How to be a persuasive leader (hint: it’s about the ‘moment before’)

Image: Shutterstock / ConstantinosZ

Few books illuminated the worlds of marketing, sales, psychology, and leadership as Dr. Robert Cialdinis 1984 classic Influence. Since their inception, Cialdinis six principles (1) Reciprocity, (2) Commitment and Consistency, (3) Social Proof, (4) Authority, (5) Liking, and (6) Scarcity have shone like flares marking the path toward getting what you want.

So, heres the twist.

It turns out that Influence was only part one of a larger journey that took Cialdini another 30 years to complete. While the six principles are powerful and scientifically validated weapons, they didnt spotlight the most critical moment of any persuasive exchange: the moment before.

As Cialdini explains in his new book Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade: The best persuaders become the best through pre-suasion the process of arranging for recipients to be receptive to a message before they encounter it. To persuade optimally, then, its necessary to pre-suade optimally. But how? The rest of Pre-Suasion sets about answering that question.

And yet for leaders, another how remains: How does this apply to me?

In other words, what pre-suasive principles stand out when it comes to initiating organizational change, motivating teams, and guiding projects? What are the common pitfalls that come not just from ignoring the moment before but mishandling it? And most importantly, how can companies create a culture of unity to foster agreement and healthy critique?

To answer those questions, I connected with Dr. Cialdini to ask him about how the secret to being a persuasive leader.

The Principle of Pre-Suasion: Attention

If you had to pick a single principle from Pre-Suasion for leaders, what should they take away?

Dr. Robert Cialdini: The one that jumps out at me is personified by Warren Buffett.

Fifteen years ago, I was given a gift of Berkshire Hathaway stock. In the annual reports, I noticed something unique. Most reports begin with strengths. They start with the most powerful arguments, the most beneficial reasons why someone should continue investing. Then, they mention the drawbacks.

Buffet does the opposite. He begins with the drawbacks by highlighting their recent mistakes on the first or second page: Here are the things we did wrong. And heres how were going to try and fix them.

The approach is disarming. Ive seen him do it 15 times and I still say to myself, Wow. This guy is being straight. Whats more, Im immediately drawn into what hes going to say next. Im poised to listen riveted really, which is saying something for an annual stock report because in presenting the drawbacks first, he establishes trust.

The illustration is unique; the principle is anything but. Whatever commands our attention commands our minds. Think, for instance, of shock or curiosity. Normally, importance equals attention. Bombarded by stimuli, this hardwired equation is how we survive.

Whats unique is Cialdinis observation that the same equation also works in reverse: attention equals importance.

In the book, he points out, This sensible system of focusing our limited attentional resources on what does indeed possess special import has an imperfection: we can be brought to the mistaken belief that something is important merely because we have been led to give it our attention. All too often, people believe that if they have paid attention to an idea or event or group, it must be important enough to warrant the consideration.

Naturally, that belief is far from universally true. Attention can be manipulated. And yet, its a principle that leaders not to mention marketers and salespeople take advantage of all the time.

In the case of Buffet, his focus on the drawbacks is a one-two pre-suasive punch.

First, it creates trust. Transparency is prized in both personal and professional relationships. That means sharing the ugly stuff. Second, it rivets. Were accustomed to hearing positives first and only then a brief footnote on negatives. By opening with the bad news, Buffet interrupts this pattern. He overturns expectations. And theres nothing like a surprise to make us sit up straight.

Take humor as another example.

In Split-Second Persuasion, Oxford psychologist Kevin Dutton lists a host of anecdotes and studies in which humor leads to compliance. Why? Because just like Buffets drawback method, humor creates incongruity.

In addition, humor links the persuader to another dominate force: liking. Research using facial electromyography (EMG), Dutton explains, has demonstrated a direct correlation between the fluency with which a stimulus is processed and increased activation of the zygomaticus major or smiling muscle. Moreover, when a stimulus is processed unexpectedly the tremors of positive emotion the feeling of familiarity reverberate even deeper.

The point of both drawbacks and humor isnt to grab attention for its own sake. That can distract from the message youre about to present. Rather, the point is to link your honesty or joke to the core of what youre trying to accomplish.

