Nov 112011

Do You Have Influence?  How Do You Get It?

Do You Have Influence?  How Do You Get It?

The topic of influence has come up quite a bit in my business and educational activities over the last couple of years.  It was always there, lurking under the surface, as it is impossible to avoid, however now it is more prominent and studied. When one is talking about influence, it’s impossible to cover the subject thoroughly without discussing the well-known book by Dr. Robert Cialdini called, of course, Influence.

For those of you who have not had the pleasure of reading it, I will summarize the key points here, so that you may put them to work immediately in all relevant aspects of your business and personal life.  For those who have the time and inclination, I highly recommend reading the whole book.  Its many informative “influence research” conclusions and Dr. Cialdini’s insights and anecdotes, born of several decades focused on the subject, make reading it well worth the time and effort.

Here I will spell out the six major factors impacting influence, per Dr. Cialdini’s work, and as usual, I will look at them mainly in the context of entrepreneurship and small business.  Also, the descriptions and angles below may not be completely consistent with Dr. Cialdini’s; they are my take on the issues and implications.  The six major factors of influence are:

1.)   Reciprocation

You’ve probably seen how reciprocation works in your life.  It’s the old, “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”.  It’s age-old and it’s not going anywhere.  As I’ve written elsewhere, we live in a “quid pro quo world,” which means that you need to give to get.  If all the value is going in one direction, then it would be parasitic, not symbiotic, and is not likely to last very long.

If you’re smart, you can use reciprocation in your favor, and when I say this, I want to make it clear that I’m not in favor of manipulation for the sake of manipulation.  If you are going to do something for someone or for some group, you need to do it from the kindness of your heart and you need to be OK with it if there is no reciprocation.

That said, you should be aware that the “Law of Reciprocity” or “Law of Reciprocation” is one of the hardest ones to resist.  If you do something for someone, it will very often come back to you.  There is a mental counter we have in our heads, and most people like to keep a clean slate.  You do something for me and at some point, I’m likely to reciprocate, even if it’s not right away.  Observe this in your personal life and business life.  Once you pay attention to it, you’ll be amazed how hard it is to break this “law”.

2.)   Commitment and Consistency

In my experience, this driver of influence is a bit overlooked compared to the others.  The idea is that once you commit to move in a certain direction, even if that commitment is relatively small in the scheme of things, you want to behave consistently with that commitment.

So, for example, if I’m an auto salesperson and I get you to put even a small amount of “earnest money” down when you make an offer on a car, you are more likely to follow through and behave consistently with that “commitment” – again, however small the commitment may be.

Similarly, if someone can goad me into making a public statement (commitment) that I will run in a certain race or do a certain challenge, I am much more likely to follow through and behave consistently with that commitment.  This is a trick a lot of achievers I know will use to influence themselves; they’ll publicly commit to do something that they know is outside their comfort zone, as they understand that such commitment increases the odds that they will behave consistently with what they’ve said they’ll do.

3.)   Social Proof

I have found this one to be intuitive for most people.  The idea is that as decision-makers, we look around and see what others are doing before we pull the trigger on important, and even unimportant, decisions.

Thus, it’s not too surprising that testimonials are one of the most powerful and persuasive tools in convincing prospective buyers of the value of what you are offering.  It’s critical that the testimonials are legitimate.  This is important not just from an ethical perspective, but also a legal perspective, as the FTC has cracked down on false testimonials and claims.  The influencing power of social proof is well known and established, so the FTC is going to do what it can to make sure it is not manipulated, which is tantamount to false advertising and sometimes even fraud.

Use the power of social proof to your advantage as you work to influence and persuade all your key constituencies.  While testimonials are perhaps the most powerful form of social proof, they are not the only one.  Look for any opportunity, as long as it’s credible and in “good taste” to let your customers and prospects know that others think highly of you, your company, and its offerings.

4.)   Liking

Who says nice guys finish last?  In the domain of influence and persuasion, being liked usually inures very much to your advantage.

Throughout my career I have noticed, not surprisingly, that people tend to do business with people and companies they like.  There’s no huge shock there.   Dr. Cialdini’s research backs up this observation; if you’re trying to influence someone, it will usually help if they like you first.

So, if you’re unlikeable for some reason, work on it.  Get yourself a copy of Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends And Influence People, which I would imagine is the all time bestseller when it comes to strategies on building rapport and being likable.

Again, from my perspective at least, you should be sincere in your likeability.  If it’s just a ploy to influence and manipulate people, it likely won’t work and you’ll walk through life feeling like a phony.  Hopefully you’ve selected a profession and group of friends, colleagues, associates, customers, prospects, etc. with whom you can identify and be sincere in your efforts to be likeable.  If not, maybe you’re in the wrong business.

5.)   Authority

Don’t get confused on this one.  It’s not about having authority, as in having control and influence over people due to your position, for example a police officer.  That’s the type of authority that people often rebel against.  Rather, it’s about being perceived as being an authority.

In order to use this influence weapon to your advantage, you’ll want to establish yourself as “the authority,” or “one of the leading authorities” in whatever it is that you do.  If you are able to pull this off, it’s a shortcut to credibility with any prospective customer or other new constituent.  If you are known as an authority, peoples’ defenses go down a bit and they are more willing to be influenced by what you have to say.

