EP - 071

Invicible Influence: How to Get Prospects to Care

With Guest Jonah Berger

How to unlock the true potential of influence in business and beyond

The How To Sell More Podcast


June 12, 2024

Mark speaks with Jonah Berger, a Marketing Professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School about ways to positively leverage influence within your organization.

Jonah is a world-renowned expert on change, word of mouth, influence, consumer behaviour, and how products, ideas and behaviours catch on. He’s worked with big names like Apple, Google, and Nike, and written the bestsellers Contagious, Invisible Influence, The Catalyst, and Magic Words. He speaks with Mark about using the hidden strategies of influence to drive action and change minds.

Strength in numbers: When making big decisions, people are more easily persuaded by hearing similar advice from multiple sources. It boosts credibility and lowers the perceived risk, making the choice feel safer and more reliable.

Harness the power of opinion: Asking questions instead of giving orders disarms people’s defense mechanisms and encourages active participation in decision-making. This sense of ownership over the outcomes boosts their commitment and minimizes resistance.

Remove barriers, don’t push harder: True persuasion is about understanding and eliminating obstacles to change, not applying more pressure.

“People have an ingrained anti-persuasion radar; they want to feel like they are in charge of their lives.” -- Jonah Berger

Links to This Episode

Key Takeaways

  • The positive role of influence - Influence can streamline and enhance decision-making by leveraging the experiences and reviews of others and lead to better and quicker choices.
  • Ask, don’t tell - Asking questions rather than giving orders can deactivate people’s defensive mechanisms, allowing them to participate in the decision-making process and take ownership of the outcomes. This enhances commitment and reduces resistance.
  • Corroborating evidence - When making significant decisions, people are more likely to be persuaded by multiple sources of similar advice, as it adds credibility and reduces the perceived risk of the decision.

Top 3 Reasons to Listen

Understand the subtleties of influence: Discover why influence isn't just about swaying others to your point of view but also about making informed decisions based on collective wisdom.

Harness the power of asking questions: Learn how asking questions rather than giving directives can lead to greater buy-in and reduce defensive reactions.

Explore the practical applications of influence in leadership: Jonah provides real-world examples of how influence can be used to lead teams and drive organizational change.

Follow Guest on Social

Website: https://jonahberger.com/

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/j1berger/

More About Today's Guest, Jonah Berger

Wharton Professor, Bestselling Author of Magic Words, Contagious, Invisible Influence, and The Catalyst, Keynote Speaker, Consultant

Jonah Berger is a Marketing Professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, an internationally bestselling author, and a world-renowned expert on change, influence, word of mouth, natural language processing, and consumer behaviour. His research focuses on how products, ideas, and behaviours catch on.

With over 50 articles published in top-tier academic journals, Jonah also teaches Wharton’s highest-rated online course. His work frequently appears in popular media outlets such as The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Harvard Business Review.

Jonah’s books—Contagious, Invisible Influence, and The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind—have sold over a million copies and are available in more than 35 countries. He is a sought-after keynote speaker at major conferences like SXSW and Cannes Lions, and he consults for leading companies including Apple, Google, Nike, Amazon, GE, 3M, and The Gates Foundation.

A Transcription of The Talk

Mark Drager: Jonah, what I'm so excited to talk to you about is this idea of influence. Because I think so much of your work boils down to understanding that there are powers at play in the world, in media, in social media, I think we all know. But even all of these unknown subconscious things are happening in our minds. And it seems like you've dedicated your career to understanding why things take off, why things spread, why they become viral. And in doing so, you almost have to like study how we are influenced. So before we dig into, like, all of the tactics of persuasion, and everything else, can you just help me and all of our viewers understand why as people we're so easily influenced?

