Career & Success

The Science of Influence: How to Persuade Others and Hold Their Attention

In this podcast episode, we discuss communication techniques that can help open people up to your ideas.

May 26, 2020

| by Matt Abrahams

We’re constantly bombarded with competing bids for our attention, so as communicators, it’s important to be familiar with the research behind what engages people to ensure our messages get heard.

In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, Matt Abrahams speaks with Stanford GSB Professor Zakary Tormala about the subtle ways you can structure your speech to get people to pay attention. “It’s not really about tricking people into doing what you want,” Professor Tormala says. “It’s more about understanding the factors that actually engage people or open them up to your idea and maybe get them to see something a little bit differently.”


Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business and hosted by Matt Abrahams. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication.


Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: Hello. I’m Matt Abrahams, and I teach strategic communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast. I can remember to the weekend when I was a young boy that I discovered how cool persuasion can be.

My mother had instructed my brother and me to create garage-sale signs, but we needed to misspell them. She instructed us to insert a B in the middle of the word “garage.” So unlike all of our neighbors that weekend who were having garage sales, we were having a garbage sale. At the end of the day, we sold more stuff than anyone else.

My mother proudly asserts that it was the “garbage” that drew people’s attention to our sign and, thus, to our garage sale. Now I, of course, upon reflection, think people just thought we were stupid and they’d get better deals. Regardless, I learned that day that persuasion and how you influence people can be affected by the language and communication you use.

And when you think about it, much of our communication involves trying to influence others. If you’re trying to pitch a new idea, get support for an important cause or even get your kids to eat their vegetables, then persuasion is the name of the game.

Today I am really excited to be joined by Zakary Tormala, the Laurence W. Lane professor of behavioral science and marketing at the GSB. Zakary teaches popular courses of persuasion and attitude, and his research provides valuable insights into how to be more effective in your influence.

Welcome, Zakary. I have to say it is great to have worked with you on several programs at the GSB, and I really appreciate your passion for teaching and providing practical tips and tools. I’m excited for our conversation.

Zakary Tormala: Yeah, I’m excited to be here. Thanks a lot for having me, Matt.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah. So let’s go ahead and get started. I’d like to ask you to share how you think about persuasion. What’s your definition?

Zakary Tormala: Yeah. That’s, I think, a great starting point. In general, I think of persuasion in terms of the efforts we make to shape or shift people in their attitudes, their beliefs and behaviors. So it’s not really about tricking people into doing what you want or into buying your product, and it’s definitely not about forcing people to act or behave in a certain way.

It’s more about understanding the factors that actually engage people or open them up to your ideas and input and maybe get them to see something, some issue or some entity, a little bit differently. So that’s how I think about it.

Matt Abrahams: You’ve studied lots of important features of persuasive communication that can help us to become more effective. To begin, you’ve looked at the impact of engagement on persuasion. How does engagement influence persuasion? And what are some of the things we can do to increase engagement?

Zakary Tormala: Engagement basically refers to how much attention people pay to you and your message. So it’s a way of thinking about how interested they are in it, how deeply people will think about it. And it’s important because engagement facilitates your message’s impact.

So you could have a great message or argument or a compelling, say, candidate or offer; but if people aren’t willing to attend to that or think about it, they’re going to miss it. You’re not going to reach them. And so engagement is really about getting people to pay attention to what you have to say. And not surprisingly, you can have more impact when they’re doing that.

Matt Abrahams: And that’s got to be really hard, Zakary, in this day and age, where people are constantly bombarded with information. Just getting people to pay attention is hard.

Zakary Tormala: Yeah. And the way I think about it is that in situations where it’s harder to get people to pay attention because they’re bombarded and distracted and all these kinds of things, it’s all the more important to know what the research shows about building engagement. So our ability to engage people will be enhanced by knowing what the techniques are, and those techniques become more and more important the less focused people are.

Matt Abrahams: So share with us. What are some of the techniques? I’m dying to learn some because I’ve got two teenagers at home. This will help, I hope.

Zakary Tormala: Yeah. Well, good luck. Report back to me. That’s a hard audience. But yeah. So in my research and teaching, I usually emphasize a few core principles. And so one of the big ones is that, from the outset, you have to make it clear that your message is important.

Matt Abrahams: Hmm.

