The six principles of influence and how to make them work for you

Whether you’re trying to sell a product or, harder still, an idea, the ability to influence those you’re speaking to cannot be underestimated.

Change is scary and people are naturally hesitant when asked to follow something or someone they’re not sure of. This makes influencing others challenging, regardless of whether your product, process or concept is the best course of action.

Understanding the psychological principles behind the influencing process can help us better apply tactics to influence others, while also seeing through those trying to influence us.

In 1984 Robert Cialdini, Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University, published what he called the ‘Six Principles of Influence’ in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

During his extensive studies, Cialdini spent time with skilled practitioners in the art of persuasion and influencing, such as brokers, salespeople, fundraisers, recruiters, advertisers and marketers, and found that there are six fundamental principles to influencing others. The six principles are outlined below.

1. Reciprocity

While there are always exceptions, most people tend to return favours given or pay debts, and try to treat others as they are treated. Cialdini found that the notion of reciprocity often makes us feel obliged to offer concessions, discounts or support to others if they have offered them to us. His research determined that we are uncomfortable feeling indebted to others.

For example, if a colleague helps you with a challenging project or task, you will probably feel obliged to support their ideas for implementing new risk management processes. Another example is a customer being more inclined to purchase a product if they have been offered an aggressive discount. Or you might be more inclined to go the ‘extra mile’ in helping someone if they have offered you a token gift or simply been pleasant to you.

Identify your objectives and think about what you want from the other person. Understanding your need will help you identify what you can give to them in exchange. It can be something as simple as reminding them that you’ve helped them in the past, or that a previous product was beneficial to them. Then follow up with further reciprocation — highlighting your willingness to assist them will go a long way toward them trusting and, in turn, helping you.

2. Commitment (and Consistency)

Cialdini says that we have an inherent need to be consistent and, consequently, once we commit to something we’re inclined to see it through. This principle flows on from the idea of reciprocation, in that a colleague or manager would probably be more likely to support your proposal for process changes or product development if they had shown interest when you first mentioned the idea.

It is essential to get people’s commitment early on, either verbally or in writing. If you’re building support for process improvements or a new project, discuss your ideas early on with stakeholders, and make sure you take their views on board.

If you’re selling a product, offer an incentive or make it easy for people to change their mind once they’ve bought it. Buying the product is the early commitment, even though they have the right to return it if they want.

3. Social proof

Otherwise known as ‘safety in numbers’, Cialdini suggests that people are more likely to do things if others are already doing them. For example, we’re more likely support an idea if other team members are doing the same; buy a product if we know others have already  bought it; or eat in a restaurant if it’s busy. Humans, being communal creatures, are particularly susceptible to this principle. We’re wired to believe that if a lot of people, particularly those who are familiar or similar to us, are doing something then it must be OK, and if we’re feeling uncertain our vulnerability to influence increases dramatically.

Social proofing in practice is the art of creating a buzz around your product or idea. If you need support for a project, gather support from influential people in your organisation before pitching it to the decision makers.

When selling a product or service, highlight the number of people using it, rather than the fear of not using it. Using relevant testimonials from people familiar to your potential customer, case studies or social media interaction will foster a different kind of fear in your client — the fear of missing out.

4. Liking

Reflect on your work relationships for a moment. If you’re in a room with people you like and others you don’t, who would you side with? The odds are you’d side with those you like, even if you don’t necessarily agree with them.

Likability comes in many forms — people might be similar or familiar to us, they might give us compliments, support and encourage us, or we may just simply trust them. Cialdini tells us that we are naturally predisposed to be influenced by people we like, and that people will be more likely to buy from or follow people like themselves.

Developing your emotional intelligence and active listening skills are integral to building good relationships. Ensure you put in the time and effort required to build trust and remain consistent, and remember that every person is different and relates to people in different ways. Ultimately don’t try too hard to be liked or you’ll come across as disingenuous and this will do you more harm than good.

5. Authority

We are taught to respect authority from an early age, and as we grow into our careers we develop a sense of duty or obligation to people in positions above us. Authority can take many forms, and each of us views it differently. From job titles, uniforms, educational background, knowledge and experience, or even the things we own, authority, according to Cialdini, is an important factor in determining how likely people will be to respond to your ideas or requests.

Find which aspect of authority is most respected by your target audience and your ability to influence them will be greatly increased. If you’re trying to get an idea off the ground, garner support from influential and powerful people and ask for their help in backing you.

When selling a product or service highlight well-known and respected customers, use research and statistics, and gather comments from industry experts or government sources. Also take care in how your information is presented – the more professional your material, the more authority people will place in both you and your product.

6. Scarcity

The sixth and final principle works on the notion that things are more attractive when their availability is limited, or the opportunity to get something at a good price is fleeting.

In practice, people will be more likely to buy a product if they’re told it’s the last one available or that a special offer will expire. Set a closing date for an offer or create customised products just for them.

The fear of missing out is a powerful motivator, even within organisations. People will be more likely to get behind an idea if they’re told there’s only a short window for success or if delays will come with dire consequences.

With Caldiani’s principles in mind, it becomes easier to appreciate the value of understanding your customer or target audience and to use your newfound knowledge to influence them accordingly. However, be careful when following these principles, as it can be easy to use them to mislead or deceive people, or to appear calculating. Honesty is always the best policy.

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