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The anatomy of persuasion.

It is our dream to get what we want and to get others to behave the way we want them to behave. This need not necessarily be a dream. By knowing what contributes to the power of persuasion, you can have this power to realise your dream.

Effective communicators use six principles to get what they want and to influence and shape the behaviour of others, according to Robert B. Cialdini, author of "Influence: Science and Practice." Each of these principles is governed by a psychological principle that directs human behaviour and gives the users their power. The six principles are reciprocation, consistency and commitment, social proof, liking, authority and scarcity.

Principles of Influence

According to the rule of reciprocation, we try to repay, in kind, what another person has given us. This rule of reciprocation, and the sense of obligation that goes with it, is pervasive in human culture. In other words, if we use communication to persuade and influence another, we must first recognise the tendencies in human nature or culture that we can use for our own benefit.

Consider, for example, your relationship with two persons, A and B. In the course of your relationship, you once offered person A a soft drink. Later, when you try to sell the two persons some charity tickets, because of the obligation felt by person A, who was previously offered the soft drink, he or she will be far more likely to buy the ticket than person B who was not offered the soft drink. This is the law of reciprocation in action. If you obligate a person to reciprocate in the future, you will more likely succeed in persuading or influencing the person.

Consistency and Commitment

Consistency and commitment work together as two rules for influencing the behaviour of others and getting them to do what we want them to do. The power behind these two elements is, quite simply, our obsessive desire to be (and to appear) consistent with what we have already done. Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment. Once we have used communication and reciprocation to gain the person's minor commitment, he or she will more easily move to a deeper commitment to be consistent.

Social Proof

The principle of social proof is that we can determine what is correct just by finding out what other people think is correct. If, for example, someone in front of us buys something, we are more likely to buy it ourselves.


Liking involves getting the person we wish to persuade to be drawn to us in some personal way. Few people would be surprised to learn that, as a rule, we prefer to say yes to the requests of someone we know and like. What might be startling to note, however, is that this simple rule is used in hundreds of ways by total strangers to get us to comply with their requests.


Authority involves our natural inclination to obey a figure who is seen as having some sort of authority with respect to professionalism, knowledge and prestige. We are more likely to buy products, services or ideas from such a figure than we are from a person who does not carry that aura of power and knowledge.


Finally, the concept of scarcity can be used to make the potential buyer feel that he or she must act quickly to participate in a bargain or to make the buyer feel that he or she is somehow special in respect to the product or service offered. Opportunities seem more valuable to us when their availability is limited.

Cialdini uses the example of the Tupperware[R] party to illustrate a setting in which most of the compliance principles are used: Reciprocity (games are played and prizes won by the partygoers; anyone who does not win a prize gets to reach into a grab bag for one so that everyone has received a gift from the Tupperware[R] lady before the buying begins); commitment (each participant is urged to describe publicly the uses and benefits he or she has found in the Tupperware[R] already owned); social proof (once the buying begins, each purchase builds the idea that other, similar people want the product; therefore, it must be good); liking (the major seller is the party hostess); and authority (the friend who has organised the party and the Tupperware[R] saleslady herself.)

Other Principles of Persuasion

Douglis Ehninger in his book, "Principles and Types of Speech Communication," lists a number of other elements of persuasion and, as with Cialdini's principles, the persuader needs to have a basic psychological knowledge of his or her audience to be effective.

For example, the persuader must know beforehand, or find out immediately, the disposition of the target toward that which is being sold or discussed. For example, if you wish to sell a vacuum cleaner to a person who is resistant to making such a purchase, you cannot simply tout the vacuum cleaner and expect to make a sale. You must deal directly with the resistance he or she is facing.

When an audience is hostile toward your claim, be sure to present a two-sided message. A one-sided speech offers only arguments for your claim while a two-sided speech takes into account opposing ideas and proposals and then answers them. If you expect resistance, do not simply ignore it. If the hostility is extreme, deal with it early.

