Relying too heavily on email to persuade others?
Richard Conway explains why there’s still something to be said for building personal connections face-to-face.
What if I told you there was something simple (and, most of the time, relatively easy!) that you could do to vastly increase your chances of getting what you want?
Wouldn’t believe me? Well, there is.
Recent research, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology has found that a face-to-face request is 34 times more successful than an email. In our technologically connected world, we are used to firing off emails left, right and centre and their reach knows (virtually) no bounds. Remote working and companies that span different parts of the globe amplify the need for channels like email, but it’s worth remembering that they’re not the be all or end all.
In fact, the researchers found that people tend to overestimate the power of their persuasiveness via text-based communication, and underestimate the power of their persuasiveness via face-to-face communication.
“You need to ask six people in person to equal the power of a 200-recipient email blast,” adds Vanessa K. Bohns, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at Cornell University and one of the research duo.
What it comes down to is that, despite the reach of email, asking in person is a significantly more effective approach.
So, what makes for a persuasive, in-person request? And are there elements that we can borrow for those times when email is the only method available to us?
In his classic work Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, social psychologist Robert Cialdini asserts that there are six weapons of influence that are, by the very nature of a face-to-face encounter, more effective in that setting. Let’s take a look.
1. Rules of reciprocation
Perhaps because we know how easy it is to fire off an email, if someone makes the effort to prepare and deliver a request or presentation in person, there is a feeling that we owe their response more careful consideration. Think of how quick you can be to dismiss an email – far faster than you’d ever stand up and walk away from a personal encounter!
This difference applies even to an online versus an in-person presentation – we’re likely to click away or close the tab with little hesitation if the content fails to engage us; however, we’re less likely to leave a live presentation partway through.
2. Commitment and consistency
If people actually commit to something, they are more likely to follow through. You know this from your own experience, but have you thought about what it means in terms of communicating a request?
If you book a meeting, or succeed in getting someone along to a presentation, they are already part of the way there in terms of following through on what you ask them. Their attendance, and the act of devoting the time to hear you out, is a form of commitment and, acting consistently with that, they’re more likely to take the action required as a result of your encounter.
3. Social proof and codes of conduct
No matter how evolved we claim to be, we still look to others for guidance on how to act in certain situations. While you read your emails or watch an online presentation largely on your own, being part of an audience or physically in the same space as the person you are meeting is a different story. It’s likely that social codes of conduct and the behaviour of other people will inform the way that you respond.
4. A bit of authority goes a long way
It’s a fundamental human truth that we’re more likely to follow the suggestions, or adhere to the requests, of people that we see as authority figures. By virtue of the fact that they are the ones up on the stage, presenters have some authority. In more personal, one-on-one settings, there are other things you can do – from good eye contact to the way you dress and carry yourself – that convey the authority required to have your request heard, and actioned.
5. We like what we like
Whether we make the decision on a conscious level or not, we’re more likely to do business with – or follow the advice of – people we like. And it’s much easier to get a feel for whether we like someone when we meet them in person; we get a range of cues and our intuition just knows. The same rich information isn’t available in technological exchanges, so it takes much more time to come to a conclusion regarding how we feel about someone that way.
6. Something to be said for scarcity
Leave your inbox for any length of time and the slew of emails that you have to contend with on your return will confirm the fact that messages via this channel are now a dime a dozen. Amidst the oversaturation of emails, in-person meetings are comparatively scarce. In this way, they somehow feel a bit more exclusive and special, and just like with the effort reciprocation mentioned above, we’re more likely to take these feelings with us to action a request that’s delivered in this format.
Applying the pillars of persuasion to electronic communications
If you need to rely on email, as well as making sure that your content is engaging, ensure what you send has been prepared especially for the recipient. Use their name and other aspects of personalisation where possible, and refer to, or include, other information that you know about them to inspire more likelihood of reciprocity.
Consider whether there is a small ask that you can make of your recipient on the way to the action you require. Engage them on something you know they want or will receive value from; it could be something that serves them more than it serves you.
As the theory of commitment suggests, if you can get them to jump through the first hoop, it’s more likely they will jump through the second.
When it comes to social proof and authority, the content you choose to include in your communications can help. Include testimonials that highlight the favourable opinions of others; showcase case studies that demonstrate that others are successfully engaging; or find a way to include some sort of dashboard or counter that shows the number of others signing up in real time.
Consider the information in your email signature too; this acts as your introduction and handshake.
Although we can largely conduct business without ever leaving the house (or our pyjamas!) there’s still something to be said for building personal connections, face-to-face.
Where technology must assist, consider video conference options and look to apply the powerful pillars of persuasion to your other channels.