Mastering the Art of Persuasion | IdeaCast | Podcast
[MUSIC PLAYING] ALLISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR Ideacast from Harvard Business Review. I'm Alison Beard. [MUSIC PLAYING] How do you get someone to back your ideas, buy your products, or behave in a different way, whether it's a boss or a peer, customer or client, supplier or investor, or maybe people failing to wear masks during a pandemic? How do you get them to see things your way, especially if they initially disagree with you, discount you, or even worse, don't even know you're there? Even with irrefutable data and emotional appeals, it can be really hard to change another person's mind. Most of us get extremely stuck in our opinions, preferences, and habits.
Today's guest argues that it's possible to push even the most resistant people in new directions. He says that persuasion starts with recognizing the reasons why affecting change is so very difficult and then developing strategies to overcome those obstacles. JONAH BERGER: Jonah Berger is a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and author of The Catalyst, How to Change Anyone's Mind. And a quick note to listeners, we spoke to Jonah a while back before the pandemic and its fallout, but we checked in with him for an update on how these ideas apply now. And you'll hear that conversation at the end of the show.
[MUSIC PLAYING] ALLISON BEARD: We know that persuasion is so important in business, politics, all areas of life really. Some people seem a lot better at it than others. So what's the number one mistake that most people make in this area? JONAH BERGER: Everyone has something they want to change. Employees want to change their bosses mind, and leaders want to transform organizations. Marketers want to change the customer or client's mind.
Sales folks want to do the same. Startups want to change industries. Nonprofits want to change the world. But change is really hard. Often we push and we push and we push and nothing happens.
We think about changing minds, and we think about changing behavior. We think about changing organizations. Often, we take a certain style of approach.
We think if we just add more information, more reasons, more facts, more figures, just send people one more PowerPoint deck, they'll come around. And that intuition makes a lot of sense in the physical world. If we're sitting in front of a chair, for example, and we want to move that chair, a good way to move that chair is pushing, right? We push a little bit on the chair and it goes in the direction we want it to go. But in the social world, that doesn't necessarily work because, when we push people, they often push back, asking a subtly but importantly different question, why hasn't that person changed already? What are the barriers or obstacles that are getting in the way of change? And how can we mitigate them? ALLISON BEARD: So why do people have this instinct to push back even when the thing being suggested might be good for them? JONAH BERGER: We all love to feel like we're in control. We love to feel like we're shaping and we're driving our own lives. We're making the choice.
But unfortunately, when other people try to shape our opinions, we don't feel like we have control. Think about a few years back to the Tide Pod challenge. So if you remember a number of years ago, Tide Pod was having this issue.
Proctor & Gamble was having this issue where Tide Pods, the things that we all throw in the laundry to make laundry easier, people were eating them. And so you think about detergent, why would anyone eat detergent? But there was a funny article on The Onion saying they looked good enough to eat. And soon, young people were challenging each other to eat Tide Pods. And so there was all this chatter online about, oh, should we eat Tide Pods? Should we not? People shooting videos of themselves doing it. Lots of people getting attention. ALLISON BEARD: Should we eat poison or not? JONAH BERGER: Yeah.
[LAUGHTER] For this ridiculous, ridiculous thing. And so imagine you're sitting in Procter & Gamble's shoes at the moment, right? You're probably sitting there going, why do we need to tell people not to eat chemicals? But you're probably saying, just in case, we'll put out an announcement. So Procter & Gamble does. They put out a very simple announcement saying, don't eat Tide Pods. And in case that wasn't enough, they hired Rob Gronkowski, a famous football player we think of as Gronk, to help.
So he shoots this quick video for Tide online saying are Tide Pods ever safe to eat? No, no, no, no, no, no, no flashes on the screen. Now clearly, this should have been enough. It shouldn't have been a problem to begin with, right? People eating chemicals. But interestingly, if you look at the data, something funny happened. So if you look at search data for Tide Pods, it's creeping up as the Tide Pod challenge gets some attention.
