Want to get something done? Well, stand up straight when you’re talking. Keep your hands with open palms at a 90-degree angle from the body with your fingers together. And here’s a bonus: Remember that you don’t just like chocolate—you are a chocolate eater. Those are a few of the clever, sometimes-subliminal tricks described in How to Get People to Do Stuff: Master the Art and Science of Persuasion and Motivation, a new book by behavioral psychologist Susan M. Weinschenk. The Psychology Today blogger and business consultant known as “The Brain Lady” has mined academic and scientific journals for the subtle psychology that helps people better communicate their wants and needs, and the art of slyly getting others—like employees and customers—to do what you want them to do via physical and verbal cues.
Among her strategies:
- People unconsciously interpret and react to body positions in conversations. Face your colleague directly (it shows confidence), don’t tilt your head (an angle can convey submission), and keep your weight balanced on both feet (slouching undermines your authority).
- When you’re talking to a group, keeping your palms open and at a 90-degree angle from the body with fingers together shows you have confidence and expertise about what you’re saying, Weinschenk says. But touching your face, hair, or neck makes you look nervous or tentative, as do hands grasped together in front of you.
- When asking people to do stuff, use nouns rather than verbs. When you invoke a sense of belonging to a group, people are much more likely to comply with your request. For example, research shows that if people say: “I am a chocolate eater” versus “I eat chocolate a lot,” it affects the strength of their preference for chocolate. “Eater” is a noun. “Eat” is a verb.
How to Get is a great read for anyone trying to lead people. Writer Erin McDermott recently chatted with Weinschenk about the strategies she describes, adopting a “persona” to get things done, and how all of these behaviors can translate online.
EM: Is there one physical gesture or stance that you think is paramount for leaders to consciously think about? And one they should also avoid?
SW: It’s so hard to pick just one. I think eye contact is critical, as well as a hand gesture for when they are sure of what they are saying. Men should avoid putting their hands folded in front of their body. Women should avoid tilting their head.
EM: I had a doctor tell me about his ‘doctor authoritative persona’ that he adopts on the job. How can a small business owner find that “voice” and stick to a persona, particularly if they’re not so authoritative outside of the office?
SW: Some professions have certain types of influence ‘built in,’ for example, the doctor you mentioned. Doctors can easily use authority. But other professions may need to try a different method. You should use what comes naturally to you. You want to amplify your own persona so that it comes across as natural and sincere.
I had a client whose natural persona was very high-energy, and kind of funny and clever. He thought that to be a successful consultant he had to be very serious, calm, and authoritative. I convinced him to try being more himself, and showed him how to use his naturally high-energy level, sense of humor, and cleverness to be effective. I had him practice by answering questions and presenting on camera and then we would watch the videos together, so he could see what he was doing and what impression he was making.
EM: How can you deal with someone who resists being “shaped”?
SW: If you are doing shaping correctly, there isn’t resistance. The key is to pick reinforcements that match the person—that are what the person really wants.
Let’s say I’m trying to get one of my employees to speak up at group meetings. He seems reluctant to do that, so what I do to shape the behavior is to “reward” him—offer reinforcement—when he looks like he is engaged in the conversation. If he’s looking down at his notes, I don’t reinforce that behavior, but if he looks attentively at the people talking, then I do offer reinforcement. But what should the reinforcement be for the first step of this shaping behavior? If he doesn't like speaking in front of the group, if he doesn't like being singled out, then calling on him, or calling attention to him might not be reinforcing. So I don’t want to say, ‘Kevin, you look like you have an idea. What do you think about this?’ Instead, I might decide that what Kevin really wants is to feel like he fits in and that others like him. Therefore, I might try just a small fleeting smile in his direction when I notice that he is actively engaged with eye contact with others. It’s subtle, but it’s an important difference.
EM: How can a teacher/manager learn to control their instincts, which may be to correct what an employee is doing wrong at each step of an instructional process? And if the mistakes continue, what’s the best way to address them so that it stops?
SW: Being a good teacher means applying the science. It means working on it over and over until the “right” behavior on your part is the new instinct. You have to train yourself before you can teach others.
Let’s say that a manager is constantly correcting each small step and you want them to wait and only correct after the task is completed. First, draw their attention to the fact that they are interrupting with constant feedback. They may not realize they are doing this. Then model for them—for example, with role play—how and when you want them to interrupt with feedback. Now practice in a simulated situation where they are giving feedback. Every time they do it “wrong,” ignore them. Every time they do it “right,” reinforce by letting them know they’ve done a good job. Keep track of their progress—to invoke the desire for mastery—until they are only interrupting at the correct intervals.
EM: You’ve also done a lot of work with user interfaces and design in the digital world. So one natural question arises from your book—how do you get people to engage with a small business online, whether it’s social media or a blog?
SW: Everything in the book can be applied to the digital world. Think about which of the seven motivational drivers will speak to your particular customers, and then decide how to use that driver. It’s different for each small business. For some small businesses, their customers will be most motivated by belonging to a group, and for others it might be that the desire for mastery is the strongest motivation. Do your homework and understand which of the seven drivers are the most important for your audience.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.