General Business

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Steve Martin

Yes!: 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion

The Magic Circle, London

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The auditorium was packed at the mysterious Magic Circle for this London Business Forum (LBF) event with Steve Martin, co- author of the best-seller Yes! 50 secrets from the science of persuasion. Unlike most performers on this theatre’s stage, Martin was happy to reveal his secrets.

There was no “Hocus pocus” here though. “Influence is actually a science,” Martin told the LBF. The ethical influence strategies he was about to explore are tried and tested, based on a wealth of evidence collected by behavioural scientists. “Anyone […] can be a much more productive influencer and persuader,” Martin explained.

Often, we are inclined to think that the more information we give people the more likely we are to persuade them to our way of thinking. Not so, said Martin, “information, education, providing people with data isn’t an especially good mechanism for influence and persuasion.” In a world saturated with information, it is essential that we select the right information and contextualise it in order to influence others.

Martin emphasised that what a person is subject to before a proposal will influence them as much as the proposal itself and how receptive they will be to it. This is what Martin calls, “Pre-suasion.” Think of a wine list, he suggested, normally they are arranged in order of price from lowest to highest. The effect of this is that most people choose a wine from near the top of the list. If a wine bar owner wants to encourage his/her customers to choose slightly more expensive wines all they need to do is reverse the list, making the most expensive bottle the first thing the customer sees and therefore influencing their perception of what follows. “What your target of influence sees first will alter their perception of the very next thing you present,” said Martin.

The six universal principles Martin told the LBF, are:

1. Reciprocity

2. Scarcity

3. Authority

4. Consistency

5. Consensus

6. Liking

1. Reciprocation

“We say ‘Yes’ more to those that we owe,” said Martin. What we give and the way it is given can also alter how influential we are, he suggested. When a waiter puts a mint per diner down with the bill, for example, studies show that the diners are inclined to give a 3% greater tip. If the waiter puts two mints down then the tip quadruples but if the waiter puts one mint per diner down, walks away and returns to put down more mints for the diners then, said Martin, “tips go through the roof.”

What this proves, Martin suggested to the LBF, is that “people [are] assigning value to the significance of what is given to them.” We often don’t capitalise on the favours we do people, Martin argued. “The moment when we are most persuasive of all,” he told the LBF is after you have been thanked where our response shouldn’t be “No problem”, or “Not at all” but “I’m happy to help because I know that if the situation was ever reversed you’d do the same for me, wouldn’t you?”

Martin revealed that another rule of reciprocation is to give people a head start. If a coffee shop, for example, gives out loyalty cards they are much more likely to encourage customer loyalty if the card asks that they buy 11 cups of coffee to get their twelfth for free rather than nine cups for a tenth free. Why? Because on the first card the barista gives the customer two stamps to start them off. Only 17% of people complete an empty card, said Martin, “people are more persuaded to complete tasks than to start them from fresh.”

2. Scarcity

Many of us may also be marketing under the delusion that consumers like to know about product benefits. Whilst this is true to some extent, Martin explained that we are motivated much more by loss than gain: “What moves us […] is not what people gain but in fact what people lose, or stand to lose from a situation.”

Martin recounted the learning from Concorde’s story to show this principle working in practice. In February 2003, with decreasing passenger numbers, British Airways announced that they would be grounding the jet permanently. Bookings immediately and significantly increased. Although Concorde had been flying every day for the past thirty years, thousands of people stopped their cars and blocked a busy motorway to watch its final take-off all because of the prospect of loss.

In business Martin urged the LBF to make proposals that outline what the decision maker stands to lose if they don’t back your programme or project. It may be exactly the same proposal but losses are much more persuasive than the benefits. “If you can present information that means that the target you’re looking to influence will lose out on a given situation, and you give them a simple, straight forward, immediate action that they can take towards arresting that loss […] your proposals become more influential.”

3. Authority

“The messenger is the message in this information overloaded environment that we live in today,” said Martin. If your target of influence believes you to be credible they are more likely to say “Yes” to you. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be honest though, said Martin, his are ethical influence strategies just don’t neglect to introduce, or have someone else introduce your expertise. Neuro-imaging studies have shown that “expertise introductions” reduce cynicism.

4. Consistency

Martin recognised that persuading people to change is often one of the biggest challenges leaders face. Avoiding change is the easy option but if are trying to drive through change, “a good place to start is to get people to make very small commitments […] especially public ones,” he explained.

One of the NHS’s most expensive problems is the number of people who miss their appointments. What is the best way to ensure patients commit to their appointments? Usually, Martin highlighted, the receptionist writes out the time and date on an appointment card for the patient. However, the number of missed appointments decreases by 18% if the patient fills in their own appointment card. The patient’s active involvement makes them more likely to keep their appointment and written commitments, suggested Martin, “are significantly more effective.”

5. Consensus

“When we try to interpret our own behaviour we often completely miss the influence of what those around us are doing,” Martin told the LBF. Social proof or consensus are very powerful influencers on our behaviour – if others are doing something, we are more likely to do it too.

This even extends to undesirable behaviour. When tabloids point out an increase in teenage pregnancies, alcohol or drug abuse it, said Martin, “[there] lurks a normative, undercutting message that says, ‘look at all the people who are doing this.’” If you want undesirable behaviour to cease, don’t point it out, he suggested. “If you’re looking to get people to move, change direction, pointing towards the things many people are doing that are desirable is the right way to go.”

In practice this principle of persuasion theory, said Martin, generated £1billion more in tax for HMRC just by changing the way they worded their tax return letters. What the evidence showed was that by pointing out the percentage of those who filed their tax returns on time the number of people who meet the deadline increases. If the statistics given are localised to the recipient of the letter by postcode, the percentage improves again. “We follow the lead of others who are more similar to us,” Martin revealed.

6. Liking

The final universal persuasion principle is about who we are most likely to say “Yes” to. Intuitively, we might think this would be someone that we like. In fact, said Martin, “it is not the person we like but the person who like us.” Whether that is expressed through compliments, cooperation or identifying what we share in common with that person.

Martin’s principles confirm that you don’t need to exploit, or dupe people to get what you want. In business the more sustainable approach is an ethical one and the science proves it. With these six ethical persuasion principles, “You can make your attempts to influence and persuade others significantly more successful,” he concluded. That’s a lot of persuasive power at our fingertips, simply by enhancing our understanding of human behaviour.