And then Procter & Gamble and Gronk make their announcement. And that's when all hell breaks loose. So you would think, or you would hope that that would lead people to stop eating Tide Pods. If anything, it should have no effect on Tide Pods, but the exact opposite happens.
Search traffic shoots up by more than four-fold. Visits to poison control shoot up as well. And essentially, asking people not to do something had backfired.
ALLISON BEARD: And so how do you get people to overcome this instinct to push back and say, no, I don't want to be told what to do? JONAH BERGER: Yeah, the funniest and almost worst thing about reactants is it isn't just when we tell people not to do something. The same thing happens when we tell people to do something, even if it was something they may have wanted to do already. You think about a meeting where you're asking people to support a certain initiative, they may have already even thought about supporting that initiative. But if you ask them to support it, it impinges on that freedom and autonomy, right? They feel like now the reason they're supporting it isn't because they wanted to.
It was because you told them to, which makes them have this knee-jerk reaction, well, maybe I shouldn't go along. And so one way to solve this problem is to do something I call providing a menu, right? So imagine just in your own personal life, for example, someone asks, what are you going to do this weekend? Or what do you want to do this weekend? You say, oh, let's go see a movie. And then they go, oh, it's going to be too rainy outside. Or oh, why don't we do something else instead, right? They shoot it down. But if instead you give them two options, multiple options, it suddenly changes their role because now, rather than sitting there thinking about all the reasons wrong with what you suggested, now they're thinking about which of the two options you suggested is a better fit for them. Consultants do this all the time, right? Consultants say, hey look, if I pitch one thing to the client, the client will think about all the reasons why they can't do it.
If I pitch two, maybe even three solutions to the client, now they're strategizing, OK, well, which one of these do I like better. And because they're focusing on which one they like better, they're more likely to pick one at the end of that meeting. ALLISON BEARD: So what are some of the other big hurdles that we face when we're trying to get someone to change, whether it's an opinion or the products and services we're using? JONAH BERGER: So there are five common barriers I found across situations. We talked about reactants. The next is endowment, which is we tend to be attached to things we're doing already. Then there's distance.
Too far, if we ask for something that's too big an ask, people ignore it. And corroborating evidence, which is all about providing more proof. I think another big issue is uncertainty.
Any time there's a change, any time there's something new, any time we're asking people to do something different, there's a risk associated with doing something different. Old things feel safe. Even if they're not perfect, have problems associated with them, we know what those problems are, right? Whereas, new things we don't even know what those problems are.
And so often people feel quite uncertain. If you think about it, new things often involve switching costs as well, right? So think about buying a new phone, for example. Costs money to buy that new phone.
That's a cost of switching. But there's often time and effort costs as well. So if you're pitching a new project to your boss, for example, they're not only thinking they're, OK, well, how much will it cost to do this? But they're thinking, god, how much effort it's going to be? Who are we going to switch off another project? And all those switching costs lead them to say, well, no thanks. And even worse, think about when the costs and the benefits occur, right? So the costs of change are often upfront, where the benefits are later. We're not going to know for another month or two whether it's actually going to make money or actually going to be a good idea. And even worse, those costs are certain.
Whereas, the benefits are uncertain. And so that's what I'd call the cost benefit timing gap, right? Costs are now and they're certain. Benefits are later, and they're uncertain. And so that cost benefit gap is going to make it hard for change to happen. ALLISON BEARD: So I'd love to give you a few scenarios of people like our listeners who might be trying to persuade colleagues or customers to change their behavior but coming up against these obstacles you're talking about. And you can give us advice on how they should handle it.
[LAUGHTER] JONAH BERGER: I feel like this is like an advice column in the newspaper. I'll do my best. [LAUGHTER] ALLISON BEARD: Exactly. And so I think the first one deals with that uncertainty hurdle that you were just talking about. So you're a bank executive charged with getting existing customers to use a new app and making sure that it helps you attract new customers. JONAH BERGER: Yeah.
ALLISON BEARD: Go. [LAUGHTER] JONAH BERGER: So it's funny. I did a very similar project like this a few years ago for Yum Brands.
