gets funded and approved. Many very good ideas get rejected because they don’t support what the organization most cares about. So show how your proposal supports what’s most valued.

Consider: Do you know what’s most important and valued? What’s appearing on the agendas of management meetings? What new buzz words creeping into conversations? Do this homework before you start socializing your idea. We’ve seen funds appear almost magically when an idea addresses an issue deeply important and relevant.

2. I can’t understand what the “it” is: Sometimes new concepts are so foreign that people just can’t figure out what we’re talking about. As the idea creators we easily “get” the concept, and make the mistake of thinking that other people will as instinctively understand what it is and how it benefits the organization.

Consider: Use an analogy to help people see how the idea is the same and different. When Bill Taylor and Alan Webber had the idea for Fast Company, they pitched it as putting Harvard Business Review and Rolling Stone in a blender and pressing the on switch.   What is your idea like – and how is it different?

3. Timing out of kilter: Your boss may love your idea and say no because the timing doesn’t fit with planning cycles. If you start lobbying for an idea in November but plans and budgets are finalized in September, you’re out of luck for a while.

Consider: Learn how decisions get made and the timing of decisions and budget planning. Work with the system.

4. Where are the best practices? Innovative concepts are just that – innovative and emerging. They haven’t been done before and involve risk and complexity. Alas, many people are extremely uncomfortable approving new ideas unless they can be backed up by best practices or controlled experiments. Without having some sense of certainty, people reject the idea. It’s just too risky.

Consider: If you can find supporting case studies or best practices, use them. If not, consider using the Cynefin Framework to engage in a conversation about the context of your organization (or the customer environment) and the implications of that context for making decisions. For example, if people agree the operating environment is becoming more complex, they are more likely to support novel approaches and acknowledge uncertainty.

5. I don’t like the idea. There will be times when your boss just dislikes your idea for all kinds of rational and irrational reasons, and doesn’t know how to tell you. So he asks you to do more research, puts off your meetings, and says things like, “Let’s keep this on the back burner.” The tough thing about this stall tactic is that you keep your hopes up and become more and more frustrated. It’s the equivalent of the movie, “He’s Just Not That Into You.”

Consider: if you think your boss is having a hard time giving you frank feedback, help her by asking questions like, “On a scale of one to 10, one being highly unlikely and 10 being very likely, how likely is it that this idea will get approved and funded in the next year?” (Ratings take the emotion out of discussions and give you useful data about intent.) Or say, “It looks like you don’t like this idea and you’d like to be able to tell me that. It would help me if you’d say it directly.”

6. I love the way things are. Some people just love the way things are and want to preserve what they think is working. They’re not so much opposed to your idea as they are in love with the status quo.

Consider: If you suspect your boss is in love with what exists, ask him, “Where do you see value in changing how we operate today? In what ways do you think this new idea could make us more effective?” If he thinks everything is going well and sees little value to changing, you have some important data. You can either build support around and below your boss to keep the idea alive. Or you can accept that he’s never going to budge and either drop the idea or go to work for an organization that values what you value.

 Emotion trumps logic

Remember that most decisions are based more on emotion than logic. To get to “yes,” find out what people yearn to be able to achieve (aspirations) and acknowledge the risks and how you’ll minimize them (fears). Aspirations and fears are a common paradox. Opportunities lie in the contradictions.

Lastly, manage your own energy and reputation. If the boss hates your idea and sees absolutely no value in pursuing it, you might not want to pursue it. At least not in his organization.

Communicating new ideas

clarity illustration Most rebels do a great job at bringing passion and enthusiasm when talking about their ideas, which is essential for getting people’s attention. In addition to this positive energy, there are a handful of communications fundamentals to master so that people understand your idea, consider its merits, and lend their support.

Show what’s at stake

To get people’s attention, frame your idea in terms of what people care about. Show how the idea relates to what they want.

If there’s nothing at stake, if there are no emotionally compelling risks or rewards for acting on your idea, people will probably ignore it. A common mistake we’ve seen is that people launch into the details of how their new idea will work before doing the much more important work of communicating why it matters so much.

So step one is jolting people awake to understand why your idea matters so much to what’s important to them. The more relevant your idea is to what everyone wants to achieve, the more likely people will consider it. The more your idea rescues people from a fear or frustration that is getting more acute every day, the more they will consider it. Similarly, the more widely and/or deeply felt the issue or topic, the more likely people will consider it.

Paint a picture of what could be

Emotions get people to consider an idea and influence decisions. Paint a picture of how your idea creates a better situation. Expose the gap between how things work today and how they could work. Make the status quo unappealing.