Jonah Berger: Yeah, you know, I think, particularly in North American culture, more generally, influence can almost be seen as a bad word. Right? Like, oh, I was influenced, you know. Why are you influenced? People hate seeing themselves as influenced; they don't want to be influenced. But what's so interesting is, you know, being influenced, in general, broadly speaking, is quite useful, right? So imagine, every time you wanted to buy a product, every time you wanted to pick a restaurant, every time you wanted to go on vacation, you had to do all the work yourself to figure it out. Even take something as simple as where to go for lunch, right? You'd have to look at all the menus yourself, you'd have to sample them, right? So how would you know if a place would be any good? Life would be not only a lot more time-consuming but also just a lot more difficult. Influence can be very useful; it can be very adaptive. Influence can help us make better decisions by relying on others' experiences. Sometimes, often, in a commercial, a product will look great, but it's not actually that great. And so relying on our friends and peers helps us make better decisions, not just what the company wants us to think. Right. But what people actually say—you go to a restaurant's website, it looks amazing. But if you look at the reviews, they'll say, well, you know, it looks amazing, but the food isn't as good as they promise.

Well, now that influence really helped me make a better decision. Or even if it doesn't help me make a better decision, it helped me make a faster decision, right, it helped me make a good decision faster. In many cases, ordering things online, for example, almost all the options are pretty good, right? It's not like, you know, many of them are going to be terrible. And so you can't really go wrong. But seeing what others have liked the most will help you find something quickly that's quite good. And so whether it's saving us time, effort, energy, or just making our lives better, influence is often quite useful, right? Think even as our sort of, you know, our early prehistoric forebears, imagine if you couldn't be influenced, you had to figure out where to hunt for food, just because you knew that information yourself. Life would be really hard. And so relying on others helps us sort of forage for information more quickly and makes us better off. And so yes, in today's world, you know, seeing ourselves as influenced can be perceived negatively, but it often makes us better off.

Mark Drager: It's funny because when I asked that question, I asked it knowing I was like, "Oh, I can't wait to talk about how terrible influences are on us and how they're making us do things we don't want to do and not even giving us all the options for the decisions we make." And yet, you've completely flipped it on me because you reminded me of when I got laser eye surgery a bunch of years ago. At the time, one of my employees, who is one of the most analytical people in the world, had laser eye surgery. So I said, "Okay, where did you get this LASIK done?" And he mentioned a local clinic, said, "Okay," and then I asked someone else, "Hey, where did you get it?" And they said the same clinic. I didn't look anything else up, then I didn't spend any more time on it. I went for the consultation. They were concerned with the prices. I don't really care what it costs. They were saying, "Well, which package is that?" I just said, "Whatever this person said. If you have any questions, I have no questions." Because I trust these two people. Yes. And I realized I don't need to go down the same rabbit hole they went down.

Jonah Berger: And I love a few things about that. Right. First of all, it just made your decision much easier. And sure, you could have looked at brochures, but the brochures probably would have said the same things: "We have great service, we care." No company says they don't care about their customers. But saying you care about your customers isn't very diagnostic. But if two people you know went and they had a great experience, you're probably going to have a great experience as well. That also speaks to something I talked about in "The Catalyst," which is the idea of corroborating evidence. Sometimes, you know, if we're trying to make a small decision or change somebody's mind about something, it's pretty simple. We're basically trying to move a pebble, right? You don't need a lot of evidence to move a pebble, but to move a boulder—to move a big decision like laser eye surgery—if one person said it was good, you might say, "Well, that isn't enough." But if multiple people say the same thing, you're pretty sure you're going to have the same experience.

Mark Drager: I'm pretty sure I'm not going to come out blinded, which was my concern, right? Like, I don't want to be blinded in the surgery.

Jonah Berger: And there's an old adage that goes something along the lines of, "You know, if one person says you have a tail, you laugh at them. Why? Because you don't have a tail. But if five people say you have a tail in short succession, well, then you might turn around to take a look. Because if five different people say the same thing, it's much harder to believe that they're wrong." And so influence can be really helpful, from the mundane decisions of our daily lives to the really important.