So one of their food brands, Taco Bell, was actually launching an app. And the app was doing OK. People were downloading it, but they weren't using it.
And so one thing we spent a lot of time on is thinking about why and how to change it. Is the issue that people don't know the app exists, so it's an awareness problem? Do people know the app exists, but don't think it's any good? Then we need to convince them it's good. Do they think it's good, but they don't want to download it? Why might that be? Are they downloading it but not using it? That's a different problem. And so I think the first thing we need to do is diagnose that problem, right? Why aren't people changing? Where is the bottleneck in that process? And then begin to think about how to solve it. ALLISON BEARD: So let's say that the bottleneck is people aren't downloading the app. JONAH BERGER: Yeah, so I think one question I would say is, well, what are they doing at the moment, right? So are they happily going into the bank, but they don't realize that app exists? Or they think, ah, god, I'm not sure it's going to be trustworthy enough.
What's going to happen with my personal data? If that's what they're uncertain about, then the question is how can I resolve that uncertainty? ALLISON BEARD: Right. JONAH BERGER: How can I make them feel more comfortable that it's actually not a problem? And so one thing I think a lot about in those type of situations is almost like a test drive for cars, right? So if you think about it, if a car company said, hey, great. You like our car.
You think you might like our car. That's wonderful. Pay $30,000, and then we'll let you check it out. [LAUGHTER] You'd say, what do you mean? I'm not paying $30,000 for a car before I figure out whether I like it. I want to sit inside and drive it and do all those other things. That's exactly what a test drive does, right? A test drive reduces that barrier, that upfront cost of trial.
And so I would ask the same thing with the app, right? What is that cost for those individuals that are not downloading the app? Is it they're worried about trust? OK, how can you show them how safe their data is going to be? Is it concerns about not feeling they know how to use it? How can you resolve that uncertainty? Maybe you have a white-glove concierge service where they come in one day and you have a day every month, almost like the Apple Store, where they do training, where you train people on how to use the app. Notice that the problem is trust versus the problem is knowledge about using it. Those are very different problems that need very different solutions.
ALLISON BEARD: Second scenario, you're working on a project with a group, and you want to take it in one direction. But your teammate is convinced you should go another. JONAH BERGER: So I think that idea of reactants that we talked about before is going to be important here as well.
Obviously, they have something they want. And so you just telling them about what you want isn't going to be enough. And if anything, if you seem like you're advocating for what you want, they're going to push back. And so first is to just start with understanding. I talk a lot about in the book about shrinking distance. Sometimes we think about a choice.
Like in this case, do we go with my option or someone else's option, almost like a football field, right? One end zone is my option. The other end zone is their option. And various people in the organization may be arrayed on that continuum. And the problem is, if we ask for too much, we ask that person to do our option, they're going to say, well, no way.
That's on the other side of the football field. That's in my region of rejection. I'm not even going to consider it. It's too far away from where I am now.
I'm not going to move that far. In those situations, a couple of things come up. First, often we have to start by asking for less, right? Rather than starting by saying, hey, completely switch to my side. Ask for something that's a lot closer to where they are already, and get them to move just a little bit.
This has to, I think, key benefits, right? One it gets them to move a little bit in your direction, but then it also makes what you're suggesting originally seem less far away. I talked to a doctor, for example, that was trying to get someone to lose a bunch of weight. So it was an overweight trucker. The guy was drinking like three liters of Mountain Dew a day. He was on the road all the time. The knee-jerk reaction in that situation is tell him not to drink any Mountain Dew, right? It's got all this sugar in it.
It's like eating a couple of Snickers bars a day. It's terrible for you. Just tell him to quit cold turkey. Same thing in the office context, right? Tell your colleague just to switch to your side, which obviously isn't going to work, right? It's so far in their region of rejection, they're just going to say no way outright. So instead what she did is she asked for less.
