The Power of Persuasion

I have never been a great salesmen, and would love to improve my powers of persuasion.  To remind myself of the psychology of persuasion I re-read Robert Cialdini’s classic book Influence recently, and found all that I need to know about the theory.  The book also contains some great examples of  the application of his six principles, along with strong evidence for them.  All I need to do now is to practice!

Here is a quick summary of the secrets to being able to persuade anyone (even your children according to Cialdini).

‘You scratch my back’

The first principle is reciprocity.  This is a fundamental human social drive, using our strong sense of empathy, and is the most powerful of the principles.  When you do something for me, however small, I automatically feel obliged to return the favour (that’s why Hare Krishna followers will insist on giving you a small gift for your children).  Always be the first person to set the tone of any conversation, especially when you open with ‘how can I help you?’.

One of Robert Cialdini’s more interesting tips is to take full advantage when you grant someone else a favour.  Say one of your team ask to go home early one day, or need time off.  Rather than saying yes, and wishing them well, Cialdini recommends adding the words, “I know that you would do the same for me”.  Using this simple phrase, you can build your balance sheet for the future, and call in a big favour in return one day.

The value of scarcity

The second principle is scarcity.  We all like to feel that we have things which no one else can get and are prepared to pay much more for them (hence the absurd prices of art, and the scalpers outside concerts).  Just saying that something is ‘not available anywhere else’ creates greater perceived value, and the mental pressure to snap something up before it’s taken by someone else.

In one of the experiments described in the book, just adding a line (which was true) that exclusive information was being shared with someone dramatically increased their likelihood of purchase (and the amount they bought).  Rarity is a precious thing.

‘Trust me on this’

The third principle is authority.  We are all persuaded by people with credibility or expert knowledge as well as those who we trust for whatever reason.  This includes doctors, scientists (sometimes), celebrities and of course friends (hence the importance of expert testimony or endorsement of products).

That’s why word of mouth is so much more persuasive than slick advertising, and also why brands are rushing to get their own Facebook and Twitter pages (although they need more than the page itself to have any impact).

One of Cialdini’s tips for creating trust is to always be prepared to state a weakness in your case first, before moving on to the strengths of the idea or product that you are trying to sell.  The willingness to share a weakness creates much greater trust and more credibility in any strengths and is therefore more persuasive.

Stick to a line

The fourth principle is consistency.  We rely on the past history of someone to make decisions, checking mentally if the source has always been reliable and the consistency of our previous dealings with them.

It’s always a good idea to build commitment from someone, and the words “will you …. ?” are very effective for this.

Going with the flow

The fifth principle is consensus, or the importance of following the crowd.  We all like to be seen doing what others are doing or owning what others have, and this can be leveraged very effectively (this is what TV advertising effectively does in our mind, by creating the impression that a brand is popular).

One useful trick to building demand is to create the illusion that there is a consensus already.  For example, instead of asking people to call a number for more information, tell them that ‘if our hotline is busy, please call again’.

Being nice works

The final principle is liking, which really does work. We are more likely to be positive to people we like.  This might be because they are similar to us, pay us compliments, or are cooperative and helpful.

Being nice really helps, and is an important tool in persuading others to back your case or buy your used car.

Cialdini’s research has proved that these principles work across cultures and countries, although some principles tend to be more persuasive for some people.  For instance, in Mediterranean countries, friendship groups are very important and liking and consensus are often very persuasive.  In more hierarchical societies like China, authority and consistency are more important, and in the US reciprocity rules.

Influencing others is not difficult if you know the science, so don’t leave it just to the salesmen!


Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini (2006)

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