Influencing others to do something that you want them to do has been an art which only a few realise, focus their energies on, and manage to master. Apart from selling, marketing and advertising, this art is at the core of all human interactions such as interrogation, diplomacy, teaching, parenting, religion and politics. One of the best-known exponents of the art was Dale Carnegie whose book, How to win friends and influence people, has been translated into several languages and has sold millions of copies worldwide. The Dale Carnegie Institute claims to be able to codify the art into a learnable skill. In the late 1980s, when social psychology started to morph into behavioural science, and hundreds of experiments startlingly drove home the fact that human beings are fundamentally irrational when they make decisions, the science of persuasion started to gain ascendancy.
Robert Cialdini was one of the earliest exponents of this new evidence-based approach. His first book, simply called Influence, was launched in 1984 but remained unknown. But, a decade later, when behavioural science became mainstream, the book became a best-seller. A big area of application of this newly acquired insight into human decision-making is in financial matters. We now know from the periodic market booms and busts, to regular buying and selling of stocks, that irrationality is pervasive—invariably, to the detriment of our investment. Those who know this, and are able to control it, do well with their money.
Cialidini is back with another book, this time called Pre-suasion. In this book, he argues that successful influencers “spent more time crafting what they did and said before making a request. They set about their mission as skilled gardeners who know that even the finest seeds will not take root in stony soil or bear fullest fruit in poorly prepared ground.” They do something that gives them “a singular kind of persuasive traction: before introducing their message, they arranged to make their audience sympathetic to it.” In other words, here is the critical insight for those of us who want to learn to be more influential: the best persuaders become the best through, what Cialdini calls, ‘pre-suasion’—the process of preparing recipients to be receptive to a message before they encounter it. Here are a few of the many examples cited in the book that prove why this is true.
The amount of money people said they would be willing to spend on dinner went up when the restaurant was named Studio 97, as opposed to Studio17.
The price individuals would pay for a box of Belgian chocolates rose after they had been asked to write down a pair of high (versus low) digits from their Social Security numbers.
Participants in a study of work performance predicted their effort and output would be better when the study happened to be labelled Experiment Twenty-seven (versus Experiment Nine).
Observers’ estimates of an athlete’s performance increased if he wore a high (versus low) number on his jersey.
Just after drawing a set of long lines on a sheet of paper, college students estimated the length of the Mississippi River as much greater than those who had drawn a set of short lines.
Customers in a wine shop were more likely to purchase a German vintage if, before their choice, they had heard a German song playing in the shop.
The answer to these and numerous other studies involves an “essential but poorly appreciated tenet of all communication: what we present first changes the way people experience what we present to them next,” points out the author.
The starting point of the business of persuasion is drawing attention. This works best if one can identify ‘privileged moments’—points in time when individuals are particularly receptive to the message. These are described in chapter 2. Cialidini calls it ‘channeled attention’ which he argues, are central to any attempt to persuade. Here is a startling example.
When San Bolkan and Peter Andersen approached people and made a request for assistance with a survey, only 29% consented. This is the typical experience of all surveyors. The conventional answer is to ‘bribe’ the strangers with something, to open up. Bolkan and Andersen tried a different strategy. They began a second sample of individuals with a pre-suasive opener: “Do you consider yourself a helpful person?” Nearly everyone answered ‘yes’. In that ‘privileged moment’, the researchers pounced, requesting help with their survey. The number of those who consented now leapt to 77.3%.
Chapter 3 offers insights into what happens after the privileged moments are seized. Human beings attach undue levels of importance to an idea as soon as one’s attention is turned to it. You can then influence them with enough of foreground and background cues. Two marketing professors, Naomi Mandel and Eric Johnson, have described how they were able to draw website visitors’ attention to the goal of comfort merely by placing fluffy clouds on the site’s landing page. This led those visitors to assign higher importance to comfort when asked what they were looking for in a sofa. “The visitors also became more likely to search the site for information about the comfort features of the sofas in stock and, most notably, to choose a more comfortable (and more costly) sofa as their preferred purchase. To make sure their results were due to the landing page wallpaper and not to some general human preference for comfort, Mandel and Johnson reversed their procedure for other visitors, who saw an image that pulled their
attention to the goal of economy by depicting pennies instead of clouds. These visitors assigned greater levels of importance to price.”
Chapter 4 explains the principle that “what is focal is causal”—that is, if you are focused on something, you think it is the cause of something that happens thereafter. “If people see themselves giving special attention to some factor, they become more likely to think of it as a cause.”
The subsequent chapters offer known ideas—from the role of sex and violence in automatically inviting attention, to the impact of metaphors and words. As an example of the second, consider the technique of Ben Feldman, who worked only within a 60-mile radius of his little hometown of East Liverpool (Ohio) but became the greatest life insurance salesman of his time (and perhaps of all time). At his peak, he sold more life insurance by himself than 1,500 of the 1,800 insurance agencies in the US. In 1992, after he had been admitted to a hospital, his employer, New York Life, decided to honour the great salesman’s 50 years with the company by declaring “Feldman February”—a month when its agents would compete to notch up the highest new sales. Who won? Ben Feldman. How? By calling prospects from his hospital bed, closing $15 million in new contracts in 28 days. Among the many special skills of Feldman, one was his mastery of metaphor. In his portrayal of life’s end, for instance, people didn’t die, they ‘walked o
ut’ of life. “When you walk out,” he would say, “your insurance money walks in.” Many customers walked right into his proposal.
This is a fascinating book but only in parts. Unfortunately, in large parts, the book gets into issues of public interest, such as how the media is co-opted into setting the government’s agenda (such as US’s war in Iraq). Or a 12-page-long discussion on how innocent people confess to crimes they did not commit under the pressure of interrogation. Of those who retract their confession, 81% still get convicted because the camera during the interrogation is focused on the accused. This acts against them when a jury watches the recording later because “what is focal is causal.”
The other problem of the book is its loose and rambling prose which makes the book too long and boring. Finally, here is the irony about a book on pre-suasion. The main text is of 233 pages while the whole book is 413 pages long! It has 90 pages of references and 67 pages of notes all printed in the same large fonts as the main text, which makes this book unnecessarily voluminous, daunting and dissuading!