She said, hey, rather than drinking three liters a day, drink two. And so he grumbled and said, oh, I don't know if I want to do it and said, OK, fine. And a few weeks later came back, and had gotten it down to two. Then when he got down to two, she said, OK, now go down to one. And then when he came back a few months later, once he moved from one, moved from one to zero.
And it took a while, right, didn't happen right away, didn't happen in a day or a week. But this guy's lost over 25 pounds by doing this because it's not just about asking for less. It's about asking for less and then asking for more. ALLISON BEARD: So third scenario, you want a raise or promotion and are trying to convince your boss that you deserve it.
[LAUGHTER] JONAH BERGER: Yeah, I think a good one for this goes back to providing the menu that we talked a little bit about before, right? If you give your boss one option, you say, I want to raise. The boss is going to think about no. So you can say something like, hey boss, I'd either like a raise, or I'd like more days off. And by the way, I'd start with something else, showing your value to the organization saying, hey, I've been here this long, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I'd appreciate something, either more compensation, a raise, or more days off or more equity or more control, something else.
And what that does, again, is that gives that person choice rather than feeling like you've barged in their office and you've told them what to do. Because you're encouraging them to focus on two things you like, they're less likely to think about that third thing, which is just saying no. ALLISON BEARD: So often when we talk about influence, we hear it needs to appeal to both the head and the heart. So you're presenting data and you're appealing to people's emotions. How does this play in into overcoming the hurdles you're talking about? JONAH BERGER: Yeah, I think emotion is certainly one of the thing that's wrapped up in this idea. There's lots of research that shows that people value things they're doing already more than new things.
So a famous study, for example, asked people, hey, look at this product. Imagine you own it. How much would you sell it for? They ask another set of people, imagine you don't own it.
how much would you buy it for? Research finds, if you already have it, it's the status quo, you're doing it already, you value it a lot more. We're attached to old things. There's even some nice research on home buyers and sellers, for example.
The longer you've lived in a home, the more money you think it's worth, even controlling for its actual value. You become emotionally attached to it. But we're not only attached to the old.
We're also scared of the new. There's a lot of work on neophobia, for example. It says, look, we're scared that this new thing is going to work out. We're anxious about whether it's actually going to be successful. Any time we don't know what's going to happen, we tend to want to hit the pause button, right? We're scared of new things. We're scared of stuff we don't understand.
We're scared of things that are different from what we're doing already, both that they might be worse than what we're already doing, but also they may not be better. And that anxiety, that uncertainty, often stems action. ALLISON BEARD: Do these techniques work differently depending on who has more power in the situation? Can someone who's low on the totem pole use them? And then does a boss even need to? JONAH BERGER: What's definitely true is that the higher up you are in an organization the more power you have the more ability you have to legislate something, the more ability you have to say this is just what we're doing. I don't care whether you want to do this or not. What I say goes.
I think, unfortunately, as many bosses who are listening are probably well aware, they may say that, but it doesn't mean the rank and file move. What I think is nice about these ideas is, whether you're the lowest employee on the totem pole in our organization or you're the boss and you can legislate things, I think these tools are equally useful because to really change minds we have to understand those barriers. We have to send the psychology that's preventing change and how to mitigate it. ALLISON BEARD: So your first two books were about how ideas and products catch on, how they become contagious, and how invisible influences can shape our decisions.
Is the idea between your work on "Catalyst" that they're also supposed to be so subtle that we don't notice them? And all of a sudden, everyone's buying into our ideas, and everyone wants to buy our products and services. JONAH BERGER: I think what's really neat is, if you look at success stories in a variety of industries, you tend to see the same patterns. So for this book, yes, I interviewed great bosses, transformational leaders. But I also talked about regular Joes and Janes who got their boss to adopt a new project. I talked to startup founders who got their stuff to catch on. I talked to hostage negotiators who figured out how to get people to come out with their hands up.
And across this diverse set of situations, the same principles come up again and again. And I think some of us may be aware of some of them. We may have even done something that was successful in one particular case. But we often haven't codified them in a way that allows us to really apply them. And so that's why I like a framework.
