Robert Cialdini's Principles of Persuasion
Learn how to use Robert Cialdini's 6 principles of persuasion (plus 1 bonus principle that he only teaches in his classes) to make a business case.
More than 30 years ago, Robert Cialdini wrote a book entitled, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and more recently Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade. Despite the decades that have followed and changes that have arisen in the world of persuasion, he remains the authority on the topic.
In the book, Cialdini explores 6 main principles of persuasion including reciprocity, commitment, consensus, liking, authority and scarcity. More recently, through his classes and discussions, he has added a 7th principle called contrast. These 6 + 1 principles tap into the human psyche, articulating how and why people make the decisions they do.
These principles of persuasion help people in many roles. They help marketers understand how they can create a more persuasive argument and present a stronger case for doing business with a brand. They help lawyers persuade juries. And help those in the service industry earn more tips and positive feedback.
And, they can also help YOU make a strong business case for your risk-based work.
Remember that when it comes to proposing a new project, creating an outstanding financial analysis and plan remains only part of the equation. You also must have the skills to frame your idea and present it to others to convince them that it should be approved. Understanding these principles of persuasion can help you better articulate your ideas and connect with the audience, increasing your chances of earning approval.
NOTE: Remember that you should use these principles ethically! You should never use any of these principles unless there is a genuine and authentic situation to use them. As Potter Stewart once said, “Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.” When you know how to persuade someone effectively, you need to be careful to only use your power when the situation calls for it.
Here are the 6 + 1 Principles of Persuasion that can strengthen your next presentation.
Principle 1. Reciprocity, to help forge relationships.
Imagine how you feel after a neighbor does a favor for you. Chances are you feel grateful, but you also start to look for ways to repay the neighbor.
Humans generally do not like to feel indebted to others. We like to reciprocate when someone else does something kind, rather than continually feel as though we owe them something. I see this phenomenon on a regular basis: neighbors allowing each other to borrow tools, parents reciprocating rides for each other’s children, even marketers use it in their website design. A blog that continually offers you free tips and advice does not want to do so only out of the kindness of their hearts! They hope people will continually return and begin to feel indebted to this brand, this makes them more likely to become customers.
Some researchers interested in studying this phenomenon even found it in restaurants. Servers who bring small gifts to your table along with the check-- something as small as a mint-- can boost the amount of tip left behind. Tips increased even more when the servers made the gift more customized (“these mints go particularly well after burgers”), meaningful (double the number of mints than people at the table), and unexpected (walk away at first and then “remember” to turn around and give the mint).
Another element of reciprocity is “giving the gift of concessions” or essentially backing away from a prior request. Only 25% of people who were asked to take a 15-minute survey were willing to do so. However, if they were initially asked to take a 60-minute survey, and then to take a 15-minute survey, the number almost doubled!
Most people do not even consciously realize that they follow these patterns. As with many of these principles of persuasion, they do it subconsciously.
How reciprocity can help you with your business case
A successful business plan begins before you enter the conference room. Consider how you can build relationships with your audience.
Encourage people to feel ‘in debt’ to you by becoming a helpful person before you need to present to them. Let people know they can turn to you for help with tasks or advice about areas concerning your expertise.
The more help and “gifts of knowledge” you provide, the stronger their desire will be to return the favor when you pitch your idea.
Once inside the meeting, do not forget to nurture this connection with those in attendance. Even something as small as bringing doughnuts and coffee or tea to share can encourage people to want to reciprocate and approve your proposal.
Remember that a concession is also a gift. There is a moment of power when/if someone says, “No” to your initial plan. Always have a backup plan, a lesser form of your original plan, ready to go so that you can immediately offer it as an alternative.
Principle 2. Liking, to help forge relationships.
Who would have an easier time persuading you to purchase something, your best friend or your rival? The reason your best friend would have an easier time is because people we LIKE, and people we ARE LIKE have an easier time convincing us to do something.
A human’s idea of ‘liking’ something comes in several forms. We like people we view as similar to us. We feel connected to people with whom we have commonalities, for example, their interests, education, age, or other attributes that we credit to ourselves. Open rates on direct mail marketing nearly double when the sender’s name is the same as the recipient.
We also like people who cooperate with us and those who work with us towards mutual goals. In one experiment, the participants were asked to conduct a negotiation about a case (the details don’t matter much for our purposes). In one group, the participants were told that this task about “strictly business” and to “get going.” In another group, the participants were asked to share some social information about themselves. The second group was 80% more successful at finding a negotiated settlement to the problem.
Humans also tend to look favorably on those who give them compliments. These compliments must be genuine because false flattery ruins your persuasion. And, ideally you should also give compliments “behind their back” instead of in their face.
How to use liking in your business case
Remember that you can influence the success of your business case before you even walk into the room by nurturing unity in your relationships with those who will be listening.
