Inner Circle

Public Relations and Communications  

Exert Influence on Your Copywriting

by Ben Mason

Dr. Robert Cialdini’s landmark book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, provides some surprisingly simple insights into what makes people say “yes.” Naturally, then, it also offers some incredibly valuable tools for crafting copy that will drive prospects to your events…


Central Premise

In Influence, Dr. Cialdini goes “undercover” and takes on various persuasion-based jobs: car salesman, non-profit fundraiser, telemarketer, etc. As he watches, learns, listens and participates, he discovers that, while there are endless corollary tactics one might employ, any successful act of persuasion has at its heart one or more of Six Key Principles.


Cialdini’s Six Key Principles of Influence

1. Reciprocity — People are more likely to give, purchase or assent if they see it as an act of reciprocation. It’s no accident that most trade show exhibitors offer visitors a small token of some kind. It’s not just a branding opportunity; it’s an act of giving, and they know that the recipient will be more likely to reciprocate as a result. So, where possible, use your messaging as a vehicle to give your prospects something they’ll value—useful business-related content they won’t find anywhere else, for just one example.

2. Commitment and Consistency — When people make a commitment to an idea or outcome—verbally or in writing—they are more likely to follow through. As copywriters, we generally don’t have occasion to get verbal or written commitments from prospects. However, we can make educated guesses about commitments they’ve already made—for example, being a great boss or staying up to date with new breakthroughs in their industry—and remind them of those commitments when we ask them to take action.

3. Social Proof — There’s safety in numbers. People like to know there’s a precedent for what they’re doing. They want to see other people doing it first and reaching the outcomes they’d like for themselves. So, while testimonials and case studies may sometimes seem trite, if used strategically they can offer valuable support to your main message.

4. Authority — People tend to pay attention to authority. The more credible, the more intently they listen. Moms, doctors and industry experts are popular authority figures in advertising and marketing—for obvious reasons. When appropriate, speak from a place of authority. When you’re outside of your brand’s purview, enlist relevant authorities to help you out.

5. Liking — Quite simply, people are more likely to respond favorably to a request if they like the person making it. Celebrities are a great way to sell products, as they often have a pre-existing “like” factor. When brands can’t find/afford a suitable celebrity, they go through exhaustive casting processes to find talent the audience will “like.” In B2B contexts, it’s easy to overlook this principle. However, a little bit of “like” goes a long way, so cultivate it where you can.

6. Scarcity — Scarcity generates demand. If there are only a few of something, or if it’s only available for a limited time, we want it more. It’s that simple.


Caveat Scriptor

Upon hearing of Dr. Cialdini’s work, the temptation, I think, is to believe that he’s hit upon a magical formula for bending the will of any human. However, that line of thinking contains its own undoing: We’re talking about humans, and humans are generally much smarter than we give them credit for. What’s more, they’re quick to notice the man operating behind the curtain. Thus, shoehorning all six principles into a single email or commanding your audience to take action because you’re an authority will quickly end in tears.

As Kimberly has discussed here previously, people respond to story. They want characters with whom they can relate. Your promotion or event may have a truly mind-blowing value proposition, but if it doesn’t contain something with which your audience can relate on a personal level—a “human truth,” as one former teacher of mine put it—it’s unlikely to make an impression.

So, my best advice is to use these principles in service to your story—not the other way around. More important, perhaps, use them artfully. For one-off communications, focus on no more than two or three of the principles. If you’re working on a campaign and have your pieces planned out, you can work on developing a single principle per communication—or even spread it out over a couple of touches.

Of course, you’ll develop your own best practices for how to employ Dr. Cialdini’s ideas. As I see it, Influence is simply a way to better communicate in terms your audience will understand. In the end, if it’s used in that spirit, I figure you can’t go wrong.