This book has a framework to it that I think allows us to say, well look, let me diagnose that problem. Let me figure out what the barriers-- which of these five barriers are really getting in the way, and then figure out which of the solutions underneath those barriers I can use. ALLISON BEARD: Do you risk people figuring it out and feeling like they're being manipulated? JONAH BERGER: I think that's true of anything that we do.
And so I think some of these tools are a lot more subtle. One of the ideas I talk about is asking rather than telling, right? Rather than telling someone, hey, support my project or do the thing I want, ask them some questions. I was talking to a guy who was trying to get students to study more, right? He runs a test prep company.
He's trying to get students to study. He finds if he tells them, hey, you need to study more, they say, no thanks. Just like in that meeting, if we say, hey, we should do this project. Everyone says, no, no.
They think about the reasons it's wrong. So instead what he started doing is asking questions, right? Well, why are you here at this test prep company? Where are you hoping to get into schools? What grades do you need in and test scores do you need to get into those schools? How do you get those scores? And then eventually, how many hours you need to study to get there? And so by asking the right questions, by guiding the series of questions, you're allowing people to put that stake in the ground that then they're committing to the conclusion, right? If we're a boss, we're trying to get people to work harder, we can say, hey, we need to work harder, put more hours in. Everyone's going to say, I don't want to do that. But if in a meeting we say, hey, what kind of organization do we want to be, a good organization or a great organization? We ask a question. People aren't going to answer that question saying we want to be a good organization. No, we want to be a great company.
OK, well, what do we need to do to get there, right? And by asking that question, you're inviting people to participate. They're not only coming up with solutions, but they're coming up with solutions that are their solutions, which is going to make it a lot harder later on for them to say they don't like that solution because they came up with it, right? And notice, you're not asking any questions. You're not saying, hey guys, what do you want to do? You're picking those set of questions to guide the journey, similar to guided choices, right? You're asking the right questions to shape the path and encourage him to get to a conclusion that you want. When they put that stake in the ground, they're going to commit to it and they're going be much more likely to go along. ALLISON BEARD: So last question, let's talk about the flip side of this.
What if you're the intractable one, you're rigid, stuck in your ways, you don't want to change? How do you recognize that and fix it? [LAUGHTER] JONAH BERGER: I think I am the intractable one in my own life, so I'm well aware of this. Talk about the status quo bias. I don't know.
A few years ago, I had an iPhone 4. I'd had it for probably four or five years. Loved that thing to death. I was running out of memory. I needed to get a new phone.
I didn't. I started deleting things on my phone to create space. ALLISON BEARD: Let me tell you. This really resonates with me. I was the last person in our organization to have a BlackBerry. JONAH BERGER: Oh, yeah.
It's amazing. I went months of being able to basically not use any features on my phone because I liked it. I even looked at the new phone, but it was too big, so I didn't want it. I wanted to-- hopefully, maybe they'll come out with a new version that looks exactly like my new phone. It'll just have more memory, right? I even missed a flight. I finally broke down.
I buy a new phone. You think that'd be the end of it. I waited three more months before I actually used that new phone because I kept hoping, right? And so I, more than anybody else, I'm susceptible to status quo bias. We all are. I think sometimes putting a name to some of these things helps us see.
It's not that I'm crazy or I'm stuck in my ways. I'm actually, I'm susceptible to this because I have loss aversion, right? I'm attached to old things because the upsides aren't worth as much as the downsides. By understanding it, I think we can not only understand how to change others minds but how to change our own and our own behavior. [MUSIC PLAYING] ALLISON BEARD: So as I said, we decided to call Jonah again and talk about what he's been seeing in recent months now that we're in a post-COVID world. Jonah, thanks so much for joining us again. JONAH BERGER: Thanks for having me back.
