PEOPLE – What Does it Mean to Persuade?

In recent years there’s been a proliferation of books and blogs on the subject of influence and persuasion. Some are quite good but many are nothing more than a rehash of Dr. Robert Cialdini’s material.

Another problem is this; what some people call influence or persuasion is nothing more than vague advice without any basis in scientifically proven data.
If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you know what I share is often called “the science of influence” because findings are based on the research of social psychologists and behavior
economists.  In this series we’re working through the word PEOPLE and we now come to the second “P” which stands for Persuade. This begs the question, what does it actually mean to persuade someone?
A formal dictionary definition might read as follows, “to induce to believe by appealing to reason or understanding;
convince.” That’s okay, but I prefer Aristotle’s definition. Aristotle told the
world more than 2,000 years ago persuasion was “The art of getting someone to do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do if you didn’t ask.”
I like Aristotle’s definition because it’s nice and simple; get someone to do something they’re not currently doing. If you’re a manager and your employees make it to work on time everyday then you don’t
need to change their behavior and no persuasion is necessary. The same could be said of your child; if your child is doing his/her homework then you don’t need to persuade him or her to study.
But here’s the problem; quite often people aren’t doing what we’d like them to do and when that’s the case, we need to communicate with them in a way that hopefully leads to a change in behavior. How we communicate; i.e., persuade, can make all the difference in hearing “Yes” or “No.”
Earlier in this series I shared why influence is Powerful; because it’s rooted in science. What I share with readers isn’t just someone’s good advice because sometimes people’s “good’ advice has no bearing for you. And sometimes people succeed in spite of themselves! Imagine a
relatively healthy 85-year-old person telling you they’ve smoked two packs of
cigarettes a day for more than 60 years and tries to convince you it wouldn’t harm you. Would you want to emulate their behavior just because they’ve lived a good long life? Of course you wouldn’t. Like most people you’d probably prefer to know what decades of studies have to say about healthy eating habits and lifestyle choices.
And so it is with learning the science of
influence because it’s rooted in six decades of research by social psychologists and behavioral economists. We’re much better off following the advice of people who study this for a living vs. people who might have made it big more by chance than skill.
Having shared that, I’d change Aristotle’s definition ever so slightly by replacing “art” with “science.” Doing so makes our definition of persuasion read as follows, “The science of getting someone to do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do if you didn’t ask.” If
you’re in business you might say there are “best practices” in how to communicate if you want to get solid bottom line results.
So taking our lesson from science, here are a few examples of how you might want to alter your communication:
  • Stop making statements and start asking questions because it engages the principle of consistency. Once people give you their word they’ll do something, the odds of them following through go up significantly vs. telling them what to do.
  • Make sure people know your credentials up front. The principle of authority clearly shows that people listen to those with knowledge and expertise, but they have to know what your expertise is before you start talking.
  • Tell people what they stand to lose by not going along with your request because the principle of scarcity tells us people are more motivated by what they may lose as opposed to what they might gain.
  • Take extra time to personalize whatever you do for someone else. Reciprocity is the principle that tells us people feel obligated to give back to those who first give to them so going an extra step is usually met with a better response.

These are just a few ways to incorporate scientifically proven principles to persuade into your everyday communication. Next week we’ll examine the “L” in PEOPLE to see how persuasion can have a Lasting impact on people.

Brian, CMCT
Helping You Learn to Hear “Yes”.
4 replies
  1. Max Jensen
    Max Jensen says:

    Hi Brian,
    Thanks for the post. Just an etymological note from the literature world (you mentioned Aristotle so we have to respond). More than likely what has been translated to "art" from Aristotle's ancient Greek is the word "techné" (τέχνη). The word meant something like art or craft and it is the root for modern words like technique and technology. The important thing to note is that this "techné" is not about "fine arts" but rather about the "best practices" for accomplishing something. (As far as I understand there was no word for the empirical "science" which we have today. Also, "science" comes from the Latin word "scientia" which means very generally "knowledge.")

    At any rate, this doesn't change your argument at all: empirically validated techniques are more effective than just "winging it." There's just kind of a running joke in the humanities that it is impossible to make an argument that Aristotle hasn't already discussed. He's a real pain in the butt, in other words. I thought it kind of amusing that this, in a sense, is another example of this problem.

  2. Brian Ahearn
    Brian Ahearn says:

    Thanks for the insight! I'll actually use that new knowledge next time I present on this aspect of persuasion. I'll make sure people know Aristotle was referring more technique than artistic. I think I can now go home for the day as I've just fufilled my "I learned something new today" requirement.


  3. Anthony McLean
    Anthony McLean says:

    Hi Brian, great post. As a fellow CMCT I fully support your comments. When I speak to people about what we do the immediate stereotype they apply is "Oh you teach communication". That opens the door to discuss the difference between the science and the anecdotal where someone tried something once so we should follow their lead. I don't believe people just because they tell me something is so (occupational hazard). Show me the data. Show me the peer reviewed journals where the concept has been tested and reviewed. Then I will take it to my clients as a verified tool as opposed to a concept that someone tried once. The umbrella of Social Influence has many spines such as leading by example, active listening, rapport and even coercion. Persuasion is just another spine but it represents one that is supported by an enormous amount of research, hence why we refer to them as Principles of Persuasion (a Principle is a scientifically proven law governing human behaviour). So a big "Yes" from me and I think those following your blog have realized the difference between practitioners and specialists as opposed to casual commentators. A big tip of the hat from Australia my friend. Well done.


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