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How to Have More Influence

Have you ever been in a meeting where two people were arguing for different sides of a proposal? 
Sometimes one person dominates the time, giving a long list of arguments, yet the other person, who speaks briefly, wins the debate.
How could that be? You might have witnessed a surprising element of influence in communication: the dilution effect.
Put simply, the dilution effect says that when you’re trying to influence people with communication, you should focus on quality over quantity.
This is the conclusion of Niro Sivanathan, an associate professor of organizational behavior at London Business School. His research explores how the psychology of the self – specifically our motivation to maintain the integrity of the self – influences our decision making.
I’m drawing these comments and examples from his excellent TED Talk in London earlier this year, which I’ve linked at the end.
Quality over quantity
Sivanathan did his own experiments and reviewed other research to draw a simple conclusion: “What this body of research tells us is that in the world of communicating for the purposes of influence, quality trumps quantity. 
“By increasing the number of arguments you do not strengthen your case, but rather you actively weaken it. You cannot increase the quality of your argument by simply increasing the quantity of your argument,” he said.
Let me give an example of his research as a pop quiz for you:
Tim studies 31 hours a week outside of class.
Tom studies 31 hours a week outside of class. 
Has a brother and two sisters. 
Often visits his grandparents
Once went on a blind date
Shoots pool every two months.
Which student do you think has a higher grade point average? Tim or Tom?
Most people would say Tim has a significantly higher grade point average, according to Sivanathan’s research.
Why would we view Tim as the stronger student when they both study the same 31 hours per week? It’s because we’ve seen more information about Tom, which dilutes the relevant information that he studies just as long.
We average the information
Our minds don’t add all the facts together, but rather average the information. “So when you introduce irrelevant or even weak arguments…they reduce the weight of your overall argument,” Sivanathan says.
In his technical terms, Dr. Sivanathan outlines diagnostic and non-diagnostic categories of information. Diagnostic is information relevant to the evaluation, or decision, you’re trying to make.

Non-diagnostic is information irrelevant or inconsequential to that evaluation, such as Tom shooting pool and visiting his grandparents.
When both categories are mixed, dilution occurs, which decreases the value and weight of the relevant information. 
I know that’s kind of wonky, but it’s basically saying less is more. Give your best arguments and stop talking!
In another great example, Sivanathan tells the story of arriving in the United States for a conference and turning on the television to deal with jet lag. He saw the dilution effect at work on a TV ad for a drug. 
In the U.S., pharma companies advertise drugs with long commercials showing people in ordinary daily activities. They are required by law to list the side effects of the drug.
Sivanathan noticed, and ultimately proved through research, that the drug companies use the dilution effect to make people more open to liking the drug and paying higher prices. 
They do this by structuring the list of side effects to minimize their impact. In other words, the companies list sides effects such as possible heart attack, stroke, cancer, rash and itchy feet.
By adding “rash and itchy feet” they dilute the risk evaluation of more serious side effects and illnesses, according to his research.
Sivanathan applies this lesson of the dilution effect to all of us in our high-stakes communication in business and life:
This has important implications for how we can craft and mold our messages to have the impact we all desire: to be more influential as a communicator.
The next time you want to speak up at a meeting, speak in favor of government legislation that you’re passionate about, or simply want to help a friend see the world through a different lens, it is important to note that the delivery of your message is every bit as important as its content.
Stick to your strong arguments because your arguments don’t add up in the mind of the receiver they average out.
How about you?
Next time you’re in a meeting or conversation where influence is being attempted, observe who directly focuses on relevant information and who overloads people with irrelevant information.
When you’re trying to influence people, remember to bring your best arguments, then stop talking, because less is more.
Communicate less to influence more.
Do you have comments for me? Just visit my contact page to talk with me now.


P.S. -- If you know someone who could benefit from this article, please forward this newsletter.

Link to Dr. Niro Sivanathan’s TED Talk 
Photo by Evangeline Shaw on Unsplash

How to Control Your Jargon

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

– George Bernard Shaw

I don’t often offer financial advice, but given the current quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve, it’s a no-brainer to build incremental value by moving your resources from ill-liquid investments to ETF’s or another high-yield vehicle.

Not sure what I said there, but it’s typical of what people hear when experts in a field try to communicate with people who are not experts in the field, or even people inside their own organizations.

It’s because we use jargon, our own particular language.

