At my favorite neighborhood sushi restaurant, the servers put little wrapped Japanese gummy candies in the bill folder. Smart move: research shows providing a mint or anything sweet with the bill increases tips. If a server provides two mints, research says tips go up 14%. However, if the server provides one mint, starts to walk away from the table, turns back and says, “For you nice people, here’s an extra mint,” tips increase 23%.
Author Robert Cialdini, who reported this research, calls techniques like this “short cuts” to persuasion. But they fall far short of true persuasion. As business communicators, our role is not to drive knee-jerk responses but to help our companies and our clients achieve real change in knowledge, attitudes and behaviors.
Whether we are drafting executive speeches, responding to a crisis or developing marketing messages, our ultimate goal is to change minds — to move our audiences from inertia to action, from confusion to understanding, from skepticism to trust. Now more than ever, communicators are called on to provide the expertise to achieve these goals.
Truly changing minds requires more than giving out an extra mint. It requires that we use the tools of effective persuasion — in ways that are ethical rather than manipulative — to get our audiences’ attention with messages that resonate and make them feel connected, included and involved.
You may already be using some of these tools in crafting your messages, but using them more consciously and consistently can make us all more effective at changing minds.
5 Tools for Changing Minds
People connect with the humanness in others. That’s the reason we should coach leaders to share personal stories, acknowledge where they or the organization fell short of their aspirations, and let in some humor. When I worked at a manufacturing plant, we persuaded the new general manager to take an unusual role in a safety video. We filmed a forklift that appeared to be lifting an unbalanced load of boxes to an unsafe height. The boxes fell off, and when we shot a close-up of the tumbled boxes, the general manager crawled out from under them. People laughed, they connected with the new leader and they got the safety message.
Authenticity can also come from using the experiences and voices of our audiences and people they identify as peers. After the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill in the Gulf of Mexico, BP’s series of messages featuring its employees involved in the cleanup and community recovery efforts struck me as the most effective communication element. Hearing the employee voices was much more authentic than formal leadership messaging.
The concept of “motivational interviewing” — changing someone’s mind by letting them discover a new answer on their own through guided questions — is gaining traction in psychology. Communicators can apply the same principle by involving stakeholders in the change process. There are structured input methods, such as World Café (used at the 2017 IABC World Conference), charrettes and other collaboration processes, but less formal methods can be effective in many cases.
I worked on a Shell Oil project built around a 50-city speaking tour with the Shell U.S. president. Each stop included “idea-generating” town halls. Various energy topics — for example, “How should we as a nation manage energy demand and consumption?” — were displayed on easels around a room, and participants could walk around and use sticky notes to add their ideas for addressing each topic. The input was collated and reported back to participants at the end of the tour.
How much difference can a single word make? Try this brief exercise. Think about the word “chemistry.” What comes to mind? Beakers, science, lab coats? Now think about the word “chemicals.” What vastly different images does that word evoke? No wonder the Chemical Manufacturers' Association changed its name in 2000 to the American Chemistry Council.
Those of us who are writers become attuned to the connotations of language — the feeling behind the words. People’s minds are changed by how they feel, as much as or even more than they are changed by logic. Mark Twain said it best: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word … is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
At an IABC conference several years ago, I heard neuroscientist Amy Posey say, “If you go in data-first, you are missing the emotional superhighway to the brain.”
She was talking about storytelling, which is at the heart of how we change minds. You may have heard someone say, “We are wired for stories.” We are. We look for a beginning, middle and end. We look for the hero. We root for the underdog, the David facing off against Goliath.
When we can find the corporate stories that reflect the organization’s values and its vision, we have a powerful tool to change minds. When I worked with an offshore drilling company, the communications department came across a story of a driller who stopped work — stopped the actual drilling, which is a big deal — when he felt that the conditions were unsafe and could cause a blowout. The customer’s on-board representative wanted to continue and went up the chain of command to the drilling company’s CEO. The CEO supported the driller’s decision and the customer backed off. The customer’s management came back and thanked the drilling company for putting safety first.
The communications team used that story as the seed to build “Go Beyond,” an entire employee recognition campaign that made heroes of employees who “went beyond” to ensure we lived up to our values. A follow-up survey showed that the campaign changed employee attitudes.
The “Go Beyond” campaign results showed that 83% of employees were more aware of the company’s values. Sixty-seven percent said they were more focused on working safely. Those attitudes were reflected in the company’s safety performance: it achieved its lowest-ever incident rate.
That’s data. Data-first is the slow road to persuasion, but data-second, backing up a story, provides credibility and tells the audience that the story represents a larger truth.
Take the Challenge
Using these five tools — authenticity, involvement, word choice, storytelling and data — with more conscious intention can make us more powerful and more persuasive communicators. Look for ways to strategically incorporate one or more of these tools into the communications you are doing right now. Elevate your organization’s authentic leaders and voices. Involve your audiences in the process. Find the right words. Tell the stories that connect emotionally and back them up with credible data.
You will find the results are sweet indeed.
Alice Brink, ABC, IABC Fellow
Alice Brink, ABC, IABC Fellow, is a communications consultant based in Houston. As the owner of A Brink & Co., she works with corporate leaders and communications teams to build internal and external engagement strategies, clarify messages and communicate them in ways that change people’s minds.