Paint a picture of how much better things will be with your ideas in place. You want to make the status quo unappealing and the alternative a much better option, so much better that it will be worth the work to get there. Walk people through how things will work differently with your new approach. Help them feel this new way of doing things, evoking a positive emotional response. Remember: people make decisions based on emotions, either the desire to flee from pain or to seek relief and rewards.

Show that the idea can work

Highlight what it will take to be successful and where the greatest risks lie. Show the milestones that will need to be achieved. This demonstrates that you’ve done your homework and thought through the risks, uncertainties, and practicalities.  People support ideas (and people) that they think will be successful.  

Show the gap between the ideal and where things are today, and briefly highlight the milestones for closing the gap and getting to the ideal. Avoid communicating all the details. You don’t want or need to drill down into specific details in a meeting where you’re trying to get buy in and support. We’ve seen too many great concepts die an early death because the blizzard of “how it will work” details buried big idea.

You do, however, need to have done your research so that the milestones you present are realistic, doable, and make sense based on how things get done where you work. This makes people comfortable. It helps them see that while anything new is fraught with uncertainty, you have been thinking about the risks and have thought about ways to minimize them.

Build support

Mobilize people to support the idea. If 10% of the people in an organization believe in an idea, it is highly likely it will be adopted.

Before doing any formal presentations, talk with people you like and trust at work about the “what’s at stake” and “what could be.”

Communicating a new idea is about developing relationships, learning from others, asking for their help in making the idea better, and enlisting their support to be able to make the idea happen. A mistake rebels make is thinking that the way to get an idea approved is to present it to the management team, which will either say yes or no.

The way to bring an idea to life is helping people see the value in the idea for them, and asking them to help be part of the effort. Socialize your idea with many people, and work hard to get those one or two first followers who will also take ownership of the idea and start to talk about it.   The first followers provide credibility to you and the idea and often can be more influential than anyone in positional authority.

Once the first followers get behind the idea, work together to influence 10 percent of the people in your organization.

Why 10 percent? Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when 10 percent of the people in a group believe in an idea, the majority of the people will adopt their belief

“When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority,” says Boleslaw Szymanski, the Claire and Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor at Rensselaer. “Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.”

If there are 200 people in your organization, that means you need to get 20 people behind your idea, willing to stand up to the powers that be to say, “We should do this.” With just 20 people supporting an idea, it is likely to be adopted. That’s not so daunting, is it?

Even if there are 1,000 people in your department or community, 10 percent support means 100 people. Not all 1,000: you need just 100 to get leadership’s attention, interest others in considering an alternative new way,  and get funding for an experiment.

So create a tribe or community, not just a PowerPoint presentation. Being a rebel is not about being a hero or lone wolf; it’s about creating better ways to work with and for our co-workers. The energy, ideas and support from a collaborative group are much more

Be positive and succinct

Show enthusiasm, but don’t get so carried away talking that you fail to listen for others’ thoughts and good ideas. How we communicate is as important as what we communicate.

When you embark on your effort to change THAT WHICH REFUSES TO BUDGE, act as if success is just around the corner. Be cheerful! Be emotional! Show some enthusiasm. There's nothing less appealing than a dour reformer.

On the other hand, don’t let your enthusiasm turn you into a boor. We’ve all probably sat through presentations where the person drones on and on. There are flow charts, project timelines, quotes, charts so detailed that you can hardly read them, and a running commentary that never stops for ideas or questions. Don’t be that person.

And if people don't like what you have to say?

If you’ve communicated clearly about how to solve a relevant problem and people don’t like your ideas, it’s wise to pause and assess whether the issue is important enough to keep going, despite the lukewarm reception.

If the answer is, “Yes, this change effort can make a big difference,” or “The organization is at risk if it doesn’t move in this area,” it’s time to learn one of the most important rebel lessons of all: how to navigate controversy and conflict.

What else?

What else, rebel friends, have you found to be helpful in communicating new ideas inside your organization?

Happy planning season!

FocusIt's that time of year -- business planning, which means this is a great time to show how your idea supports whatever your organization's 2014 mantra may be. I've been fortunate over the past few months to facilitate strategic planning sessions in several very different industry sectors. Yet all shared a common theme:

How can we better focus, collaborate and simplify work?

If you were trying to get a new idea approved  in one of these companies or universities, a useful strategy would show how your idea simplifies work, develops greater collaboration, and focuses on the organization's most important goal.

What topics are creeping into conversations where you work?  Can you link your  idea to one of those topics? Show how your idea is a way to achieve what executives are yearning for?

Ideas that support what an organization most wants to achieve are ideas that gain traction.

"Tis the season to get your idea positioned and approved.