It is worth thinking strategically about how you can emulate others who have positioned themselves as authorities in your market and in related markets.  The time and effort that you will spend in positioning yourself as an authority will pay dividends over a long period of time, assuming you don’t do anything that causes you to lose the authority status.

6.)   Scarcity

I think this one has been abused as much as, or more than, any of the others on this list.

It is well known that people tend to attribute more value to those things that are scarce.  As you’ve no doubt seen and probably experienced more than a few times in your life, if something is rare or scarce, it tends to sell for a lot more money than something similar that is not scarce.

The abuse comes in when people and companies try to create a false sense of scarcity.  You’ve probably also experienced this.  I know I have, to a highly annoying level.  I often receive emails and other offers where, supposedly, the service or product on offer is highly rare and almost sold out.  “Act now, or you’ll never get another chance to get your hands on this!”  Frustrating, annoying, ignored.

So, scarcity is powerful, but I think you must use this one very carefully.  Talk about the unique aspects of what you offer.  Talk about how there is a finite supply, at least in a certain time window.  But don’t insult peoples’ intelligence by trying to create a fire alarm for a fire that doesn’t exist.  If you do, you will end up like the boy who cried wolf and no one will be listening to you once you are labeled in their minds as being “full of it”.

The study of influence and persuasion is fascinating!  There are many ways to ethically and sensibly influence and persuade your prospective customers and other important constituencies.  Dr. Cialdini’s contribution to this field has been very important and I find myself employing his principles, usually at least on a daily basis.  I highly encourage you to do the same.  Keep track of how different approaches work in various situations, then course adjust as necessary.

I look forward to your thoughts and questions.  Please leave a comment (“response”) below or in the upper right corner of this post.

Paul Morin

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  • Great article! I especially appreciate the reminder to make genuine scarcity offers. It’s a tactic many gurus use and I do get tired of all the “last chance” offers.

  • Lee Anderson


  • Knikkolette

    Paul, your posts are always spot on and insightful. I have first hand experience working for someone in the past who would offer a product on a “limited time” basis just to turn around and extend the offer for another two weeks when the sales didn’t meet expectations. This practice not only puts the credibility of the company into question, it makes the customer lose faith and chances are the company loses a repeat customer for a quick sale.

    As always – great post!

  • Wendy Cassera

    Thank you, this was great as it is a subject that many question. Especially if you are spending alot of time on social media and other ways to get people to see what you have or are doing.
    Along those lines, I rather feel that #2 is one of the most challenging to alot of people. Having that commitment to being consistent so that people can rely on you.
    Thank you for the great information and I am definitely putting this book on my reading list!!


  • Boosting your influence takes time but well worth the effort. Sharing, sharing, sharing is what works for me. Good tips here!

  • Sandra McLeod Humphrey

    Thanks for the great summary and I agree with all six principles, but I think the bottom line is authenticity, so that you build trust in your service or product.

  • Great post Paul, you are so right when you say nice guys don’t finish last. I am extremely grateful for the nice people I have the pleasure of connecting with both online and offline.

  • I’m not sure I like the “scarcity” part all that much. It might seem like a horrible example but take a look at the music industry. When you’re hot, you’d bests capitalize on it as much as you can for as long as you can. Those that think they can take a break then come back to what they had before are kidding themselves for the most part, as the industry passes them by. That’s why we laud those who actually do get away with it. That’s why right now Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift are killing it; they’re out there, nonstop, getting theirs while the getting is good.

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  • Paul, I really enjoyed the post (as usual I must say). I loved the way you spoke about scarcity: “But don’t insult peoples’ intelligence by trying to create a fire alarm for a fire that doesn’t exist. If you do, you will end up like the boy who cried wolf …” I´m sick and tired of receiving messages of this kind. The only result they get is annoyance.

  • Thanks, Maria. Yes, scarcity, while powerful, has been abused by marketers in recent times and most everyone is tired of hearing it. For this reason, as marketers, we have to be careful how we use it. It is still incredibly powerful, but in the end, the point is, if there is no genuine scarcity, don’t try to fake it, as that will be sniffed out in an instant. It will then work against you rather than helping.

  • Thanks, Mitch. Yes, I agree that scarcity is very context-sensitive. In the entertainment business, as you point out, you must “make hay while the sun is shining”.

  • Hi Karla, yes, fortunately, nice guys don’t always finish last. It happens quite a bit, but not always, and as Dr. Cialdini’s research confirms, being likable usually inures to your benefit when it comes to influence.

  • Thanks, Sandra. I agree that authenticity is of critical importance!

  • Hi, Martha. Yes, it takes time, without a doubt, and that does not appeal to the instant gratification mindset that is so prevalent in our society today. But in the end, putting the time into building and maintaining your reputation and influence can pay incredible dividends!

  • Thanks, Wendy. I agree that consistency is something that many struggle with. In the end though, it’s important to try to employ all six, to the extent possible. Several work well in confluence and the impact gain you can get is non-linear. Paul

  • Yes, Knikkolette, I think pretty much everyone is fed up with false scarcity messages. It gets old and ends up insulting the intelligence of many. I still think scarcity is an important piece of the puzzle in many cases, but it must be legitimate, or the credibility of the marketer is undermined, for good.

  • Hi, Dana. Yes, I believe the scarcity offers must be genuine, otherwise the marketer’s credibility is undermined, and not just for the short term. Paul

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