Twist my arm: the power of persuasion in business

Dr Nigel Jackson is Associate Professor in Persuasion and Communication at Plymouth Business School. He is also Associate Head for Knowledge Exchange, bringing together academic staff, research users and wider groups and communities to exchange ideas, evidence and expertise. Dr Jackson currently teaches marketing communications and public relations to students studying for the events and business management degrees.

To find out more about his work on communication and persuasion, or to explore ways in which your organisation’s communication could be more impactful and persuasive, please contact him via email.

 


Aesop’s fable The Wind and the Sun illustrates that persuasion is often more effectual than force. Today, persuasive communication is probably more commonplace than we may realise. Advertising, marketing and information campaigns seek to persuade us daily, sometimes in subtle, discreet ways. Politicians and leaders also seek to persuade us and, while some people seem to be naturally persuasive, I believe that everyone can learn how to communicate persuasively.

Arm-twisting in the real world

My research looks at communications and persuasion, exploring how both can bring about behavioural change. Organisations and businesses probably engage in persuasion more than everyone realises:

  • attracting new customers to buy products and services
  • getting repeat business from existing customers
  • impressing investors with business performance
  • and motivating employees to work hard and deliver their objectives.

Functions such as marketing, public relations, investor relations and human resources are underpinned by the idea of persuading people (customers, the media, investors and employees) to engage, respond or change their behaviours.

Elements of persuasion

I believe persuasion has several component parts. It has to involve communication in some form: written, visual, spoken or electronic. There has to be a person or organisation doing the persuading (the persuader) and an audience or person they are trying to persuade (the 'persuadee'). Persuasion is not accidental; there must be a goal or outcome the persuader wants to effect and – most importantly – the process of persuasion needs be ethical: backed up by evidence and data (the facts and stats).

The person or people being persuaded need to feel they have an escape route, that they can turn the persuader down and walk away. If they do not feel they can decline and say ‘no’, I would argue that this is coercion. Persuasion without an exit is manipulation.

Drawing on cognitive psychology, the process of persuading someone is generally scientific. Practising persuasion is more likely to be an art form. Persuasion is also a necessary skill in any leader’s toolkit. Whilst some people may be more convincing and persuasive than others, everyone can learn to be more persuasive. Irrespective of the personal, organisational or business situation, there are five key elements to communicating persuasively.

1. Understand the decision-making process

To persuade an audience, it is important to be familiar with them and how they make decisions.

It is easy to fall into the trap of believing that people are persuaded by rational arguments alone. Organisations spend time and money constructing rational arguments, detailing why their product or service is best. Evidence shows that when purchasing expensive or important items, like cars and houses, people generally approach this rationally. They do their research. People who are knowledgeable about this product or service are more likely to respond to rational arguments. Those with more limited knowledge are less inclined to rely on rationality alone.

Most people like to have some information to hand but they do not want to overdo it. Overthinking can be exhausting.

We know people tend to take shortcuts when making decisions, focusing on the big ticket items at the expense of the finer detail. This is known as a heuristics, it may be imperfect and sub-optimal but is usually sufficient for reaching a short-term goal or decision, avoiding ‘paralysis by analysis’.

Habit, mood and emotion can compel us to make quicker decisions. Retailers capitalise on this, arranging displays and creating advertising that encourages us to make spur of the moment purchases. Speedy sales can be driven by multiple factors colliding at a point in time.

2. Be as good as your word

We pay attention to people we believe are credible and credibility can be situational.

During the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, people reportedly found scientists, healthcare professionals and academics more believable then politicians. They were more likely to follow the academics’ advice when it diverged from the politicians’. This was a welcome departure from the previous trend of dismissing expert opinion, something we have observed in countries experiencing a wave of populist, anti-establishment feeling in the preceding years (for example, in Hungary, Brazil, the US and UK).

We have seen that when it comes to health, people are most comfortable listening to the ‘experts’. Other ‘credible’ persuaders include our peers, and people who’ve achieved success in business and sport.

It is key to establish credibility with an audience in order to get their attention. Nowadays this has become more complex, done in both the real and virtual worlds. The spread of fake news and false stories online means not all information has been verified and can be trusted. We know social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter can be febrile breeding grounds for fake news. There are other social media platforms we are more likely to trust. People often check review sites like Feefo and Trip Advisor before making a purchase or booking a hotel or restaurant.

It is becoming more challenging to know which sources a target audience finds most credible. Organisations need to identify all the opportunities for persuasion out there and exploit them, even the most mundane. People are not homogenous in the way they once were. Different messages need to be targeted at different groups but they can be mixed and matched across audiences for maximum impact.

3. Have emotional appeal

Emotional arguments can be just as powerful as rational ones.

They are often used in hard hitting campaigns tackling smoking, drink driving or, recently, the pressures on the NHS during the pandemic. They communicate messages, often using visual images or through personal stories, that trigger emotions such as happiness, sadness, anger, fear or hope. This seeks to influence the audience’s attitude or behaviour, persuading them to respond in a certain way such as refraining from driving when drunk or abiding by social distancing restrictions to reduce the pandemic’s burden on the NHS. Governments, as well as charities like Amnesty International, Unicef and Water Aid, have used emotional appeal in their campaigns to good effect.

4. Try not standing out

Social norms can be powerful persuaders. We know people like to conform.

This can be successful when discouraging anti-social behaviour such as littering. Rational arguments only go so far in persuading a proportion of the population not to litter. There will always be outliers. Sometimes statistics can help when they demonstrate that a small minority deviates from the accepted social norm.

I recently advised a headmaster in a school to publish statistics showing what percentage of dinner money was paid in full and on time. In this case it was more than 98%. No parent wanted to be in the remaining 2% and we noted that the problem of late payment lessened as a result. This approach would not be effective if the data is not in favour (for example, only 30% pay their lunch money in full). It can drive the opposite type of behaviour of course but examples of social norms, applied appropriately, are a very powerful, persuasive tool.

5. Strive for likeability

Aristotle said that “Character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion”.

We should not underestimate likeability; we are inclined to buy from someone we like and can relate to.

Salespeople are very good at creating empathy and connection with prospective customers. They will pick up on characteristics of their purchaser’s profile: a car salesman will emphasise a vehicle’s safety, or the ease with which child car seats can be fitted, to parents purchasing a new car.

People feel comfortable when the persuader is attentive, a good listener and anticipates their needs. This is important, not just in sectors like hospitality, but also in customer services and client relations across a range of businesses and sectors. Reward and loyalty programmes have been designed to provide information on customers to identify their needs and desires.


Conclusion

It is important to research, think and plan before embarking on persuasive communication. Consider what a target audience’s decision-making process will be and the factors that will play into their decision making.

Post-pandemic, I think we will need to be more innovative. We’re living through a social change. People’s values are changing. Marketers and communicators need to keep abreast of and respond to this. People have experienced financial and economic hardship. They will make decisions differently. We will need to persuade and influence differently in response and initial indicators are that the environmental and sustainability agendas will become more important.