Mark Drager: Everyone listening and watching, we're achievers, right? We're leaders, we know that we've been called to do something bigger. And so we're always bumping up against our comfort zones; we have a big vision, we want to make things happen. And I've learned the hard way that you really can't build big things alone. You know, I've tried many times, because it seems faster, and it seems like I have more control. So as leaders, we often have to influence others to come along with us. And this is going to be great. And here's the promised land, or we're trying to convince in like a sales opportunity. We're trying to convince someone to buy from us, we're trying to convince someone, a spouse maybe, that for the first time ever, we're not going to change; we're not going to just do the same thing over and over again. And so we spend so much time convincing, and yet, I don't know, as soon as someone tries to convince me of something, not only do I get my back up against the wall instantly, I get so cold and rude, that my wife knows in my tone like I tell people I love, "Do not ever try to sell me on anything. I love you. So please don't hurt yourself by trying to sell me." Yeah. What is it about convincing people that just doesn't work?

Jonah Berger: Yeah. So essentially, what you're talking about is this psychological principle called reactance. And the basic idea is when pushed, people push back, right, when people try to convince…

Mark Drager: You should see how my wife and I have conversations.

Jonah Berger: Yeah, and I often, when I talk about "The Catalyst," I often put up this figure of a person and the forces that we might be pushing on them to push them in a certain direction. And, for objects, that works really well, right? If there's a chair and you want to move that chair, pushing the chair is a great way to get it to slide across the floor. The problem is when we push people, right, they don't just sit there; they push back. They think about all the reasons they don't want to do what we've suggested; they dig in their heels, and they become less likely to do what we wanted, not more. And part of it is this idea of reactance. People have an ingrained anti-persuasion radar; they want to feel like they are in charge of their lives. Why do I make a certain choice, buy a certain product, do a certain thing? I did it because I thought it was a good idea. But as soon as we, whether we are a salesperson, a marketer, a boss, a colleague, or a spouse, whoever we are, as soon as we come in and try to tell someone what to do, now they're no longer clear. "Am I doing this because I thought it was a good idea, because I like it, or because you told me to do it?" And the more I feel like I'm doing it because you told me to do it, the less interested I am in doing it.

So rather than pushing people, we've got to figure out how to remove the barriers to change. Think about being parked in your car. Maybe you're coming out of your kid's soccer game, your car's on a hill, you get in the car, you stick your key in the ignition, and you step on the gas, if the car doesn't go, we often think, "Oh, I just need more gas, right? If I just push on the gas more, the car will move." Same with people; if I just push them a little harder, they'll change. But if the parking brake is up in that car, it doesn't matter how much you step on the gas, it's not going to go anywhere. And the same is true with people. Rather than stepping on the gas so much, we need to figure out what those parking brakes are, what those barriers or obstacles are in the way of change, and figure out how to mitigate them.

Mark Drager: And are there simple ways that we can help figure that out? Because often, you know, we don't have time to plan. It's nice if you have time to plan out a pitch deck, or if you have time to perhaps rehearse in your head how the conversation can go, which is something that I do quite often. But how can we prepare, how can we render this out in real-time when we find ourselves being hit with all of these different objections? And frankly, we just need people to do what we say. Just do it. Like, I'm trying to help you here. Why are you making me work so hard to help you sometimes?

Jonah Berger: So, there are a bunch of tactics in "The Catalyst." Some of them require a little bit more preparation, but some require very little preparation. One strategy I often talk about is called "Ask, Don't Tell." When we tell people something, they push back; when we ask them questions, they do something a little bit different. A few years ago, I was talking to a startup founder. She was having trouble motivating her team. She was saying, "You got to work late, you got to work on weekends," and they didn't want to do it. And I often talk to audiences where they say, "But I'm the boss, right? I can get people to do what I want." What's tough, even when you're the boss, is you can tell people to do what you want them to do. On the surface, they'll even do what you want them to do. But if they're not really believing in what you've asked them to do, they're not going to do their best. Like, you tell them, "Oh, you have to be available at all hours of the day," and so they'll send out an email at 2 AM, but they're not actually available, right? They've just delayed sending an email to make it seem like they're working at 2 AM. So, rather than pushing people too much, she called a meeting and said, "Okay, what do we want to be? Do we want to be a good team, a good company, or a great company?" And they said, "Of course, a great company," but then she asked, the real question is, "Okay, how do we get there? How do we become a great company?" And she starts having a conversation.

