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Use words that deliver social proof

Talking about making small changes to a few words, I’d like to draw your attention to some work done by persuasion scientists, including Dr Robert Cialdini, Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University. His recent work is profound and simple. He says that when uncertain, overwhelmed and time-scarce people come to make decisions, they increasingly rely on just a handful of mental shortcuts to guide their decision making and behaviour.

One of these decision shortcuts is what the scientists call ‘social proof’. With social proof, we tend to follow the lead of comparable others, if given a steer showing how large numbers of our peers do what it is we are being required to do.

For example, we will tend to prefer a restaurant that is busy, work late if everyone else is, and leave a tip in a saucer full of small change. We assume that if lots of people are doing something, then it must be okay. Putting this practice to use to achieve better outcomes requires very few extra words. Let me give you two examples.

For years, hoteliers struggled with getting guests to reuse their towels. Sending a towel to be laundered every day when the guest is staying several nights is not only expensive but also environmentally harmful. By simply changing a few words on a standard sign requesting guests to reuse their towels, hoteliers were able to decrease usage by more than 26 per cent, with enormous financial and environmental benefits. All they did was add a simple sentence telling guests that the majority of their fellow guests reused their towels (the social norms appeal).

In another experiment, this time involving tax, social proof messages in reminder letters saying that the vast majority of citizens paid their taxes on time improved response times by some 15 per cent and brought hundreds of millions more revenue to government coffers. If an understanding of the persuasion process could generate such impressive returns in these two cases, could not a few extra words of social proof work wonders for your business?

Through subtle changes in wording, leaders can open the minds of their employees and impact their behaviours, because better words, more carefully chosen, can actually induce a different state of mind.

Three different stories illustrate my point.

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