by Daniel Pink: In our quest to become better persuaders, we often focus on what we need to do and how we need to do it…
But, after decades of studying the science of persuasion, I’ve discovered something new: We also ought to focus on the when of these decisions.
1. Know when you should (and shouldn’t) go first.
Many persuasive encounters are “serial competitions,” in which people appear before “judges” one after another. (Think: Pitching for new business or a series of candidates coming in for job interviews every hour.)
There’s a lot of interesting research that tells us where we want to be in these serial sequences, and it distills down to some useful guidelines for when you want to go first — and when you don’t want to go first.
You’re better off going first when:
- You are not the default candidate. Let’s say there’s a company looking to replace its existing ad agency. If you’re an upstart agency trying to snag the business, go first. You’re more likely to get a fresh look.
- There are relatively few other candidates. This gives you the advantage of what’s called the “primacy effect,” in which people who appear first are remembered more easily.
- You’re up against many strong competitors. If interviewers or prospective funders see a series of strong candidates in a row, at some point they believe the talent pool will even out. But when they get to the later candidates, they’ll think, This many people can’t be good. And they’ll aggressively start looking for flaws.
You’re better off going toward the end when:
- If there are a lot of competitors. Studies from singing competitions to figure skating competitions to wine tasting competitions show that, with a huge number of competitors, those toward the end are often evaluated more highly. This is partly due to the “recency effect,” which is the tendency to remember the most recently presented information best.
- If the criteria for selection are not super clear. Suppose a company isn’t sure what kind of firm they want to use, or a manager doesn’t quite know what she wants in a new hire. Let the other candidates go first to help them figure it out. Then, when they get to you, they’re more likely to say, “Oh this is what we need.”
“I’ve got some good news and I’ve got some bad news.” We’ve all said these words at some point. But which should you give first — the good news or the bad?
I used to always give the good news first. It seemed logical. Giving bad news is uncomfortable, so I wanted to ease into it. I also believed that if I started with the bad news, the other side might shut down and not want to hear the rest of what I had to say.
But when I looked at the research, I discovered my reasoning was upside down. According to one study, when people were asked this famous phrase, four out of five preferred to hear the bad news first.
(What’s funny is that I, too, would want to hear the bad news first. But I thought I was alone in that preference.)
What’s going on? Research shows that people have a strong preference for rising sequences at the end, rather than declining sequences at the end.
The bad news is that I was doing it wrong; the good news is now I know how to do it better.
When people are confronted with a decision, they often have in their back pocket a default decision. And the default decision is almost always no.
If you’re asking your boss for a raise, for example, the default decision is no. If you’re trying to get someone to buy something, the default decision is no.
But studies show that people are slightly more likely to overcome the default at two moments: Early in the day, and immediately after breaks.
So, if you have a tough prospect and you know the answer is no, you might have a marginally better chance if you approach that person at the top of the morning or right after that person has taken a break.
In fact, you can even say, “Let’s take a walk first before we discuss this in depth.”
Of course, this isn’t a guarantee. Far from it. But it might give you a tiny edge. If I have a 5% chance of getting you to say yes and I pick the right time to ask, then maybe I could bump that up to a 7% chance.
That means I still have a 93% chance of no. But, over time and in repeated interactions, that small increase in my favor can be meaningful.