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Nudge Others to Act by Pulling Them Into Your Story

Marie Beckinger was driving home from grocery shopping when a bank robber in a dented pickup truck streaked through a red light.

He was attempting to escape a trailing police car. He struck the passenger’s side of Marie’s car where her infant, Gabriel, was buckled into his car seat in front and her toddler, Annabelle, was belted into her car seat in back.

When the truck hit her car the side and front safety airbags inflated within 20 millisecondslifting and displaying her children like jewels on display in cushioned boxes.

I was watching from the curb, about to step into the street.

Her head slammed into her side window. She told me afterwards, that she didn’t feel the pain right way. And the screaming police sirens were but a vague background noise in the moments right after the crash.


Because she was looking at her kids. They were bawling…but clearly alive.

Later she was moved to write a guest column for her community paper about the importance of air bags in cars. Because this child safety became very important to her after this incident she put on her rational hat, so she began her article with general warnings and related statistics. When she called me to ask if I would review her story with my reporter’s eye I anticipated that she might make this common mistake: starting with general conclusions and facts instead of the vignette that pulls us into the story.

When I suggested that she step into the shoes of her readers and see if she’d bother to read her story she got it in an instant. She moved her personal story to the top of the article and her general conclusions and specific advice further down in the story.

Get them to feel first so they can’t help but think about it

1. The specific example proves the general conclusion yet not the reverse.

When we put on our grown-up hat or get in expert mode we tend to start with background information, general statements and other ways to be sure to bore people before we get them emotionally involved with our point.

2. Stories and examples:

• Are more persuasive than statistics and general statements

• Require less effort to absorb

3. We will have an emotional response to examples and contemplate them longer than generalizations.

“We care about our customers” is banal  and not credible or even memorable yet many advertisements echo version of this theme.

What if, instead, a medical practice announced, “We are now open on Saturdays for the greater convenience of our working patients,” demonstrating that a generalization is credible when preceded by the specific statement that proves it.

We also react more fully to examples, as we:

•  Recollect our own similar personal experiences, or

•  Instinctively feel what it would be like to be in a similar situation

When crafting your opening vignette, consider these factors…

A. What’s the Pay-off or Penalty?

Consequences influence behavior.

People are more likely to do things when they like what will follow. Thus people are reinforced to repeat certain ways of acting, reduce other ways and stop still others.  When you wish someone to act differently, how are you supporting or preventing that desired change?

Consider the three Rules of Consequences and Reinforcements:

1. Consequences which give rewards increase a behavior

2. Consequences which give punishments decrease a behavior

3. Consequences which give neither rewards nor punishments extinguish a behavior

If you want to increase a behavior (make it more frequent, more intense and/or more likely), then provide a consequence of reward.

If you want to decrease a behavior (make it less frequent, less intense and/or less likely), then provide a Consequence of Punishment.

If you want a behavior to disappear, then provide no Consequence (ignore the behavior).

B.  Shoot to Save

How do you get people to feel more supportive of your idea, cause or product?

You “inoculate” them.

For example, most American youth get shots to inoculate them against diseases such as polio and diphtheria. The shot actually gives one a weak dose of the virus that activates the body’s immune system.

As one’s immune system fights off this weak attack it becomes stronger so it can withstand a larger assault of the disease.  If, however, the shot contains too strong a dose, it would overwhelm the immune system, causing a strongly adverse reaction or even death.

Deepening beliefs happen in a similar way. If you want to strengthen someone’s existing attitude or behavior, then create a situation where that person experiences a “weak” attack on that belief.  Here’s how:

1. Warn a person or people of an impending “attack”

2. Make a weak attack or watch an attack happen

3. Inspire the person(s) to actively defend the attitude

1. Warn of the attack

When people are threatened in this way they immediately begin to generate possible defenses against the coming attack. In fact, people will consider multiple actions. Many may never be useful or necessary during the coming attack.

This is akin to a group of soldiers who have some time to prepare for an enemy’s approach. They may not know exactly what the enemy will do, so the soldiers get every weapon and construct every barrier they can. Maybe they won’t use everything, but they want it available, if needed.   Thus they become more mentally and physically prepared and motivated to defend.

2. Make a weak attack or watch an attack happen

An attack is, in fact, a form of “persuasion,” an attempt to change the thoughts, feelings, or actions of others. Advertisers “attack” our existing attitudes when they try to get us to prefer their product more than a competitor’s.  The attack must be strong enough to force the receivers to defend.  It must not be so strong as to overcome the defense.

3. Inspire others to actively defend an attitude or opinion

The more actively someone defends an “attack” or opinion, the more intensely that person will believe in and act on that view.  An active defense occurs when the receiver does more than merely think, but rather acts.

Political campaign strategists often try to influence votes through “inoculation.” For example, the Republican party might mail flyers to registered Republicans voters warning them that the Democrats are likely to attack Republican candidate on certain hot issues. The flyers provide a weak version of the attacks that they predict will come.  Thus, when the real Democratic attack ads hit, the Republicans are “inoculated” again the arguments, and more likely to fight them off.

4. That Seems Reasonable

A stranger approaches you at the shopping mall one day and politely asks if you would spend just one or two minutes hearing about how you can help fellow Americans remain more safe in these times of greater risk to bio-terrorism.  You say you have only a few minutes.

The stranger briefly describes the importance of the local blood bank. You nod your head in polite agreement, but you know there’s a gimmick coming. Then the stranger asks, “Would you be willing to be a blood bank volunteer? You’d have to give ten hours a week for the next year and solicit blood donations from the people of our community by contacting them over the phone or face-to-face.”

You politely tell the stranger, “No.”

The stranger looks a little disappointed and follows up: “Well, if you can’t give your time, could you at least give a unit of blood right now? We have a station set up right down this hall in the mall.”

Those seeking something from you may do this “Two Step Dance” in two different ways.

The first way, as illustrated by the blood bank story, is called the “door-in-the-face” (DITF) and the second is the foot-in-the-door (FITD). With DITF, a would-be influencer’s first request is aimed solely at getting the receiver to say no very quickly.

The influencer’s second, much less extreme request is then much more likely to be accepted.

In the other foot-in-the-door tactic, the influencer starts with a small request that almost no one would refuse. After getting a “Yes!” response to this little request, the influencer makes a bigger request.   Because the listener has already “invested” in the idea, they are often more likely to increase that investment, and agree to the second request.


First you are asked to sign a petition.

Then you are asked for a donation of time or money.

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