In 1984, Robert Cialdini published an extremely influential book on behavioral psychology called Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. It was one of the first books to expose the persuasion tactics of salespeople to the general public.
Since that time, plenty of new studies have been conducted, and we now know more about persuasion than we ever did. Robert just published his latest book, Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade. I read it, expecting it to have a lot of the same research and concepts as other recent psychology books. I was pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong.
Pre-Suasion is full of practical knowledge that can be applied by public speakers. In this post, I’ll summarize the best learnings that are relevant to public speaking. Here they are, organized by chapter.
Chapter 2 of Pre-Suasion
- If you make people think of themselves as a certain type of person, they will be more likely to act consistently with that thought. When researchers asked people in a mall to partake in a survey, only 29% complied. But when they started by asking them “Do you consider yourself a helpful person?” their survey take rate went up to 77.3%. This is because the people thought “I am a helpful person” and therefore acted consistently with that. Practical application: tell your audience they seem like [x] type of people, depending on what you are trying to accomplish. For example, if you are speaking to an audience that disagrees with you, you might say “You seem like open-minded people” before getting to the controversial part of your speech.
- Multi-tasking is a myth, and if people are distracted, they will miss part of your speech. When you think you are multi-tasking, you are actually just switching between tasks quickly. There is a cognitive gap when you are switching tasks called an “attentional blink”. During this gap, you are not absorbing information. In other words, your audience will not recall parts of your speech if they were distracted. This video illustrates the attentional blink nicely. Try looking for both R and C, then try looking for just C. Practical application: avoid saying anything important while your audience is distracted. For example, if they are still finding their seats, don’t try to announce something important. Many people will simply not hear you. Another example is if you are in debate: don’t say an important statement while your judge is busy writing down something else.
Chapter 3 of Pre-Suasion
Whatever you talk about the most will be considered the most important. If the media talks a lot about terrorism, people will think that most violence is caused by terrorism and it’s a more serious issue than it is. This is because people think that what they are focusing on is more important and more causal than it is. (Causal, as in causing, not casual). Just by choosing what to focus on, the media is able to manipulate perceptions of their viewers. Practical application: when you need to persuade an audience, simply focus on the facts that support you. Dismiss the other side quickly and return to your points. If you are right, then bringing the facts into the foreground will help you persuade people. This is why most presidential debates don’t have much refutation—the candidates want to bring focus to their points.
Chapter 5 of Pre-Suasion
When you use fear to motivate, it’s important to give people simple steps to follow in order to fix the issue. For example, telling someone about the problems with smoking cigarettes won’t help unless you tell them to call a hotline that will help them quit, or tell them to go to a specific website. If you give them no steps to follow, or the steps you give are too difficult up-front, then they are less likely to do anything about it. They just become paralyzed by their fear. Practical application: any persuasive speech meant to change behavior can use a healthy dose of fear, coupled with specific and easy action steps to fix the issue. The best action steps are things that people can do soon after listening to your speech.
Chapter 6 of Pre-Suasion
- Use the word “you” more often. It makes people like your message more. It’s an easy tip, and it makes a difference. Practical application: when writing your speech, make sure you include some sentences directed straight to the audience.
- Want a good way to fight back against procrastination? Try the zeigarnik effect. It’s a little known fact that the brain always tries to get closure. Take advantage of this by just forcing yourself to start on a task—even in an insignificant way. Practical application: struggling to write a speech? Just force yourself to open up your word editor, and type a sentence. Just the act of doing so will make you feel like you need to finish. Struggling to get started? Just write an outline of what you plan to say. Then refine that outline and add detail until you have a first draft written.
- Use mystery to engage your audience in your speech. There are a few steps to using mystery successfully: 1. Pose the mystery 2. Deepen the mystery 3. Explore some of the incorrect explanations while providing clues of the actual explanation 4. Resolve the mystery and draw the implication for what you are trying to demonstrate. Practical application: Try to find a surprising fact related to your speech topic, then build it into an entire mystery story. For example, let’s say you are talking about pricing psychology. You could say “When a jewelry store had trouble selling their stock, they doubled their prices. Soon, they were sold out. Why might that be?” Then you could turn that into a mystery and resolve it by explaining the effect of premium pricing on the human mind.
Chapter 7 of Pre-Suasion
- The analogies that you use to explain things can be pivotal to persuasion. The book mentions a remarkable case: people’s preferred solution to crime in a city can be changed by one single word. If the crime was described as “a virus” in the city, people tended to prefer solutions that deal with removing unhealthy conditions that cause crime. If the crime was portrayed as a ravaging beast, people preferred solutions that had to do with catching criminals. In essence, people apply attributes of the analogy to the real world situation. Practical application: Choose your analogies wisely. Try to choose an analogy that gives the topic attributes that help prove your point. If you want people to be persuaded to be tougher on criminals, for example, you would use the “ravaging beast” analogy instead of the virus analogy.
