Six science-proven ways to be more persuasive

Love to get your way more often? We share the secrets of getting what you want with six science-proven ways to be more persuasive.

Being persuasive is important whether you are trying to get resources for your business get your children into the right school, or to do their homework, or even get your baby sitter to be more flexible.

Sure-fire techniques of persuasion will sell a lot of double-glazing and second-hand cars, so this has been a rich area of scientific research and experimentation. And the research suggests there are a few techniques that really help to get people to say ‘yes.’


But before we delve in its worth saying some people find these techniques suspect. After all they can be used for good or evil: you really didn’t want the most expensive double glazing but somehow you found yourself signing on the dotted line.

But before adopting a technique remind yourself you are going to have to see these people again and you will want to be on good terms. Check your own motivation and that the outcome will benefit more than just you.

Six science-proven ways to be more persuasive

You can employ one or more of these techniques at any time to be persuasive. Keep them in your toolkit and decide which is most appropriate for a particular issue, and plan how to deploy it.

1) Reciprocity

This kind of deal-making developed as an aid to survival: if you do something for a member of the tribe, they owe you and when the next animal is killed you get a prime cut of the meat. And the well-understood rules of give-and-take are reinforced by a strong cultural distaste for those who break them. (“Not a team player.”)

This is where its real power lies: we humans need to be part of the tribe. If we take but don’t give, we risk being ostracised by the group.

If you want to persuade someone, think about what you’ve done for them and how you can remind them of the debt in a way that isn’t manipulative or too obvious.

If they don’t owe you, what can you help them with before you make your request? Alternatively, what can you give them in return for their support, or what concession can you make that will prompt them to make a concession in return?

Again, if you’re blatantly self-serving about this, you’ll shoot yourself in the foot (“Remember how I said that I would promote your product on our web site? Well, I’d like you to support my plan…”). This is about relationships, laying the groundwork long-term, and gaining a reputation for being reciprocal that you’ll be able to draw upon.

And when you help someone out, make sure you keep that credit “in the bank”. So rather than just saying “No problem, that’s ok,” say “Thanks, I know you would do the same for me.” You’ve just added a reciprocity credit to your account.

2) Commitment and consistency

These two strategies work together. We like to be consistent about what we agree, say and do. Consistency is valued in business as it is at home ( any mother knows saying no to the sweets and then giving in just drives more winging for sweets): everyone likes to know where they stand. Our brains also like to be able to predict other people’s behaviour: this drives consistency in groups and society as a whole.

Commitments are like a marriage: they’re most effective when they’re a public agreement, entered into willingly, are active and take some effort, and when the person making the commitment feels they had some choice (this wasn’t a shotgun wedding).

The key is to gain a commitment (often referred in business as “management buy-in”). Once committed, people like to be consistent and are more likely to do what they say, and act in a way that’s consistent with their stance. To help a colleague buy into an idea:

  • Point out the benefits for them personally.
  • Link the idea to something they know already.
  • Use questions to help them take the new perspective that matches your needs (“How could this idea help your team meet its sales targets?” Or “Is there anything else we could do to ensure the school can achieve this goal?”).

And once they’re committed make sure they express their commitment publicly (“Could you send round an email to let everyone know we’re going ahead with this?”). They’re much less likely to change their mind as that would be inconsistent.

3) Social proof

One way of influencing decision-making is to tap into the reassurance that comes from knowing (or believing) that peers have acted in the same way. This is the persuasion technique that sells handbags, organic food and trends at school: “Mum I really must have silver shoes/ new football boots everyone has them.”

Two factors are at play here:

  • Our desire to conform to the norms of our current in-group.
  • Our desire to join a group by acting like them.

Social proof works best when people are uncertain or the situation is ambiguous. “Is it really the right strategy to restructure the sales team? What have other companies done?” Or when there’s a close correlation between the examples of social proof and the person you want to influence.

So, for instance, hotels tell their guests that the previous occupants of this room chose not to have their towels changed every day. Or local councils tell their ratepayers what a large proportion of their neighbours choose to pay their bills by direct debit.

In neuroscientific terms, both factors reduce the level of threat created by “should-I, shouldn’t-I?” uncertainty.

When using social proof to persuade, consider:

  • The other stakeholders who have already agreed to your proposal. How does your target decision-maker regard them, and how will they view their commitment?
  • What data have you got about what other companies/other parents have done that supports your proposal? What’s the best way to bring this information to the attention of your target?

4) Liking and likeness

People will more readily agree with a proposition if they like you. This seems fairly obvious and forms the basis of many business and social relationships.

