5 lessons from a persuasion expert

Ever had the feeling that someone dismissed your issue before you’d even opened your mouth? According to Dr Robert Cialdini, author of Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade, they probably have, but not in the way you might think.

You might think the person you were trying to persuade didn’t accept your message because of pre-existing attitudes, beliefs or values that were incompatible. Of course that might be the case, but Dr Cialdini suggests you also take a good look at how you’ve delivered your ask.

The theory

Basically the book is about how to prepare the ground in a way that gets people attuned to your message before you deliver it.

For example, if you want a group of colleagues to focus on overcoming barriers in the meeting, you should arrange for them to see images of a runner winning a race. If want someone to agree to try an untested product, first inquire whether they consider themselves adventurous. Ultimately its the person’s choice whether or not they accept the proposition, but there are techniques that have been shown in various experiments to make success more likely than others. Cialdini calls this the art of ‘pre-suasion.’

(I’m going to jump to some of the principles that particularly resonated with me; those keen to understand the book in its entirety can read this helpful summary before continuing).

Lessons for campaigners

Cialdini makes a compelling argument, through a combination of anecdotes and experimental evidence. Some of the findings wouldn’t be appropriate to bring into the world of campaigning, for example, it’s hard to imagine us ever making use of the ‘sex sells’ principle. We need to consider the ethical implications of pre-suasion and wouldn’t want our eagerness to sell a campaign as justification for manipulating people. That said, there are some lessons that I think we can safely apply to our work as campaigners:   

1. Get activists to commit to taking action

People have already volunteered to give their precious time to our cause, so don’t be shy about asking them to confirm their intention to take action. Cialdini points out that getting someone to confirm out loud to doing something (e.g coming to a day of action) makes them much more likely to actually come. This is because people want their future choices to match their past choices, or the ‘Rule of Consistency’. When a blood donation service changed their script from saying “We’ll mark you on the list as coming then” to “We’ll mark you on the list as coming then, okay? [Pause for confirmation.] Thank you”, attendance increased from 70% to 82%. A great tip for the next phonebank you run.

2. Encourage people to make plans

It’s not groundbreaking to say that having good intentions isn’t sufficient to making something happen. People might want to change the world, but the scale of the task can feel been overwhelming. Cialdini highlights that the process of generating an intention isn’t sufficient in getting us to take all the steps necessary to achieve a goal. It’s January so if you’re like most people, you’ve probably failed at at least one of your New Year’s resolutions for this reason.

Thankfully there’s a way of countering this that’s been proven to be effective: making if/when-then plans. If you want to lose weight, instead of having something like ‘eat less, exercise more’ in mind, Cialdini says your plan should be: “If/when, after my business lunches, the server asks if I’d like to have dessert, then I will order mint tea.” The rationale being that what’s more accessible in mind becomes more probable in action.

This principle is widely incorporated into election campaigning now. Political parties and voter turn-out campaigns routinely ask people to make, and ideally write down, a plan for how they’re going to vote. For a longer discussion of this, check out number 7 of my 10 podcasts to inspire campaigners which features Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab.

I wonder if we can extend this to other campaigning intentions. For example, rather than asking supporters to commit to having conversations about the value of overseas development aid, or fighting climate change, we could ask them to make if/when-then plans. Commitments like ‘When I’m next in the pub and my mate brings up foreign aid, I will counter it by saying this fact/view/comment’ or ‘When I plan my next business trip, I will research and take the greenest mode of transport’ might stand a higher rate of success.

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A typical example of a ‘plan to vote’ device (source)

3. Ask campaigners for their advice

Cialdini presents evidence showing that customers who are asked by companies for their advice on products are more likely to engage with the brand than those asked for their opinions or expectations.

When a group of survey-takers were shown a business plan for a new restaurant, those who were asked for their advice of the plan were significantly more likely to say they wanted to eat there than those who were asked for their expectations. He points to other examples of brands doing co-creation with customers.

This validates many experiences I’ve had involving volunteers in designing activism: people are much more likely to take actions they’ve had a hand in designing. Campaigning groups like Greenpeace and 350.org (below) who ask activists for their views on campaign strategy aren’t just doing it to get clicks, they’re doing it to deepen commitment to the cause.

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An email from climate change campaign 350.org asking me for my views on their strategy

4. Get senior leaders involved

Building on the principle above, getting senior leaders involved in campaign development is worth the effort.

Cialdini describes a study in which managers led to believe they’d had a large role in developing an advert for a new watch rated the ad 50% more favourably than managers led to believe they had little involvement – even though the ad they saw was identical. As well as thinking they’d been more responsible for the ad’s quality personally, managers also attributed more of the ad’s success to their employee. Cialdini speculates that this is because the boss temporary merges their identity with that of their employee, and views the whole unit as successful (rather than apportioning more of the success to themselves and less to their employee).

So, although it might be an almighty arse-ache to involve the boss (depending on how blessed you are in that department), you’d be well-advised to do it. This certainly resonates with my experience of designing a local campaigning strategy in my last job: those who helped developed it were much more likely to advocate for it.

This advice applies if you’re a manager too: involving yourself in the process of developing a campaign strategy or piece of activism is a good way of ensuring you’re able to advocate for your team’s ideas, even if you consider yourself highly trusting of your team.

5. Own your campaign challenges

Cialdini points out that diverting attention away from weaknesses in your product (in our case, our campaigns) is a less effective strategy than owning them. As a influencer, you’re more likely to be believed if you mention the weakness up front, because people view you as more honest and trustworthy.

For example, a political candidate who points out a positive quality her opponent has that she does not (e.g. military experience), before presenting what qualities she does have (e.g. tactical excellence or a bold spirit), gains voting intentions. This is the weakness-before-strength affect.

So when you’re next talking to a supporter sceptical of campaigning you might be well advised to have a conversation along the lines of “I hear you, you’re asking if its possible to really make change in the world/ this issue. I’ll be honest with you, it is going to be difficult. However here’s how we think we can win this campaign…”

All in all I enjoyed my foray into Cialdini’s world of persuasion psychology. Whether it’s a government official who is unsold on our policy solution, or a time-poor member of the public who wants to take action, campaigners are in the business of persuading. Cialdini offers a well-evidenced toolbox that’s as useful to activists as it is advertisers.

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