The Science Behind Persuading People

One of the most crucial skills to improving your career in the new year may be the ability to persuade people to see things your way.

Social norms can play an important role in getting customers, colleagues and businesses to do the things you’d like them to do—such as making a particular purchase or agreeing to your position over a deal, says behavior expert Steve Martin, author of a book on the science of persuasion, “Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive.”

“The advertising industry was crafting appeals on the basis of consumers’ desire to fit in long before the ‘Mad Men’ era,” Mr. Martin says. “But many businesses are only now beginning to experiment with social norms as a tool to drive profits.”

Mr. Martin, who heads the U.K. office of the consultancy Influence at Work, has used a handful of simple persuasion strategies with large corporations and government agencies in the U.K. to influence the behavior of customers and citizens. The strategies make use of simple messages that can generate significant returns with changes that are virtually costless.

Among the strategies, tapping into a social norm to create consensus is a powerful tool that gets people to follow the behavior of others. Managers should try to identify what the consensus view is in a workplace and think about what messages will convince others to join the consensus.

An example of the power of consensus messaging is the use of information cards in hotel rooms. The number of customers who reused their towels increased by 26% when information cards in hotel rooms read “75% of customers who stay in this hotel reuse their towels,” according to research conducted by Robert Cialdini, Mr. Martin’s co-author and founder of Influence at Work in Tempe, Ariz. The reusage rate increased by 33% when the cards’ message read: “75% of people who stayed in this room reused their towels.”

Location and personalization are important because they draw an even closer association between the customer and those you want them to imitate. Mr. Martin adds that managers can use a “test and learn” approach to determine social norms. Start with small groups or locations, test messages and then assess whether there is a social norm to tap into.

Another strategy, which Mr. Martin calls “reciprocity,” takes advantage of people’s desire to respond when they feel they owe someone something. Research published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology found that a diner is more likely to tip a waiter if the bill comes with a piece of candy, for example.

Framing a choice as leading to a potential loss rather than a gain—thereby creating a sense of stress—can also be a tool for managers. Mr. Martin describes a study in which a group of executives were presented with a proposal for an information-technology project. Twice as many in the group approved the proposal if the company was predicted to lose $500,000 if the proposal wasn’t accepted, compared with a scenario that predicted the project would lead to a profit of $500,000. Managers should look at the message they are sending. Could a stronger argument be made by describing the opportunity costs rather than just the benefits?

Mr. Martin finds that favorable outcomes almost double when we identify common ground with the other party in a negotiation. Find similarities between you and your customer—such as the car you drive or the age of your kids—and express them before you start negotiating with them over a contract or a price, he advises.

“Influence isn’t an art,” says Mr. Martin, “there’s over 60 years of research and evidence that shows how we can effectively move people. My advice would be to learn the science.”