Merriam-Webster defines jargon in two ways:

  • The jargon way: “the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group”
  • The simple way: “the language used for a particular activity or by a particular group of people”

Speak their language
If you’re trying to communicate with people, you need to speak their language, not your own.

As a communications coach for leaders, I work with many expert groups and individuals in specialized fields -- such as financial services, insurance, technology, pharmaceuticals, healthcare and others -- that have their own unique languages.

The problem is that to be successful in any endeavor you’ll need to communicate and influence others to support you -- to buy your product or service, fund your research or donate to your cause.

To call people to action, we must connect with them and build their understanding. Jargon stands in the way.

Talking with jargon becomes a stumbling block. When we hear a word or acronym we don’t understand, it stops us in our tracks.

With this in mind, I’ll offer a few tips on how to deal with your jargon affliction:

Develop jargon awareness. You can’t deal with a problem until you recognize it. The inherent problem with jargon is we get so used to talking in shorthand inside our organization and our industry that we don’t even know we’re doing it.

It’s like being a fish in water and not knowing you’re wet. That’s how immersive jargon becomes. Many experts I’ve worked with even admit to finding a sense of security in their jargon, it’s a place that feels safe and warm.

It’s important to watch yourself, or ask a colleague to help gauge your use of jargon.

Define your terms. What do those initials stand for? What does that term mean? It’s easy enough to define your working terms in a way that will make sense to the people you’re talking with.

This is important, especially with mixed audiences, inside or outside your organization. You never know what level of knowledge people have, so it’s critical to set a foundation of understanding with your terms.

Keep it simple. With this in mind, you should keep it simple. Make sure you cover the bottom line first and then give detail. In training leaders to face reporters, I tell them that most newspapers -- not the Wall Street Journal or New York Times, but USA Today -- are written at a 5th grade level, to provide understanding to everyone.

You can use that as a measure of basic communication for all audiences. Obviously, the more specialized or technically sophisticated your crowd, the higher you can raise your level. If you’re using numbers, you might want to read what I wrote about How to Use Numbers in Presentations.

Use an analogy or story. Even with more specialized audiences, you want to deepen their understanding. A good way to do this is to use an analogy, a metaphor or a story to connect with people and bring home the importance of your point. I wrote about this in Why Great Leaders Tell Stories.

Prior to a network television interview, I worked with the chief researcher on message points about an important new drug the company was introducing. She is super smart and conveys all the technical specifications with ease.

All I needed to remind her was to focus on the people who would benefit from the drug. With that prompt, she told me several true stories of the struggles of real patients. We were both choked up at their misery. Her media interview was phenomenal.

Watch for non-verbals. Some people like to stay in their jargon because they think it makes them seem knowledgeable, showing their expertise. But in fact it makes them distant from the people they’re talking to. It’s like they’re speaking a different language.

People won’t ask you to explain your jargon because they think they should know what it means. They’re afraid of seeming ignorant for asking a “stupid” question.

When we hear a term we don’t understand, it can stop us in our tracks. We’re trying to figure it out and you’ve moved on. But we’re still back there, trying to break through the jargon.

Watch people’s non-verbal cues to you about whether they’re following you. Do they have a distant, distracted look? Furrowed brow? Covering a yawn? ;-)

Ask and listen. Finally, and perhaps most important, ask and listen. Ask people frequently if they understand what you’re saying, what a term or concept means. Asking opens the door for real questions, dialogue and connection.

And making a connection is what it’s all about. We can’t inspire people to action, if they don’t understand us.

Kill the jargon!

Try to slay your jargon for a week and see the difference.

How to be More Persuasive

“Arouse in the other person an eager want. He who can do this has the whole world with him. He who cannot walks a lonely way.”
--Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

Dale Carnegie’s classic book quoted above was written in 1936 and gave great advice still relevant today. His intuitive insights into human beings effectively explored the art of persuading people. Carnegie’s wisdom has since been confirmed by researchers who have documented the science of persuasion.