Research the audience who will be listening to and authorizing your business case. Look for areas of genuine similarity and likeness. See if they have hobbies or interests that dominate their free time. See if you have any overlaps about which you can strike up conversations to further nurture relationships before your presentation.
You can also work popular interests into your presentation. If several members of your c-suite leadership enjoy golfing, for example, using golf metaphors or images occasionally sprinkled in the presentation can also persuade people to view your ideas in a more favorable light.
If possible, identify areas where you can work with your audience members BEFORE the pitch to transform them into collaborators instead of evaluators. This isn’t always possible, but if you can find an area of mutual benefit, it can’t hurt to get their participation in part of the plan.
You also might recognize your audience’s work on past projects or congratulate them on their latest customer signing. Remember: never give obnoxious or “fake” compliments! Find things and areas where you genuinely look up to them. And remember to praise people behind their backs!
Principle 3. Consensus (Social Proof), to help overcome uncertainty.
People also like to imitate what other people think, feel and do. This phenomenon likely has its basis in the human understanding of safety in numbers -- if we all stick together; the outcome will likely be favorable for us.
Our need to imitate the behavior of others explains why we like to try to restaurants that look crowded on Friday and Saturday nights. It also explains why we all love to read the books that we see everyone else reading; why the New York Times Best Sellers list can be such a powerful tool for authors to expand their readership even further.
ModCloth gives us an excellent example as well. The online clothing site allows users to vote on the best styles. The highest voted articles of clothing receive a promotional stamp of approval on the site. The items that have received this stamp have a significantly higher sales rate than those without. People naturally trust the opinions of others in their social group.
Interestingly, people respond even stronger to this phenomenon when they feel similar to the other people participating in a certain action. When people can detect similarities, such as age, interests, or station in life, they tend to respond better to attempts to cultivate this interest.
In a Teen Smoking study, researchers found that a teen was 14% more likely to smoke if they were deemed “troubled” in some way. They were 26% more likely to smoke if their parent smoked. But get this – they were 1,000% more likely to smoke if 2 of their friends smoked; and 2,000% more likely if at least 3 friends smoked!
How social proof can help your business case
To strengthen your business case, you want to help those in the room feel connected to comparable others who have taken similar actions to your proposal. If you can point to other comparable brands in the industry that have pursued similar proposals and the successes they saw, it can provide a strong motivation for people at your organization to do the same, as they will not want to get left behind. And, if you can point to sheer numbers who are pursuing a similar path, all the better.
You can also cultivate this idea within the group of people you have in front of you. If you have the opportunity to work closely with a few influential leaders who will hear your proposal before your presentation, convincing them to vote in favor of your ideas will help to persuade the rest of the group – people who are similar to them.
Principle 4. Authority, to help overcome uncertainty.
The next time you watch TV, pay attention to the drug advertisements. The chances are that during the commercial, you will see a figure in a white lab coat. Pharmaceutical companies love tying their drugs to the authority of doctors.
People tend to follow authority figures. They trust those they perceive as being in a position of authority to lead them well. That explains why people tend to listen to those in uniforms and why they respond well to commercials, like the drug commercials, that call upon this authority.
We see this phenomenon often through celebrity endorsements. This works particularly well if the celebrity is known in an industry. For example, a young female star known for their outstanding fashion sense will have high value if they endorse a clothing line or shoe brand. Similarly, famous stars with fabulous skin, particularly as they reach middle age, can be highly effective to sell makeup or skin care products because they appear to have it all figured out.
People also respond even stronger to suggestions if they can see the credentials or the authority of the person they regard as a leader. Doctors, for example, tap into this idea when they display their diplomas, or real estate agents when they advertise the number of homes they have successfully bought or sold.
How to use authority in your business case
You want people to regard you as an authority on the topics you will present on. This means that you want to find ways to boost or advertise your credentials.
If you have specialty certifications that help you with your project, include them. You can list them after your title slide of your presentation or find ways to work them into your actual speech. For example, if you have a degree in economics, even though you work in risk management, mentioning your background when it comes to the financial section of your proposal will encourage people to pay more attention to what you have to say.
Your credentials might also come in different forms than certifications. You might have extensive experience working with a project or with leading a type of product development, for example. Consider what makes you an authority on the topic you present on and use that to bolster your presentation.
Principle 5. Scarcity, to help drive action.
When you want to buy airline or concert tickets, you will often see sites promoting that they only have a few left at a particular price. On Amazon, their ‘Lightening Deals’ for sales days work the same way: the timer ticks down how many of the particular product have been claimed at a certain price.
An excellent example of the appeal that scarcity can drive will be found with the craft brewer, Pliny the Elder. The brand does not spend a lot of time marketing their brand, only posting occasionally on social media or their website blog. Instead, the brand severely limits the number of beers available for sale. Many stores limit the number of beers to one per person. Fans will follow the delivery trucks around from store to store or line up at the precise time the trucks are expected. This has all created an incredible demand for the beer and allowed the owners to create an immensely successful product.