People say this, and they say that, and eventually, they get to a solution. Because questions do three things, right? First, they deactivate that anti-persuasion radar; rather than telling people what to do, and they push back, you've asked them a question. People are more than happy to give you their opinion. There are few things they like doing more than giving you their opinions. Second, you've allowed yourself to collect information. Too often as change agents, we know a lot about the outcome we want to achieve, a lot less about the people or organizations we're trying to change. Questions allow us to collect that information. They allow us to figure out what are the objections, what are the problems, what are the barriers, what are the roadblocks, and allow us to reach a better solution. But then third, questions encourage commitment to the conclusion. Because if someone says, "Okay, great boss, to become a great company, I think we should do this," and then the boss says, "Fantastic, we're going to do that," it's a lot harder for that person not to go along because it was their idea in the first place. I was presenting these ideas about six months ago, and someone said, "You know, it's so funny. My boss loves feeling like things are their idea." And I said, "You know, the only funny thing here is, it's not just your boss, right?

Everyone likes feeling like something is their idea." Because if you feel like it's your idea, you're bought into it; you want to see it succeed. And so often, we need to give away ownership, right? The more we can make people feel like something isn't ours but theirs, the more they want to see it succeed, the more they've been a part of the process that reached a conclusion, the more they feel like they participated, and so they're bought into the outcome. And so rather than telling people what to do, asking questions can be a great way to help them get to, and us get to a better outcome. And I think that's what's really powerful about some of the ideas in "The Catalyst" to me. It's not, "Don't push, identify the barriers," I don't mean just sit there and magically hope something happens, right? Use questions, use strategies to lead people down a path without them feeling like that's where they're going. And so that can be a really powerful way to help them make that decision themselves.

Mark Drager: Now, one question I do have is, when you are putting these books together when you are doing this work, you can find a study for anything. I mean, you know, we can find a study that supports, "Hey, being around people motivates people to this outcome." But other times being solo motivates people to an outcome. You know, if you're looking at basketball, being down a few points at halftime means that you're more likely to come back and win. And yet, if you're in another sport, like tennis, where it's more of this weird game of on one, you're less likely to win. So I find them all super curious and super interesting, but knowing that the fact that you're like a professor of this, how do you figure out in your head how to bucket these different sides of everything, when there are so many studies that prove everything?

Jonah Berger: I mean, so people and life, and I don't have to tell you this or your audience this, you guys know, are complicated, right? You know, it's not like there's one rule, and people always behave according to that rule. There are multiple rules that happen in different situations that shape our behavior. The problem though, is if you start by saying, "Hey, things are really complicated, you know, in this situation, this happens; in this situation, this happens; in other situations, people just give up, throw their hands up and go, 'It depends. I don't know. I give up.'" And so I try really hard in my books to walk a fine line between oversimplifying things in a way that means that even if people applied the rules, they wouldn't actually see the benefit of them, and also being like, "It's so complicated." So I think about it a little bit like an onion, right? Let's talk about a principle. So, facilitation: people tend to work harder when others are around them. Okay? That's true. People tend to work harder when others are around them. Let's give some examples of that.

Let's talk about it, then you say, "But right, that working harder, can lead to better or worse outcomes, right? Working harder can lead to good outcomes if it's something you're already good at. But working harder can actually make you anxious if it's something you're not good at, and you'll do worse at it, right?" So, for example, having people around makes you really good at tying your own shoes, but often makes you worse at parallel parking. Right? Tying your own shoes is something you know how to do really well, you could do it in your sleep; another person around, no problem, I'll do it well. Parallel parking is already a little bit difficult; someone else around adds a little anxiety and makes it harder. And so I try to start with what we described as a main effect, this is generally true, and then add the nuance because my hope is that people don't walk away going, "Well, it depends. I don't know. I give up." But going, "I don't just think it depends. I know what it depends on." And if I know what it depends on, I can try to say, "Is this type of situation or this type of situation?" And then I know what to do in each. But life is complicated.