- If people see you as similar to them, they will connect with you more. Practical application: say things that your audience would relate to. One way to do this would be saying “I don’t know about you, but I… [x]” and intentionally choose something that most people would agree with. Example: “I don’t know about you, but I could really go for a cup of coffee right now” (said at the end of a long conference where people are yawning).
- Catchphrases are more powerful than we give them credit for. People like things that are easy to process, or “fluent”. For example, researchers found that more people agreed with the statement “Caution and measure win you treasure” than “caution and measure win you riches”. Practical application: Learn to write catchphrases and use them! Click on that link to read an excellent post I made on the subject earlier.
- Speak with simple, easy to understand words and phrases. Again, people like things that are easy to process. If you use big words or complicated phrases, people will have to pause and think harder. This will result in attentional blinks, which we’ve talked about before. Practical application: use the smallest word that could get an idea across.
Chapter 9 of Pre-Suasion
- Productivity tip: write an if/when/then plan. “If I see a cookie, then I will walk away and drink a cup of water.” Or “When it’s 9:00 PM and I haven’t finished my to-do list, I will start on the most important item immediately”. Doing this can increase people’s chances of actually doing the behavior they commit to by huge percentages. Practical application: “When it’s 12:00, I will take a break and practice my speech for 10 minutes.”
- When people are in a good mood, the people and items around them seem better. For example, men who randomly asked women out on dates were much more successful on sunny days than cloudy days. Practical application: make your audience laugh, entertain them and put them in a good mood. They will be more receptive to what you have to say.
Chapter 10 of Pre-Suasion
- Mimicking someone’s vocal style makes you more likeable to them. Waiters and waitresses that mimicked the vocal style of their customers got significantly higher tips on average. This is due to the similarity principle stated earlier. Practical application: this is most applicable to competitive debate, where the key decision maker is (often) one judge. However, if you are speaking in an area where most people tend to speak slowly, then do so. Whatever you do, don’t try to mimic accents, because that will come across as very fake.
- The #1 way to get people to like you is to show that you genuinely like them. This is why a lot of comedians say stereotypical things like “You guys are a great audience” or “Look at this beautiful audience”. Flattery works. Practical application: compliment the audience in some way or another. Even saying something like “You’re a smart bunch, so I’m sure I don’t have to remind you of this, but…” will help. For competitive debate, focus on actually getting to know and enjoy the judges. If they see that you like them, they will like you too. This works for business meetings and other small audience speeches, too.
- Examples are often more powerful than statistics or theory. Researchers found that people donated more to a cause if it contained a story of one person they could help, instead of aggregate statistics that make the problem look big. In addition, if you have an example of something happening, that is more powerful than bringing up an expert saying that it “could happen”. Even one example proves to the audience that this thing is possible. Practical application: Use at least one example or story in your presentation. For debaters, make sure you find an anecdote that proves your case. If you can’t find a single one, you are missing out on a lot of persuasive potential.
- Evidence from experts appeals to people’s sense of authority. If you read a quote on a topic from a Ph.D., you instantly give credibility to your side. Most people know this, but it’s relevant and I want to be comprehensive. Practical application: find someone high up that agrees with you.
- Small concessions make people trust you more. Don’t come across as a disingenuous person who won’t say a single bad thing about their cause. For example, if you were in a job interview, you could say “It’s true that I don’t have a lot of past experience, but I’ve made up for it with [x] project that I did, which really showed my skill.” Keys to this technique: concede something that’s pretty obvious and everyone knows. Then say “but”, “yet”, or “however” and follow it up with a really good, positive thing that outweighs that negative. Practical application: make small concessions as you make your points. Make those concessions before someone even raises their hand and makes the point.
Chapter 11 of Pre-Suasion
- People who know that they live close to each other or in the same state like each other more. There’s not much you can do about this, but it’s interesting for traveling speakers. Practical application: Focus on mentioning things that you appreciate about the audience’s area, rather than focusing on how far away you are from home. Extra bonus: this is why it’s difficult to win debate rounds in out of state locations against locals. If the judge is from that area, they are automatically biased against you.
That sums it up! I’ve only given you a small glimpse at all the interesting learnings from Pre-Suasion. Not only are there more interesting studies and psychological effects that I didn’t mention (because they weren’t relevant to public speaking), but I also couldn’t dive deep into any given piece. There’s nothing better than reading the book for yourself and seeing the examples that Robert provides. Here’s a link to that book again.
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