Most people, upon seeing scarcity-targeted advertisements, will automatically feel greater pressure to buy, and to buy quickly. They want to make sure that they will not miss this fantastic deal. The more people feel as though they might soon miss out on an opportunity, the more likely they become to make a purchase.
To make this form of persuasion work well, those promoting it need to make it clear to the audience what they might lose if they do not act quickly. Limited seats, excellent prices, or rare products can all inspire people to act.
How to use scarcity in your business plan
Just like a landing page that tells people they only have so many tickets available at a certain price, you need to create a sense of urgency for those watching your presentation. You need to begin by making a business case, outlining the needs of your organization, how your plan can help solve these problems, and then tell them how quickly the opportunity will pass them by.
Consider different elements that might make it important for the organization to act quickly. The impending release of a rival’s product, the end of the quarter or the fiscal year, and an upcoming sales season could all be examples of why your organizational leaders want to make sure that they tap into this opportunity quickly.
Principle 6. Consistency, to help drive action
People like to take actions that are consistent with their values. Consider a Drive Smart campaign that targeted two, very similar, neighborhoods to reduce speed and aggressive driving. In one neighborhood, they approached all the houses, and asked people to put a postcard showing their support in the window of their house. This required people taking a public action to that demonstrated their values. In the second neighborhood, they did not.
A little while later, they then returned to the two neighborhoods and asked people to put a wooden box, which was not particularly aesthetically appealing, on their front lawns. The number of people who responded in the neighborhood with the postcards was 400% higher than the number of positive responses received in the neighborhood that had not been asked about the post cards.
That’s right. 4 TIMES MORE!
Since the neighborhood with the postcards had already demonstrated their support for the cause with a public action, they felt more inclined to agree to the second action because people naturally want to be consistent in their commitments.
You can see a similar phenomenon at work when people to download white papers or sign up for online classes at a particular brand. Because of these public actions, the brand often finds it easier to convince people to become a paying customer later. The prospect already has begun to view themselves as a customer of the organization, preparing them to become a paying customer.
How consistency can help you with your business case
Consider the core ideas that you want people listening to agree to. Break your business case down to the main ideas that your proposal revolves around; these are the ideas that you want people to show consistency and agree to.
Begin the presentation by presenting the need your project will address. Before you worry about explaining your idea, get people to understand and agree with the need you will work to address. Consider taking a poll of the business leaders to see if they agree that there is a particular need that should be addressed before you even begin your presentation. This will encourage them to take a public stance in favor of your presentation before you even begin. Convincing people about the importance of the need will make it easier to then show them the importance of your solution.
You can also work to incorporate some of the pet projects or ideas of those in the room. Someone who vocally supports certain aspects of the business, such as expansion in particular areas or new product development, will be more inclined to agree with your proposal when it includes elements that work towards their public stances.
Principle 7. Contrast, always available to help persuade
Contrast helps people view your case as reasonable and well-planned. Say you go outside to help a neighbor move into a new home. A stack of boxes sits next to the moving truck, so you bend down to pick them up. The first box is full of books and thus very heavy. You struggle to move it inside. Going back outside, you see a similar sized box next to it. Expecting to lift an equally heavy box, you bend down carefully. To your surprise, this box lifts easily-- it contains only pillows! The box may be bulky and cumbersome, but compared to the heavy box, it feels light and easy to move and you embrace the job.
A similar phenomenon occurs when someone presents you with a plan that would solve a problem but also requires a huge commitment. When they then present a second solution to solve the same problem, but now requires far less investment, it becomes far easier to say ‘yes’ to the second idea.
The key to successfully using this strategy, however, lies in making sure that your first plan-- the one that you do not really expect them to agree to-- is believable. If people can see through the strategy, because the initial plan is not reasonable, you will not be able to persuade them to agree to the actual plan as effectively.
How to use contrast to help your business case
To build contrast into your presentation, consider what an idealistic, but likely unrealistic, plan might look like. It might require more investment in time and money, but would exceed your expectations for solving the problem.
You then want to carefully juxtaposition this plan next to a more reasonable, but still effective, plan. It can be instinctual to focus on presenting the most reasonable plan-- the one that you want to get a ‘yes’ for, but this would be the wrong instinct. Pair your real plan next to one that you do not expect to receive approval for. It will help your plan look reasonable in comparison.
While developing a strong business case remains a critical component for success, it is also only the first step. You must also present a strong business case to your organization to convince them that your project idea will benefit the business. Understanding these principles, which were first popularized by Cialdini in his classic book, can be powerful means of connecting with your audience and presenting a persuasive argument. As you prepare for your next presentation, consider if any of these strategies can be ethically used to help people grasp the importance of your ideas.