Zakary Tormala: And one of the best ways to make it clear that your message is important is by establishing that it’s relevant to your audience. There’s a side of relevance that’s super-intuitive: that people pay more attention to things that are personally relevant to them. That’s not surprising at all. But there are some handy techniques you can use to establish that.

So for example, you can establish relevance by communicating physical and temporal proximity. So those are sort of technical terms that I use to talk about this, but what that really means is that you’re talking about things that are — they’re urgent. They’re immediate. They’re happening here and now. So physical proximity refers to things that are around you, around your audience — so in your community, for example.

And temporal proximity means it’s soon or now or current, that sort of thing. And so if you can let your audience know or communicate that the issue at hand, whatever it is you’re talking about, is relevant because it’s happening now, it’s happening soon, it’s happening here and nearby, those kinds of things, they’ll generally pay a lot more attention to it. They’ll find it to be more important to them personally, and then they’ll get more engaged. So that’s a big one.

Another big one that we could highlight here is that if you let your audience know at the outset of your message that you’re going to be asking for their opinion or input, or asking them to make a decision of some sort, they’ll generally pay a lot more attention to you. So if following your message you’ll be asking your audience to weigh in in some way, or to make some kind of decision, or to vote, or to do anything like that, let them know up front. People pay much more attention when they know their input or perspective will be requested or invited at the end.

Matt Abrahams: Those tips for engagement, Zakary, are really helpful. Do you have any more rapid-fire advice for getting people engaged?

Zakary Tormala: Yeah, sure. So off the top of my head, here are a few ideas. One thing, is use the word “you.” When you address your audience as “you,” using the second person, they tend to perk up and tune in a little bit. So that’s one. Asking questions is another useful device. So rather than making a declarative statement at the outset of your pitch, if you ask your audience a question, that tends to increase their engagement.

You can also increase engagement by referencing change. So for instance, if I tell you that the guidelines around some health behavior have recently changed, that would cause you to perk up. You want to know what the information is, and you’ll get more engaged and think more carefully. So those are a few off the top of my head: Say “you,” ask questions, reference change. That causes a sort of spike in engagement that can be useful in persuasion.

Matt Abrahams: Wow. Taken together that’s a really great toolkit for getting people to pay attention and be engaged. I know something else that you’ve done some research in is you’ve looked at the role of certainty and uncertainty and how they play in persuasion. Can you tell us about this and how we can craft messages to take advantage of both certainty and uncertainty?

Zakary Tormala: Sure. Yeah, certainty is a big one. It’s something I have spent a lot of time thinking about, and a lot of my research has focused around that. So the theme with the certainty-focused strategies is that when you know people are with you in principle, they’re on board or they have the belief or attitude or opinion you want them to, try to build up their certainty. And that can be the thing that sort of transforms them from liking your idea to acting on that, buying it, recommending it, and so on.

Matt Abrahams: So it’s really about reinforcing that position they already have and strengthening it?

Zakary Tormala: That’s right, it’s — yeah. In fact, I think a lot of it is about strengthening it. So we think about certainty as a kind of attitude strength. Like a muscle can be strengthened, so can our beliefs and attitudes and opinions.

Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.

Zakary Tormala: And then there are specific techniques that have been shown to help boost a person’s feeling of certainty. So for example, once you know somebody is on board with your position, try to help communicate to them that other people are, as well. The more consensus people perceive for their own views, the more certain they tend to feel about those views.

So if you ask me about my opinion towards something, and then I give it to you, and you can tell me that 89 percent of the people you’ve asked have a similar opinion to mine, then I start to feel like: “Oh, I really got it right.” That sense of being in the majority gives me a kind of social validation that makes me feel like my assessment was accurate or correct.

Matt Abrahams: Really cool.

Zakary Tormala: So that’s one of the things you can do.

Matt Abrahams: Excellent. And so tell us about uncertainty. How does that work?

Zakary Tormala: Yeah. So uncertainty is — it’s actually about getting engagement. So it goes back to the “engagement” question, in a way. But uncertainty, the idea there is that although certainty is a good way to kind of convert an attitude into action, uncertainty is better at getting people to want more information or to think about something.

And so if you can create moments of uncertainty or moments of doubt or wonder in your message, that can make people feel curious. They start thinking something like: “Oh, I wonder what’s going on here,” or, “Why did he say that?” or, “What was she going to say there?” People start to be curious and want more information when they have some uncertainty. And so there are ways that you can kind of trigger or induce a little bit of uncertainty as a way to sort of capitalize on that — you know, to get people pulled in and more interested in the information that you have.