I wish it were simpler, but hopefully understanding human behavior will help us improve our batting average. And whatever we're doing, right, whether we're trying to persuade others, whether we're trying to form deeper relationships, whether they're trying to live happier and healthier lives, the more we understand about human behavior, the better off we'll be. I often asked myself, you know, is it better for people to remember, you know, is it better for what you said to be 90% right, maybe 10% wrong? Or is it better for people to remember nothing about what you said? And I think that is a deeply philosophical and moral question that different people may have different sorts of answers to. But I often feel like, look, if I tell people something, and they don't remember any of it, it could be amazingly right, but it's not going to matter. And so I don't want to be wrong. And I'm never trying to be wrong. And, you know, if you look at the books I write, they're often many footnotes or endnotes saying, "Yes, but, you know, this is generally true, but this or this is usually the case.

But check these things out." There are a lot of references in my books to academic research. And my goal is not for people to believe that I am right, my goal is to direct them to the great resources out there if they want to learn more. But at the same time, you know, if I said, "Hey, here's all the information out there," people probably wouldn't take home any of that information. And so we as folks who care about our craft, need to think about, "What is my goal, right? When I want someone to learn something in the classroom, for example, I have an hour to teach them stuff, I've got to make some choices." And you could say, "Well, you only want to teach them things that are right." That's fair. But you could also say, "Well, hold on, what about all the things you didn't teach them?" Right? You're making choices all the time. And so yes, you want to teach them things that are right. But you also want to put it across in a way that will be more memorable. And so you know, take something like hedges, for example. We do this all the time. We say things like maybe and possibly and could and might, and it seems and it seems to me and we do all that as almost a subtle check. I do it all the time. I'm terrible at this academic.

Mark Drager: I'm the mayor of Hedge City, let me tell you.

Jonah Berger: And I'm not saying hedges are bad, but hedges reduce...

Mark Drager: Well, you just hedged! No, hedges are bad! That's what we're saying.

Jonah Berger: Well, let me get there. Hedges reduce persuasion. We've done a bunch of empirical research on this. When you hedge, when you say something, people are less persuaded by what you said, they're less likely to take your suggestions, take your advice, and follow your actions because you seem less certain, because you seem less confident about what you're talking about. And so one thing is to say, "Well, okay, never hedge." That's right. Kind of right. I'm not saying never hedge. I'm saying, if your goal is to communicate uncertainty, that's fine. But recognize that people are going to be less persuaded as a result. Maybe what you want to do is be very certain about a smaller set of things, rather than uncertain about a larger set of things. Maybe you want to be clear about what you're certain about, unclear about what you're not certain about, to express a great deal of certainty, but separate the uncertainties and the certainties. And so, I agree, you have to understand what your goal is. But I think if we do things by mistake that doesn't help us, we probably should be aware of those things.

Mark Drager: Oh, you just—you just gave me an unlock. I visualize in my head these little unlocks, you know, when if you've ever played an RPG or something, and you're like, "Yes, I just leveled up my armor," and something happened, you just gave me an unlock, because I do struggle at simplifying. Not for others; I can see it's super clear in others, but for myself, just keeping the scope of the conversation or the scope of what we're doing super, super narrow. And within that narrow scope, I definitely know what I'm talking about. But I allow myself to go too broad, to go too big. Yeah, all the areas that I, you know, I might have an opinion on, but I'm not really sure about. And I don't know why I do that. Actually, maybe I think if I just talk about this one thing or do this one thing, it's too limiting. It's too small. Maybe there's ego there, maybe it feels like I'm gonna get bored or run out of things to do. I mean, I don't know. But that's, that's an unlock. So thank you.

Jonah Berger: And, you know, I think it also depends on what our goals are, right? And it depends on what situations we're in. And so, I'm not saying, you know, never hedge. But there's this old Albert Einstein quote and I'm going to get it wrong, but it goes something along the lines of, "You know, if you can't explain something simply, you don't understand it well enough." And that doesn't mean you're explaining everything. But I think if you truly understand something, you can figure out a simple way to talk about it, even if it's "Look, this is right in this situation, and this other thing is right in this other situation," rather than saying, "You know, this happens sometimes." Being clear about when it happens, not just "It depends," but what does it depend on? I think great teachers do a good job of that.

