Mason Karrer

Is a Simple Question the New Answer to Persuasion?

Blog Post created by Mason Karrer Employee on Aug 27, 2015

I need your help with something. How many books exist about the fine art of being more persuasive? Do they work? Whether it’s to win & influence, breach the inner circle, or just get a date, there’s seems to be no shortage of resources available. What do they all have in common? Probably nothing beyond a desire to influence people to buy them so we can magically learn how to be more influential! However some interesting research by Cornell University Professor, Vanessa K. Bohns suggests there actually is a universal trick to influencing people that’s both real and much easier than we might think. What’s the secret? Just “ask.”


In her Harvard Business Review article Professor Bohns describes a set of simple experiments her team designed to evaluate the accuracy of the average person’s beliefs about their own powers of influence. The basic approach was to analyze the delta between the subjects’ perceived difficulty versus how difficult it actually was to get strangers to do things for them. Some interesting baselines came out of it suggesting the average person is far more influential than they realize. Professor Bohns says we “persistently underestimate our influence,” (on the order of about half according to her stats.) In one experiment the subjects were supposed to get passersby to complete a questionnaire. Ahead of time the subjects predicted it would take them asking ten people just to get one to agree. Yet the results were not 1 in 10 but rather 1 in 4!


How can we apply this in the world of risk and compliance? The article cites a classic whistleblower scenario that reiterates how challenging it can be getting people to speak up. Another example that comes to mind is the difficulty in establishing consistency and repeatability when trying to embed compliance activities into business processes. We often seem to draw attention to the consequences of non-compliance (regulatory penalties) as a way to compel people to work differently, implement additional steps, fund projects, etc. Yet these consequences are often so ethereal it’s hard to cast them in a relatable context.


The Cornell team suggests a better approach may be to simply ask for help instead. Part of the rationale is based on the psychology that people are more inclined to willingly participate when they emotionally believe their effort will truly help. For instance a compliance process owner in need of better departmental cooperation might try an empathetic appeal: “Hey I know it’s a pain. But after the last audit finding it now falls on me personally if we have another issue and I can’t do it alone. So I really need your help. Can you please make sure these compliance checks get done each night?”


A compliance manager trying to win executive support could try an approach like this: “Mr./Mrs. Executive I know resources are tight, especially your time. But I also know how much you care about keeping a tight operation too. You have my word we’ll always run as lean as possible to keep spending down. Honestly, in many ways a few words of vocal support are worth more than budget dollars. If you could put some wind in our sails on this compliance initiative with a call to action for the stakeholders, we’d have a much better shot at getting them engaged quickly to ratchet things down with minimal expense.”


Is this really so shocking? It certainly seems more sensible than trying to command a bunch of pre-trained personality habits on the fly by simply memorizing a few acronyms. Or are they "backronyms"? Regardless, the results of the experiments seem to suggest a simpler, more tangible alternative. As to why this may not be more widely understood already, the researchers offered a few explanations ranging from people incorrectly believing their ability to influence was primarily governed by position or standing (e.g. title), to a theory that it’s simply inherently harder for people to physically say “no”.


Feel like giving this a try yourself? The Cornell team suggests the following tips:

  • Just ask: It really can’t hurt and people want to say yes more than we realize.
  • Be direct: Although it may seem polite to drop hints, it’s not as effective and people don’t actually respond as positively as we think.
  • Ask again: Persistence pays. Obviously you don’t want to be a nuisance. But statistically if you’ve only gotten a single “no”, it’s in your favor to ask again.
  • Skip the incentives: Depending on the request people are on average just as likely to comply whether they get something in return or not.


If you’ve made it this far then my attempt to influence you into reading my blog was indeed successful. Wow it really does work! Thanks Cornell!