Action First Persuasion

Today you’ll learn about action-first persuasion. And start your day in a better mood.

First, please do me a favor if you can. Because this little activity will make you happier and more persuasive.

Ready? Pick up a pen or pencil. Have it? Good.

Now, put the pen horizontally between your teeth and gently hold the pen while you read. Like me:

Very gently. And just hold it there while you continue to read. While I explain what’s going on in your brain.

Facial Feedback Hypothesis #

Studies as far back as 1988 and as recently as 2016 support something called the “facial feedback hypothesis.” Facial feedback refers to the information your brain receives from your body. From your facial muscles. The hypothesis says your brain responds to changes in facial expression, just as your facial expression responds to changes in your emotional state.

(Note: Some studies, published in 2016, could not replicate the results of the original study from 1988. But more recent studies on the feedback effects of Botox® support the hypothesis.)

In short, if you hold a pen sideways in your mouth for a few minutes, your brain will release happiness hormones. You’ll feel better. So, it’s okay to giggle a little now.

If you’re tired of being happy, you can remove the pen now. But you’re welcome to hold it as long as you’d like.

Now that our little experiment is over, let me explain today’s lesson on persuasion.

Change Behaviors and Beliefs Will Follow #

The first lesson in persuasion: if you want to change minds, work to change behaviors. You can call this “action-first persuasion.”

In the experiment, I asked you to perform an easy and effortless task. Put a pen in your mouth. Nothing to it.

I did not ask you to believe anything. But you probably felt your mood elevate a bit. Maybe your heart rate ticked up a bit. Maybe you chortled a little. But I didn’t ask you to feel different. I only asked you to put a pen in your mouth.

Because “persuasive design” is in my title, a lot of people ask me for magic words. They want to know how to convince people to change their minds. And they often seem disappointed when I tell them “don’t try to change anyone’s mind. Change their behavior.” This behavior-first approach makes sense when you think about it.

When you try to change someone’s beliefs, you’re really asking them to admit they’ve been wrong. People tend to fight back when they’re told they’re wrong, don’t they? Sometimes, if you find the magic words, your words alone will convince. Most times, though, you don’t find the magic words and people simply argue.

But those same people will probably take an easy action. Like holding a pen in their teeth. It’s low risk. It’s easy to do. And it changes their brain. It’s low risk because you haven’t asked them to admit they’re wrong. You haven’t triggered their thoughts on any subject. You’ve only asked them to take a tiny, effortless action.

If that action later seems consistent with a belief you’d like them to hold, you’ve started them on the path to persuasion.

How to Apply Action-First Persuasion #

Using action-first persuasion requires a little mental work on your part. But it’s fairly easy. Here are the steps:

  1. What do you want people to believe?

  2. What do people who believe that do? How do they behave?

  3. What specific, physical activities are consistent with that belief?

  4. Which of those behaviors would most people do simply because you asked?

  5. Can you influence them to perform the action repeatedly?

  6. Once they’ve taken on that behavior, what’s the next behavior consistent with the desired belief?

  7. And the next?

  8. Until, finally, they see their actions as being consistent with your desired belief.

  9. And if they never believe what you want them to believe?

Who cares? They’re doing what you want them to do, are they not?

Practical Example of Action-First Persuasion #

In the Persuasive Design Lab®, I want people to talk and share information. But I know from years of experience on stage that asking shy people to share is usually a fool’s errand. So I created an action-first exercise that works. More powerful than magic words.

Like all business workshops, Persuasive Design Labs® start with everybody introducing themselves. But I make people go as fast as they can. I ask them to get out of their seats, to walk to a flip chart, to shout their names, to write their names, and to pass the marker to the next person at their table. Fast. And I complicate the process by rotating between tables. And it’s timed. And they’re trying to beat the world record.

About halfway through this introduction process, the room gets really loud. Laughter. Voices get louder. More laughter.

When all 25 or so people have finished, I explain the science behind the method. In a study, researchers found that people who were asked to jog in place before the experiment were twice as like to share information about the experiment than were people who were asked to sit and relax before the experiment. Jonah Berger explains the concept in his book Contagious: Why Things Catch On:

Running in place provided the perfect test. Running doesn’t evoke emotion, but it is just as physiologically arousing. It gets your heart rate up, increases blood pressure, etc. So if arousal of any sort boosts sharing, then running in place should lead people to share things with others. Even if the things people are talking about or sharing have nothing to do with the reason they are experiencing arousal.

By asking people to take a simple action, the exercise changes their physiology to be consistent with someone who communicates more. I never ask them to take on the belief that “I am an extrovert who enjoys sharing ideas.” But once they feel themselves behaving like a more extroverted person, they continue to behave that way.

Summary #

If you want to change beliefs, start with behaviors. And if you’re getting the behaviors you want, you probably don’t need to change their beliefs.

If you like learning about persuasion, drop me a note in the comments. I’ll share more persuasion lessons in the future, so tell your friends. Feel free to share this post with your LinkedIn and Facebook friends.