It is not enough for the persuader to merely be an impressive speaker, to have an authoritative bearing, or to have a resonant voice. To effectively persuade the target listener, you must have a clear communicative purpose, be thoroughly prepared but flexible enough to deal with problems that may arise, have a comprehensive knowledge of the subject so as to be able to deal with any questions, and have sufficient communication skills to get your message across clearly. Also, you must have the proper attitude toward the product and the listeners, and have a degree of credibility.

As a persuader, you may be a fine communicator, but without knowing what it is that you want to communicate, and in what way, and how long, and so on, you will merely have an audience or a listener who is impressed with your communication skills, but not inclined to buy your product, service or idea.

Content of the Message

The content of the message is vital to the success of persuasion. This does not mean that you must say everything you know about the subject. On the contrary, it is important to be highly selective. From among all the things you could say about the subject, you actually select only a few and tailor them to your audience's interests, wants and desires, as well as to limitations of time and space.

The structure of the message is also vital to its success. The structure or pattern can help guide the audience's attempt to find coherence. This structure may be as simple as numbering the points you will make or as complex as a full outline with sub-points. One way to control the clarity and force of your message is to provide a recognisable pattern for it.

The style and word choices of the message must be selected to fit the audience and the nature of the product, service or idea you are offering.

In this context, Ehninger writes: "Just as we must select and arrange the ideas we wish to convey to audiences, we also must select words, arrange them in sentences, and decide how to reveal our own self-image to that group of hearers. Selecting and arranging words as well as revealing ourselves to be certain sorts of persons are matters of 'style'...styles can be 'personal' or 'impersonal,' 'literal' or 'ironic,' 'plain' or 'elevated,' even 'philosophical' or 'poetic'; such labels refer to particular combinations of vocabulary, sentence syntax (arrangement), and images of the speaker. What we call style...includes those aspects of language use that convey impressions of speakers, details of the world, and emotional overtones."

Effective Listening

According to Gerald I. Nierenberg in his book "The Art of Negotiation," the most effective communicator or persuader is the most effective listener. If you want to persuade others, pay attention to the needs of the one being persuaded.

Communication is a two-way, not one-way process. The two (or more) people involved in the communication are exchanging needs, whether they know it or not. If you do not know the needs of the one who is being persuaded, you will not likely succeed in your effort to persuade.

One method for determining these needs is to listen carefully to the words uttered by the one being persuaded; and his or her phrasing, choice of expressions, mannerisms of speech, and tone of voice. These give clues to the needs behind the statements the person makes.

Once you have discovered and verified the needs of the listener, you can then deal directly with them, either assuring the person or convincing him or her that the product, service or idea offered will in some way meet those needs.

Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication is also an important part of the persuasion process. To persuade, you must learn to use nonverbal communication to reassure the target and to let the person know that his or her needs are being attended to, recognised and appreciated.

Nierenberg writes, "Besides listening to your 'opponent' in an attempt to learn his desires and needs, you must also closely observe his gestures. For example, in a friendly conference, if one member suddenly sits back and folds his arms with some abruptness, you would know at once that trouble had arrived. Gestures are tremendously important." Tension (in the persuader or in the target), for example, can be detected or expressed by visible signs such as blushing, contraction of the facial muscles, fidgeting, undue preoccupation, strained laughter or giggling, or even just staring in silence.

If you are unaware of your nonverbal communication or are inattentive to the nonverbal communication of your listener, you are not communicating successfully.

To be an effective and successful communicator, you must not only listen and look, but also see. As Nierenberg writes, "Psychologists make a distinction between looking and seeing. When we examine our outside world, we look. It is a form of spying and is objective. But when we see, we take in, we absorb, we comprehend the general impression subjectively. The skilled negotiator always keeps his eyes and ears fastened on the opponents....Silent actions, gestures and movements of all kinds have something to tell you if you can read them correctly."


Successful persuasion, then, is not a simple matter of talking a person into doing or buying something. It is a complex exchange in which you as a communicator must take into account the many factors concerning yourself, your audience, and the product, service or idea you are selling.

James P. T. Fatt is a lecturer at Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
COPYRIGHT 1997 International Association of Business Communicators
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Author:Fatt, James P.T.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Dec 1, 1997
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