Mark Drager: That's amazing. That is amazing. It seems to me, help me understand whether this is all new stuff that we're just discovering. Because it seems like every time a book like this comes out, or I'm able to speak with someone with your experience, it's like so mind-blowing to me. And so I can't figure out if this is what has always been. And it didn't used to matter. If this is what has always been and it did matter, and people just accepted it and gone on with it. Like yeah, or if this is all a new way of thinking, a new step in science and psychology and understanding because it's just like, I feel like the last 10 years of research and books and all of this understanding. It's just blowing my mind, to be honest with you.

Jonah Berger: You know, I think one thing I've found interesting about writing this book, but one challenge I've also found in writing this book, is there are a lot of books out there on language. A lot of books say, "These are the seven words you should avoid," or "These are the five things you should say in interviews." And while I love the goal of those things, unfortunately, they're not often backed by research. It's someone's personal opinion about language. You know, my experience in this field suggests that this is a word you shouldn't use. And let me tell you, I love people's opinions. You know, just like anybody else, I love opinions. When it comes to opinions, I tend to prefer my own opinion rather than someone else's. But what I like better than your opinion, or my opinion, or anybody else's opinion is data, right? Because whether my opinion is right or wrong, proof is in the pudding. Let's see what the data actually says. And so what you're right about is that opinions about language are not new. People have had opinions about language for a long time. What is new is our ability to parse language in new ways. So let me give you an example.

I share a study that we recently did two or three years ago in this book, where I talk about the power of concrete language. And I do that from a study we did analyzing a couple of thousand interactions with customer service representatives. So you call a customer service representative on the phone or email back and forth with them. We look at the language that increases customer satisfaction and purchase and why. Basically, certain language shows people that you're listening. Now that truth has been there forever, we didn't invent the truth that concrete language makes people feel that you're listening. But what's possible now is, to wait. Now these phone calls are recorded, we can transcribe them pretty quickly. And we can run automated text analysis through all these conversations, to pull out statistical relationships that may have been there forever. But we couldn't see it previously. And so there's been a huge wave of increase in measuring language, capturing language. Right? You know, you and I are having a conversation right now using voice, but it may be transcribed after this conversation. Similarly, people leave their opinions and attitudes on social media all the time, we can scrape that data and gain insight into how customers feel. And so everything from the emails that we use, the conversations that we have, we can parse it for insight. And there are better tools to do that. And so is language new? No, are the findings new? They've always been there. But we now can uncover them in some new and powerful ways.

Mark Drager: And being as close to this as you are, is there anything that you see that's worrying or scaring you? Because as you're describing this, I'm thinking, "Okay, you're going to do this research, you're going to put it in the hands of marketers alike, as they say, marketers ruin everything we do. And we're going to use it to manipulate people, we're going to use it to influence people, it's going to be short-lived, you know, people will become aware of it, you know?" And then, is there like this cat and mouse game? Is this pendulum swinging? Are there things where you're like, "Oh, Mark, don't even worry about that; AI is going to destroy us all anyway"? Like being as close to it as you are, what is it? Are you afraid of anything?

Jonah Berger: You know, I'll say a few things there. First of all, tools are tools. Right? A hammer can be used to build a house, a hammer can be used to hurt somebody—the tool by itself is neither good nor bad. It's neutral. It's just a tool. It's how you use that tool that is either positive or negative. And I think about the same thing about research. You know, if this work that I put out in this new book is used to help people eat healthier and have better relationships and you know, those types of things, great. You know, if it's used for marketers to help people do things that are good and beneficial, better for the environment, help them waste less, help them find things that make them happier—all of that is wonderful. If, on the other hand, people use these tools for something bad, I'd prefer they didn't. But they're tools, you know, and so my goal is to help people understand themselves and others and put these tools in people's hands and hope and trust that they will use these tools the right way. And so, as both a tool builder and a tool finder, you can't decide how people use the tools but I leave that to others to decide how to use them.