We are all sheep – how to influence behaviour

When I registered for an executive program at Stanford University, little did I know I would learn about sheep behaviour…

The unexpected topic came about in a class on communication and persuasion, by Francis Flynn. It would seem there is much to learn about influencing human beings… by observing sheep!

Here’s what I learnt…

Sheep stick together – there is safety in numbers!

Likewise, human beings are likely to comply with requests consistent with what similar others are doing. This phenomenon is referred to as ‘normative influence’.

Take, for example, a tip jar. People are more likely to give tip if they think it is the ‘normal thing to do’. So cafes and restaurants often put money in the jar at the beginning of the day to encourage tipping.

The impact of this phenomenon on communication applies to the language you choose. Words that imply others are doing what you would like them to do will lead to stronger following.

For example, an advertisement with the call to action “Operators are standing by, please call now” was doing very poorly. The commercial was essentially telling viewers that no one else was calling and operators were standing by and waiting.

The company switched the call to action to: “If operators are busy, please call again”. This subtle change had a drastic impact on their business.

Sheep follow sheep

It is said that people are more likely to be persuaded by someone if they know they have the same birthday. This illustrates that finding a point in common with the person you are communicating with can help you get your message across more convincingly.

Sheep are social

Sheep are very social animals and will become agitated if they are separated from the flock.

Similarly, people don’t like to think they’re on their own and will often change their behaviour to ‘join the group’. So if you want to influence behaviour, craft messages that make people think ‘it’s just me’ (as opposed to ‘it’s not just me’).

One tip to achieve this is to individuate your communications by favouring personalised over group emails, and using ‘most people…’ in your messaging.

More non-sheepish communication tips

If these tips are not sufficient, here are another nine key principles for effective communication:

  1. It should have a singular focus
  2. Repeat again and again (repetition helps to increase awareness levels)
  3. Say ‘because’ more often (beware of the illusion of transparency – “why should I explain this, it’s obvious to me” – managers are more criticised for under-communicating then over-communicating)
  4. Use contrasts or points of comparison
  5. Provide objective evidence (e.g. demonstration)
  6. Appeal to the senses by using multiple modalities (sound, sight, feel)
  7. Model your words (people judge you based on what they see you do, more than what they hear you say)
  8. Remember that the first and last items communicated will be the ones most recalled
  9. And last but not least… Be authentic!

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