ALLISON BEARD: We can't really address this topic in a time of COVID without talking about public health. How have you seen governments effectively and ineffectively guide their citizens during this pandemic? JONAH BERGER: Yeah, unfortunately, most of it has been quite ineffective, right? We've seen a lot of push messaging from wear your mask and stay home and don't do this and do that and a lot of telling people what to do, which, as we talked about, doesn't really work. It's been interesting to be talking about these ideas at this time point because I think nothing has shown the challenges of reactants more than recent events. When you push people, they push back. Even if someone might have been willing to wear a mask or stay at home or do something else, because you told them to, now they're less interested in doing it. And so what I've seen has been a lot more effective is some of the things we talked about more generally, things like highlighting a gap between attitudes and actions.
I was talking to a colleague who was worried about all their folks at the office, and they're slowly trickling back in some way, shape, or form. People aren't wearing masks enough. And rather than telling them, hey, why don't you wear a mask at the office? Why don't you say, hey, if you brought your parent or grandparent to the office, if you brought your child to the office, would you want everyone to be wearing masks? Probably. OK, well then, why aren't you? And so again, not telling them what to do, not pushing them in one direction, but really identifying the barriers to change and mitigating them.
ALLISON BEARD: And we all also are in this new world of virtual work that might last for some time, especially for knowledge workers. Is persuasion more challenging when you aren't face to face with someone? JONAH BERGER: Yes and no. I think, in some ways, we think it's all about standing up tall and speaking slowly and looking someone in the eye and being that persuasive communicator. And that stuff certainly helps. What I think is nice about some of the strategies I talk about in the book is they're not dependent on face-to-face or being a great communicator. They're about understanding the science of persuasion and when it works and when it doesn't.
And so whether you're talking to someone over the phone, whether you're shooting them an email, or whether you're on Zoom, these techniques still can work. You don't have to be the most confident person in the room. You just have to know what to say when you get your opportunity. ALLISON BEARD: We are in a time of crisis now.
Everything's in flux. Does persuasion become more difficult during those types of periods? JONAH BERGER: I think what's neat about this moment is, while there is a lot going on and it's certainly challenging, it's also a time of immense opportunity. People don't like change. They don't want to have to change. They would prefer never to have to change.
Now, people have been forced to change. They've been forced to do things differently. They've been forced to shop more online.
They've been forced to work from home. They've been forced to go running rather than go to the gym, whatever it might be. And so, because they've been forced to change, they're more open to new ideas than they'd usually be. I think a good analogy is like a snow globe.
When it sits on your office or table at home, the snow is settled and nothing's really changing. You shake it up, and you've got a minute or so where everything's up in the air and things are moving around. And you have an opportunity to move them in one direction or another. And so I think now is really a time for, whether you're a marketer, thinking about, OK, how do I give consumers a trial of my product or service? Well, they would have gone usually with the main brand in the space.
Now, they're more willing to try a challenger brand because they're doing new things. If I'm an employee and I want to change my boss's mind, well, how do I say, look, things aren't great at the moment, right? Sales are down. We've got a lot of challenges. Yes, there's a lot going on, but maybe now they're more willing to do something new because they have to do some new things in general. And so I think, while it is a challenging time, if we take advantage of this opportunity, we can really make a lot of headway. ALLISON BEARD: I think we did learn that people who are very resistant to certain things can flip the switch very quickly if they need to.
I used to hate video meetings, and now I do them every single day of my life. So you do realize that there is a way to break through hesitation, resistance, et cetera. JONAH BERGER: And I think, in some sense, you learn that things might not have been as bad as you thought, right? Yes, a new product or service might have seemed scary or different, or you may have never have wanted to work from home.
But you've been forced to try it. You actually learn that it's pretty good. And afterwards, you may stick with it. ALLISON BEARD: Well, terrific, Jonah.
Thank you so much for joining us not once but twice. [LAUGHTER] JONAH BERGER: Indeed. Hopefully, we'll get a chance to do it a third time sometime soon.
[MUSIC PLAYING] ALLISON BEARD: That's Jonah Berger, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business and author of The Catalyst, How to Change Anyone's Mind. [MUSIC PLAYING] This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhart. Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR Ideacast. I'm Alison Beard.