The ability to be persuasive is incredibly valuable. I'm not just talking about in your personal life, of course. But professionally, persuasion is critical to business negotiation, to elements of HR and people management and also to team collaboration and marketing.

Even those who would never consider themselves particularly persuasive can improve their convincing skills using some good old fashioned psychology and tactics garnered from years and years of psychological experiments and research papers.

The "Copy Machine Experiment"

One such experiment is a 1978 experiment conducted by Harvard Psychology Professor, Ellen Langer. This is now commonly referred to as the "Copy Machine Experiment." In it, Langer asked both a man and a woman to try and cut into a line for a busy copy machine on a college campus.

Both participants approached approximately 60 subjects each asking to cut in front of them in the line with one of 3 questions:

  • Request only: "Excuse me, I have 5/20 pages. May I use the Xerox machine?"
  • Placebic information: "Excuse me, I have 5/20 pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make copies?"
  • Real information: "Excuse me, I have 5/20 pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I'm in a rush?"

Whether the participant used 5 or 20 pages as the number depended upon the number of pages the subject had. In some cases, participants asked for a "small request," where they wanted to cut in to make fewer copies than the subject wanted to make (e.g. 5 pages when the subject had a large number). In other cases, the request was large, where the participant asked to make 20 copies when the subject only had a few pages.

The Results

The results were astounding for the small request:

  • Where the request was made with no reason given (request only), 60% of subjects complied with the request to allow the participant to jump in line in front of them
  • Where the request was made with placebic information given, a huge 93% of subjects complied
  • Where the participant used real information, this was 94%

In other words, simply giving a reason, whether a real one or otherwise, was enough to gain compliance.

With the larger request this was different. Only the real information resulted in compliance, but compliance nonetheless.

The Magic Word: Because

This led Langer to conclude that the use of the word "because," significantly increases the chances of compliance to a small request.

Making a request followed by "because," and then even a piece of useful information disguised as a reason is sufficient to win compliance and therefore persuade.

How Can You Apply This Today?

This can be applied in a host of situations today. Take teamwork, people management and business negotiations as 3 incredibly obvious ones. Simply providing a "because," after a request will lead to more success with persuasion.

As a marketer, I apply it in writing marketing copy. We all know we should write about the benefits of products and services rather than their features. So consider the wording on testimonials. If you have a health product, you can have case studies worded where a subject talks about how they feel because of your product.

Also consider calls to action on websites. Why should someone sign up to your newsletter? Or why should they order today? Because what?

Each and every time you write a call to action, a request or even present a verbal request for a favor, follow up with "because," and see how it might affect how convincing you are.

Published on: Nov 23, 2016