February 2013, Business Breakfast with Steve Martin.

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In association with The Harvard Business Review we held our February Business Breakfast with Steve Martin, UK MD of Influence at Work.

We saw well over 50 people turn up to drink coffee, eat muffins, down fresh and flaky French pastries, and to listen to Influence At Work UK Director Steve Martin talk about persuasion, writes Graham Stewart.

The format of the breakfasts allow plenty of time for networking and conversation before the main event and the buzz of conversation in the room was a sign of much healthy interaction. Some of the conversation no doubt involved shared opinions of the wonderful view through the large windows that line three sides of the stunning venue at the rooftop Radio Bar at ME London.

Steve began his talk in rather downbeat mode, telling us there was nothing really new to say about persuasion. However, he quickly followed this by promising that what he did have were some fresh insights into how best to put persuasion into practice. Offering such insights is possible, he said, because persuasion is more of a science than an art – and this lies at the heart of the work Steve and his colleagues do with (and for) their clients.

Unwittingly persuaded by Social Norms in a world in which, not only are we overloaded with information, we’re also overloaded with channels of information, many of the decisions we make are based on shortcuts, rather than long and penetrative thought. In Steve’s words, decisions come about more than they are thought about. Hence the importance of the shortcuts that we use – and which those versed in the science of persuasion can exploit (ethically, of course). Steve used the relatively short time available to focus on the question of “Social Norms”: we tend to behave the way we believe that other people like us are behaving.

The talk, although tantalisingly brief, was both informative and entertainingly delivered. Steve reinforced his points with many and varied real life examples of how organisations use persuasion to drive behaviour. In almost every case it was clear that a shift in tone or a simple change of word or phrase could have a significant impact on the results. One example that illustrated perfectly the power of using phrasing that emphasises social norms involved HMRC and their attempts to convince people to pay their tax on time. The traditional letter that threatened possible legal action generated only a 68% response rate. When recipients were told, instead, that 94% of UK citizens paid their taxes on time, the response rate rose to 73%. But by making the plea to behavioural normality increasingly specific – and local – by adding postcode area and then the name of the town, response rates rose to 79% and then 83% respectively. In monetary terms, these changes saw an increase of £5.6 billion in overdue taxes flowing into the revenue in one year.

The energetic Q&A session that followed the talk was as long as the presentation itself and Steve was generous with his time in answering questions and drilling down a little more deeply into a number of the topics he had been able to cover at only a fairly high level. Given the prevalence of digital thought leaders among the audience, it wasn’t surprising that a question about how persuasion translated into digital communications was one of the first aired. It appears that appealing to social norms in emails, for instance, is less effective than in physical letters. However, more research needs to be done in this area. Finally, the business day called for most of the audience and things came to a halt.

While some stayed behind for further networking opportunities, we got to interview Steve for a short video. So, if you missed the talk, at least you’ll get a flavour of what Steve covered. And if that inspires you to check out more on the topic, the book that Steve wrote in conjunction with Noah J. Goldstein and Robert B. Cialdini“Yes! 50 secrets from the science of persuasion” – is a deserving best seller.

Well that’s two strong talks to kick off the 2013 series of Business Breakfasts and clearly 98% of breakfast attendees left enlightened! To quote one attendee: “If you maintain this high standard of speakers, the Like Minds Business Breakfast series will become truly unmissable.”

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