Leading that charge is Dr. Robert Cialdini, a professor at Arizona State University and author of the seminal book, INFLUENCE: The Psychology of Persuasion, and other books codifying the science of influence.
Why should you care about persuasion?
Because any results in our lives come from our relationships with others.
My friend Brian Ahearn, who is one of only 20 people in the world certified by Dr. Cialdini to teach his method of persuasion, says our ability to influence others is central to our lives.
“Persuasion is more than changing minds and hearts, it’s about changing behavior,” Brian says. “Whether you want someone to buy from you, approve your project, get a promotion, or just get your kids to do their homework, persuasion is a skill that can help you accomplish your goals.”
In To Sell is Human author Daniel Pink cited information from a survey of more than 7,000 business people when he wrote, “People are now spending about 40% of their time at work engaged in non-sales selling – persuading, influencing, and convincing others in ways that don’t involve anyone making a purchase.”
This means that most of us, in non-sales roles, spend up to three hours a day trying to influence others; and that’s work-related. You might spend an equal amount of time in your personal life trying to influence the decisions and behavior of your kids and other family members.
Dr. Cialdini’s persuasive method makes a distinction between ethical influence and manipulation. As Brian says, “When you use ethical influence you can succeed now and build a long-term relationship.”
I can’t do Dr. Cialdini’s body of work justice in one newsletter, but here’s an overview of his principles of influence. I’ve studied, taught and used these principles of influence and firmly believe they will help you in your work and your life:
Principle #1: Reciprocity
We feel indebted to those who do something for us or give us something, no matter how small.
You’ll notice that when you’re ready to negotiate buying a new car, you’ll be offered a bottle of water or soda and a snack. This is where the sense of obligation begins. Whether you realize it or not, you’ll be looking for a way to repay this simple kindness. The research confirms what the car dealer hopes: you’ll be much more likely to say “yes” when the time comes.
Principle #2: Scarcity
We want more of those things there are less of.
This is why people buy “limited editions,” try to be one of the “first 20 callers” who receive a bonus, and camp out overnight for the new IPhone. I always smirk when I hear the urgent “this is a limited time offer!” Yes, until the next limited time offer. ;-)
What scarcity teaches us, Cialdini points out, is that we not only have to sell the benefits of our proposal and what’s unique but also what people stand to lose by not taking advantage of our offer.
Principle #3: Authority
We respect authority. We follow the lead of those we perceive as credible, knowledgeable experts.
The research found that psychical therapists who displayed their degrees in their offices were more likely to gain compliance from patients for their exercise therapy programs.
The science shows it’s important to send signals demonstrating our knowledge and credibility before we make the attempt to influence. The research says those signals are strongest when they come from third parties, such as testimonials of people who know you, even those who work for you.
In one example, the researchers had the receptionist answering the phone in a real estate office build up the credentials of the agent before transferring a call, such as “Mary has more than 20 years of experience selling local homes. I’ll connect you with her now.” They found this increased appointments by 20% and signed contracts by 15%.”
Principle #4: Consistency
When we like to stay consistent with the commitment we have made.  
Finding and asking for small initial commitments from people can activate this principle. For instance, Cialdini cites one study in which people declined to put a large “Drive Safely” sign in front of their house. However, the researchers found that people who agreed to put a small “Drive Safely” postcard in their window 10 days earlier were four times more likely to accept the placement of the sign.
Cialdini says the key is to ask people for voluntary, active and public commitments, especially in writing. You already have seen the living example of this during the U.S. presidential election. Those who early on and publicly committed to a candidate are highly unlikely to change their mind, regardless of whether they disagreed with the subsequent words, actions or behaviors of their candidates. They remained consistent in their commitment.
Principle #5: Liking
We like to be involved with and do business with people we like. But what makes us like people?
Cialdini’s research finds three important factors. We like people who are similar to us, who pay us compliments and who cooperate with us toward mutual goals.
His research with graduate students from two major business schools found that in negotiations, building rapport greatly increased the likelihood of an agreement. Negotiators who were told “time is money” and to get straight to business reached agreement about 55% of the time, while those who took the time to share personal information and find similarities reached an agreement 90% of the time.
The lesson is to offer sincere compliments and find areas of similarity before attempting to influence.
Principle #6: Consensus
We are social animals. When we’re not certain what we should do, we will look to the actions of others to determine our own.
This is why, when you are ready to purchase a product from Amazon, you’ll see those other offers: “People who bought that CD also bought these headphones and this coffee.”
They know what you like…and they know what people like you like. 
I urge you to learn more about how to persuade others in an ethical way. Developing the skill of personal influence will positively change your life in every way.

Additional Resources:
INFLUENCE: The Psychology of Persuasion by Dr. Robert Cialdini* 
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie*
To Sell is Human by Daniel Pink*
* Amazon affiliate link

Check out the videos and blog of my friend Brian Ahearn at

Photo by Malvestida Magazine on Unsplash