How? By utilizing a power we often overlook.

The Power of Pre-Suasion: Language & Imagery

Language and imagery play a significant role in Pre-Suasion. Why should leaders pay attention to the words and pictures they use?

A single image can be enough to orient people to an idea that facilitates the next one or even facilitates the success of the message itself.

For example, I always thought motivational posters and slogans in business offices were laughable, but then I came across a Canadian research study. The experimenters gave call-center volunteers information to help them communicate the value of the cause they were soliciting donations for. Half the volunteers were given the information on plain sheets of paper, and the other half were given the same information on paper with an image of a runner winning a race in the background.

At the end of their shifts, the second (achievement focused) group had raised 60 percent more money than those who had the text alone.

Dr. Robert Cialdinis

Image: Robert Cialdinis

Like imagery, language plays a formative role in how we live life. Exposing individuals to emotionally loaded words has been shown to affect dispositions and actions directly. This applies to violent words, achievement words, helping words, and numerous other descriptive sets. It also applies when those words are presented subliminally, that is, too quickly to be read and registered

And it even applies to the ordering of words, as in Solomon Aschs two inverted lists of identical adjectives (spoiler, nearly all of us prefer Alan):

Alan: intelligent, industrious, impulsive, critical, stubborn, and envious

Ben: envious, stubborn, critical, impulsive, industrious, and intelligent

Perhaps most enlightening is that this linguistic phenomenon occurs even when people are allowed to pick and arrange the words themselves.

In one of three experiments from Automaticity of Social Behavior: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on Action, researchers asked participants to complete a scrambled-sentence task as part of a language proficiency experiment. One group received words stereotypically associated with the elderly. The other received non-age-specific words. After the sentence scramble game, participants were then instructed to walk down the hall to another room.

Unbeknownst to them, those walks were timed and what researchers discovered in both the original study and its replication was that it took the elderly word group 15 percent longer to travel the same distance as their counterparts.

Why all this stress on the science of words and images?

Because most of us are suspicious of their power. We laugh at motivational mantras and roll our eyes when someone asks us to avoid aggressive phrases like crush the competition or take no prisoners. Most of all, we are skeptical of whether or not some new iteration of our companys values will have any impact on the bottom line.

However, not only is the science conclusive, when Anson Dorrance was asked how he led the women’s soccer program at the University of North Carolina to 21 NCAA Women’s Soccer Championships, Dorrance responded, For me, language is everything. Its the same reason, as Cameron Craig explained about his 10 years at Apple, Steve Jobs read and personally approved every press release. And its why, when Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow addresses the issue of persuasion, his suggestions all revolve around reducing cognitive strain through language.

Thankfully, recognizing the power of words and images offers a pointed corrective to the very place leaders most often go wrong in their persuasive attempts.

The Pitfalls of Pre-Suasion: Beyond The Message

What mistakes do leaders and managers make when they try to be persuasive by neglecting pre-suasion?

The most damaging mistake surprised me early on: to get optimal persuasion we shouldnt just be working on the message we send, what we put inside the boundaries of that communication. But rather, we should be looking at the moment before the message to put people in a state of mind that opens them to the message, which makes them receptive to the core element of what we want to accomplish. Thats where I was making my mistake in the past: focusing exclusively on the message itself.

What Ive learned is that the moment before the message determines its success dramatically.

In meetings, normally well ask ourselves, Whats the first slide in my PowerPoint? Instead, ask yourself, Whats the slide before the first slide? Whats the slide everyone will see as they wait for the meeting to begin? What does it say? What does it show?

Intentionality like this demands starting with a clear understanding of your core message. If the goal is change, then the pre-slide should have a slogan and imagery that aligns. Something like one of Cialdinis favorites, When were finished changing, were finished. But thats not all that matters.

Another thats even more subtle is scheduling. If youve got a meeting for change, have the meeting at the beginning of the week, month, quarter, or even year. Research shows that people are more willing to change at the outset of a defined period of time. Setting change-focused meetings at the end of these periods misses this innate readiness.