Matt Abrahams: Often when people set out to influence others, they focus on the promoting messages, all the reasons somebody should do or think something. However, there are often strong restraining or resistance forces that come to play that might prevent the adoption of whatever it is you’re trying to persuade people towards.

I’ll never forget … I study communication. My wife has got a PhD in psychology. And we could not, for the life of us, get our kids to eat their vegetables when they were younger. And the reason was not that our messages were bad — you know, “You’ll grow up strong,” “Your friends and sports heroes do it.”

It’s they didn’t like the way they looked or tasted, and it wasn’t until we changed the thing that was restraining it that we actually got them to actually enjoy eating vegetables. I know you’ve done some research into ways to manage resistance. Can you share some of the best practices you’ve uncovered?

Zakary Tormala: Yeah, sure. Well, I have done some work on resistance. And in general, there’s a healthy amount of research on this topic that kind of highlights the ways you can sidestep or dampen a person’s resistance if you suspect that’s coming.

So some of the things that have been found — this isn’t just by me but by other people who work on these topics — is that when you’re suspecting resistance … So let’s say that you have an audience or a target, and you know they tend to be resistant or they tend to be skeptical or reactant to whatever you say. They’re contrarians, those kinds of folks. Taking a less forceful, more cooperative tone or using more cooperative language can be effective.

So using words like “we,” “us,” “together,” “as a team,” things like that, that sort of create a common in-group — “We’re all on the same team here,” “We’re all in the same group” — that tends to open people up. People are generally much more open to in-group members than out-group members. And so using cooperative, nonforceful language can help with that.

Matt Abrahams: So inclusive language makes people feel part of the same team, and that opens them up?

Zakary Tormala: It helps. As long as it’s plausible. And so there would be cases where you try that, and people are thinking, “Are you crazy? We’re not in the same group,” people who are so far apart or divided. But as long as it’s plausible — so somebody who you do share some commonalities with or you are working toward a common goal with, that kind of thing — highlighting that and using the right kind of language can lower whatever resistance might normally spike for them. So that’s one thing you can do.

A kind of related idea is to think about using pro-attitudinal framing. And so when you think about a person’s attitude or opinion, you can usually identify whether it’s positive or negative on some topic. They’re favorable or unfavorable. A pro-attitudinal message is a message that’s on the same side of an issue. So if someone is positive, it’s also positive, not negative. Counter-attitudinal means it’s on the opposite side. And so sometimes when you’re about to disagree with a person, which can be a situation that triggers a lot of resistance

Matt Abrahams: Sure.

Zakary Tormala: You have a decision to make: What should your argument be? Let’s say that you’re making a hiring decision with a colleague at work, and they want to hire a particular candidate who you think is terrible. You could decide to say, “No, I disagree with that idea. That person is terrible,” but that’s a really counter-attitudinal position, which can trigger some resistance. If somebody is feeling resistant, that’s not going to convince them.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Zakary Tormala: A softer approach is to use a pro-attitudinal message. So maybe they think this potential hire would be great, and you could say something like: “They’re pretty good. I see some of the good qualities there, but I also have some concerns,” or, “I see some limitations, as well.”

And so it’s likely that that kind of message triggers less resistance in your colleague because you’re on the same side of the issue, just not as far along as them. And so if you can identify some of those things that are good, maybe starting by pointing that out, “Yeah. I see some of the benefits to that particular candidate, some of their unique attributes —”

Matt Abrahams: Aha.

Zakary Tormala: “— but I have some concerns” — people are less resistant. It sounds like you’re on the same side. They become more receptive to you.

Matt Abrahams: Right. I really like that approach because it seems that it reduces the defensiveness that comes with resistance. So the person at least stays engaged and is willing to have the conversation versus shutting off altogether.

Zakary Tormala: That’s right. I think any time you’re thinking about resistance and how to combat it, you’re really thinking about defensiveness. How can you make people feel less defensive, less threatened by your message, that you’re not trying to say they’re wrong or they’re stupid or something like that? So taking a more open, agreeable, inclusive and cooperative type approach with people generally lowers their resistance, and then you have a chance. At least there’s some wiggle room.