But the research also shows that the more attractive people are, the more persuasive they will be, and also the more similar they are to the target decision-group, the more influential they will be.

(If your school head aspires to being like a liberal public school telling them that Bedales have adopted the same approach for their after school activities may be highly influential but using an example of the local kindergarten may not work so well.)

In-group/ out-group categorisation is at play here. We assume people who are similar to us in one way are similar in many ways.

Liking also adds to persuasiveness because the decision-maker is familiar with the person or the proposal. This reduces your target’s uncertainty and places you, at least by some criteria, in their in-group.

This works even better if the contact takes place in positive circumstances so the familiarity is also associated with other pleasant anchors. (Choose the same school meeting they received accolades last year.)

Consider these issues and plan them into your approach:

  • How can you really get to know the person you want to persuade?
  • How similar are you, what shared interests do you have?
  • Does your proposal demonstrate your understanding of what’s important to them and address those issues?
  • How can you make the proposal feel familiar, or increase familiarity before their decision? Can you drip feed some of the proposal ahead of the meeting for example?
  • Have you included factors in your proposal that they already like (an existing policy or their corporate values)?

5) Authority

There are numerous examples of people acting, often against their own interests, at the request of an authority figure.

Industry leaders and education gurus will lend undoubted authority to your idea, but our brains are also influenced by status symbols as obvious as titles and clothes.

If you can offer an association with an authority figure or prestigious symbol, like an award, you will ratchet up the reward to your target decision-maker’s reputation. (“With this we can put our customer service team up for the best service award in the industry…”)

Perhaps because we don’t want to feel we’re in thrall to authority figures or famous faces, the evidence shows that we tend to underestimate the impact of authority symbols on other people, and especially on ourselves.

The key is to introduce authority in a way that’s relevant and appropriate to your target:

  • What is your own expertise and how can you develop and use it to be more influential?
  • Are there authorities within the organisation or friendship group you can co-opt to your cause?
  • Can you call on external authorities? If they can’t be personally present can you recruit their influence by video presentation, linking to them on the web or having them contribute content for you?
  • Are you using all the appropriate authority symbols in your influence plan? Familiarity can breed contempt, but in many organisations using the corporate / school branding adds authority to a presentation.
  • Have you used the channel of communication which carries the most authority? That’s rarely email. What do people watch or go to in their own time? Is it Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn?

6) Scarcity

People assign greater value to something that is scarce, or an opportunity which has a limited availability.

We see this all the time: a training programme available to all staff may be regarded as a chore; a high-potential programme that’s open to just a few will be oversubscribed. A limited number of places at a school increases the sense of needing to get your child ready for the interview.

This works because we’re socialised to believe that what is scarce is valuable. And because our brains like to have options, as things that were available become less so they appear more desirable.

Consider these questions in your influence plan:

  • Is there a natural scarcity in any of the products or information your proposal covers, and how could you make use of this?
  • Are there any other scarcities you could use to add value: your data, your time, your expertise…?

The importance of timing

Getting the timing right adds to the effectiveness of any persuasive technique. Reciprocation, for example, is a simple concept: if you do something for me first, I’m more likely to do something you want me to.

But think about this example. You offer a client some additional service, such as additional analysis in a report. In the same conversation, you ask the client for a favour (a quote for your web site).

Had the two contacts come a week or even a day apart the client might easily have refused, with the reciprocity of the first favour weakened by the elapsed time. The client is more likely to agree when you ask immediately because they had just said how much they appreciated the additional service, the analysis.

The client was “pre-suaded’ according to the science research. Reciprocity is more powerful immediately after the favour. As time passes, its potency for the recipient declines.

The opposite happens for the giver. As time goes by Louise sees the service she offered as more valuable if it isn’t reciprocated. Which is why, after she’s done the favour and is being thanked, she should immediately say something in return that makes the client, if not give back right then, feel they have an obligation in the future.

It needs to be graciously but clearly phrased, so this might be something Louise should practise in private.

Three conditions that make favours more persuasive

Favours and actions are even more persuasive if they have three conditions:

  1. If what you give is perceived as meaningful for the person who’s received it.
  2. If it is unexpected – it isn’t part of the natural exchange.
  3. If it’s customised to the individual’s needs.

Jan Hills is the co-author (with her daughter Francesca) of Brain-savvy Wo+man. She works with organisational leaders and also runs the Brain-savvy Wo+man’s career development programme. Find out more on her website.

Photo by Brian Fraser