End periods work great for evaluations and post-mortems, but the timing of pre-suasion suggests that wed be wise to separate communication about what just happened from what should happen next:

Unfortunately, we often schedule change meetings at an ending and then try to get across the message: Heres what were going to do starting next quarter. Thats the wrong time. Wait until the beginning of the quarter when people are naturally primed for change.

These same insights can be used in pre-meeting emails, phone calls, and especially the questions we use to frame persuasive attempts:

Another interesting study came from marketing research for a new soft drink. When marketeering researchers were trying to get people to try a new soda, they sent out representatives to collect email addresses in-person, which they could then use to send out instructions for getting free samples.

At first, a mere 33 percent of the people they stopped were willing to give their email address. But, with the second sample of people, they tried a different approach. Instead of asking if the person was interested in trying a new soda, they first asked, Do you consider yourself to be someone who is adventurous and likes to try new things?

That pre-suasive question, to which almost everyone said yes, led to a 75.7 percent compliance rate.

No doubt, questions are influential tools. But, it just so happens that one question, in particular, led to Cialdinis most startling insight of all.

The Pinnacle of Pre-Suasion: Unity

Having studied the science of persuasion for over fifty years, were there any insights that genuinely surprised you this time around?

The biggest surprise was the discovery of a seventh universal principle of influence in addition to the six I described in my first book. The principle is unity: putting people in mind of an existing relationship, a shared membership, makes them significantly more likely to say yes.

Some time ago I got into a situation where I had to complete a report by the next morning. I realized I was missing some information one of my colleagues had access to. Now, this was kind of an irascible, sour guy in my psychology department. Ill call him Tom. I sent an email that said: Tom, Im in a bind. I dont have the data in my files, but I know you do from a study you did last year. Could you go into your files, dig it out, and send it to me.

After I sent the email, I called Tom. He said, Bob, I know why youre calling, but I cant help you. Look, youre a busy man, but Im a busy man too. I cant really be responsible for your poor time management skills.

Before I discovered unity, I would have said something like, Tom, I need the data; youd really be helping me out to do this. Instead, I said, Tom, weve been in the same psychology department for twelve years. I need the data; youd really be helping out to do this. I had the data that afternoon.

The difference between those two appeals may only be ten or so words, but in those words lies a world of pre-suasive genius. The first option is all about me. Its a self-centered appeal: I need, I want, this would help me out. The second is all about us.

Reminding the people we work with that were in it together seems like stating the obvious, but its not. As a leader, its easy to let whats unspoken become unhonored.

How then does the right question play a role in pre-suasions pinnacle? Cialdini explained:

When you have a blueprint or draft of something, and you want to get support from within your organization, typically we go to people and ask, Can I get your opinion? It makes sense to ask for feedback. Its wise. But that question is the wrong question. Asking someone for their opinion makes them take a half step away from us psychologically. They go into themselves; they introspect.

Instead of using the word opinion, we should ask for their advice. Advice calls the other person to step toward us. Were inviting them into a partnership: to think with us, not to think individually.

In addition to the relational and cognitive benefits, people asked for their advice become significantly more supportive of the idea before they encounter it. Why? Because theyre a part of it. Theyre allied collaborators, not objective observers.

Finally, this unifying pinnacle extends all the way to the physical space we inhabit as leaders:

Heres one last one that worked so well for me. We had a difficult client, and it was time for another contract. We went to their headquarters for a negotiation and got to the meeting room ahead of schedule. Typically, we would have aligned ourselves on one side of the table, requiring the client’s team to enter and align themselves with the other.

Instead, I asked my team to take every other chair. When the clients team entered, they had no choice but to sit among us. We had the best negotiation I could have hoped for because we began with unity.

Leadership in the ‘Moment Before’

With thirty years separating Influence and Pre-Suasion, its unlikely that well see another landmark from Cialdini anytime soon.

For leaders and managers looking to become more persuasive, nothing is discouraging about that realization.

Pre-Suasions insights offer wisdom for how we approach the moment before. And as long as we let the principle, power, pitfalls, and pinnacle of pre-suasion guide us, the path to getting what we want from the people we value most is brighter than ever.

Aaron Orendorff is the founder of iconiContent and a regular contributor at Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, Fast Company, Business Insider and more. Connect with him about content marketing (and bunnies) on Facebook or Twitter.

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