It’s still hard to persuade people who are feeling resistant; but you might be able to just move them a little bit, and that little bit might be just enough to accomplish the goal that you have. You don’t always need to flip people — you know, “You love that candidate. I want you to hate them.” I don’t really need that. I just need you to like them less, and then you won’t want to hire them anymore. And so keeping that in mind, usually you can have more success with little movements, baby steps. And sometimes those can have a big impact.

Matt Abrahams: I think that’s a really important point: that many of us walk into our persuasive messaging and think it’s all or nothing when, in fact, it’s really a continuum, and a little movement might buy you something in the short term or long term. And I think that’s important for people to keep in mind.

Zakary Tormala: Yeah, I’m a huge fan of little movements — you know, when you think about persuasion: that yeah, little … Just remembering that softening a person’s position can have a big outcome is really important. It’s often easier to accomplish and can be just as effective for accomplishing your goal.

Matt Abrahams: So before we end: I like to ask the same three questions of everybody I chat with, so I hope you’re willing to answer these questions.

Zakary Tormala: Okay, let’s do it.

Matt Abrahams: All right. So if you were to capture the best communication advice you have ever received as a five- to seven-word presentation-slide title, what would it be?

Zakary Tormala: “Be Confident but Also Open and Humble.” Wait, let me see. “Be Confident but Also Open — ”

Matt Abrahams: I think you’re close enough. We’ll let you —

Zakary Tormala: Yeah. I got it, yeah. So “Be Confident but Also Open and Humble,” something like that. And that’s not really advice that I got from any one person but more like an amalgam of insight that was passed onto me from different sources.

Matt Abrahams: So Question No. 2: Who is a communicator that you admire? And why?

Zakary Tormala: That’s a good one. My communicator, at least top of mind right now, is Steve Kerr, coach of the Golden State Warriors.

Matt Abrahams: Uh-huh. Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Zakary Tormala: So I’m a big basketball fan. And living in the Bay Area now for 13 years or so, I’ve gotten pretty swept up in Warrior mania.

Matt Abrahams: Sure.

Zakary Tormala: So I pay a lot of attention by default to what’s going on with the team and the coach. But I really like his communication style. I think he has this sweet-spot combination that I was just talking about in the last question: that he presents as calm and confident, but he also shows humility. He also uses humor very effectively to sort of defuse a question or the audience. And so yeah, so I’m going to say I like Steve Kerr. I feel like he seems in control. He seems calm and poised but also open, not arrogant. And he’s funny, and he is engaging and feels trustworthy as a result of all that.

Matt Abrahams: I’m a big fan of his, too. I think you and I both share a passion for basketball, and I think he’s a great choice as a good communicator to admire.

Zakary Tormala: Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: So the third question is: What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe, from your perspective?

Zakary Tormala: One would be “Get your audience engaged,” and that is often the first thing that you need to attend to. So if your audience isn’t interested and involved, it’s going to be hard to reach them. So focus on building engagement, especially early on. My No. 2 thing is probably establish your credibility, and I don’t mean here — I don’t necessarily mean your expertise or your competence, although that’s often important to do.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Zakary Tormala: But I mean this other stuff that we’ve been talking about. So you should convey that you’re trustworthy, that you’re open and receptive to divergent views. If you can show that you have those kinds of qualities, that you’re open to different perspectives and can be trusted, it’s easier to connect with and reach your audience.

And then my third thing: I’d probably return to the importance of certainty. So once you know that you’ve got your audience on your side, focus on building their certainty, giving them some sense of conviction and confidence because that’s, as I mentioned before, the catalyst that can sort of transform an attitude into action. It transforms liking your idea or your product to actively supporting it, buying it, recommending it, and those kinds of things. So maybe that is, yeah, not necessarily the first three things but three big things.

Matt Abrahams: Sure.

Zakary Tormala: Get them engaged, establish your credibility, and then boost their certainty and conviction.

Matt Abrahams: And you just did a very nice job of helping me to wrap up with some of the key takeaways from our conversation today. So I just want to end, Zakary, by thanking you so much. We are leaving with some incredibly helpful best practices for our persuasion. Additionally, I believe the insight into influence that you’ve provided us with will help us become better consumers of the persuasion that we’re exposed to. And for that I thank you, as well. So thanks so much, and I wish you well.

Zakary Tormala: Yeah. Thank you, Matt. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk to you today.

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