How to be more persuasive from behind a screen

The single best way to increase your persuasiveness is to inject some humanity into your requests, says Steve Martin, Faculty Director of Behavioural Science at Columbia Business School and CEO of Influence at Work. So, what’s the best way to do this remotely?

Whether you want to negotiate a pay rise, win over a prospect or build your network, how do you instil humanity into your interactions and requests in order to effectively influence and persuade others in the virtual, Covid-impacted world we’re working in? Here are five ways, informed by the latest research into persuasion, to help you do exactly that.

1. Add humour
When researchers at Rutgers University suggested to online negotiators that they first send a funny cartoon (in fact, a Dilbert strip) to their opponent before haggling over a deal, they believed it would increase levels of trust between the negotiators. They were right. Those who took the time to inject a sense of humour into their virtual negotiations by sending the cartoon before getting down to business were rated as more trustworthy and likeable. They also walked away with 15% more business than the groups who negotiated the same deal but didn’t send a cartoon.
It has been said that ‘humour is the shortest distance between two people’. Given the scarcity of things to smile about right now, those who do make the extra effort to raise a smile might notice a welcome return on their investment: increased persuasiveness.

2. Become a Zoom socialite
Consummate socialites recognise that the minutes before guests are seated for dinner invariably set the tone for how successful the evening will be. Hence invitations state: ‘Drinks @7:30pm, Dinner served @8pm’. Our virtual world seems to have forgotten this. Rather than scheduling a relentless stream of calls on the hour, every hour, why not experiment with mixing-up the timings. Schedule calls so that people arrive five to ten minutes early for a chinwag.
The chance to exchange experiences and identify commonalities before ‘getting down to business’ allows our humanity to emerge, which increases ‘likeability’. And the latest research shows how our likeability of another can have a particularly pronounced influence in our current video communication-led world.

3. Use mimicry early
In a surprising series of studies, persuasion researchers found waiters and waitresses who mimic their customers by repeating back their order using exactly the same words increased tips by 70%. Why? Because mimicry increases one person’s sense of closeness and understanding with another. The strategy has been shown to be especially effective in virtual formats.
Importantly, the studies show how the matching of language patterns is most effective when used in the early parts of video calls and less effective at the end.

4. Give back time
Studies conducted throughout the pandemic highlight the increased reporting of ‘Zoom-fatigue’, particularly towards the end of the day. If your persuasion attempts are likely to span several calls, the advice is to schedule them earlier in the day, make them short and sweet and, ideally, finish them early. People appreciate being ‘given back’ a little unexpected time and, as a result, may feel more obligated to respond favourably to a future request you make.

5. Pick up the phone
Persuasion researchers have long demonstrated people’s tendency to underestimate the likelihood that people will be persuaded by their requests, with one crucial exception: when the request is made by email. The pandemic has amplified the already burgeoning use of emails, texts and other messenger-based services. However, given that studies show the effectiveness of an email can be between six and 32 times less effective than a direct request, the advice is to occasionally go old-school. So, try ditching the keyboard and screen for your next missive and pick up the phone instead.

Steve Martin is Faculty Director of Behavioural Science at Columbia Business School (Exec. Ed.) and CEO of He is the author of Messengers: Who We Listen To, Who We Don’t and Why and the million-selling international bestseller Yes! Secrets from the Science of Persuasion.

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