How to influence someone you don’t know well—4 universal appeals

How to influenceJeff sat on a bar stool at the front of the room. He had no slides, no props, just sat and talked. Within minutes, he had everybody in the room on the edge of their seats eagerly nodding and ready to follow him wherever he went.

None of us in the room had met Jeff before. In fact, none of us had a clue who he was. This quiet, unassuming man simply walked to the front and sitting on the bar stool began to speak and captivated everyone.

Jeff shared why some adverts worked, and some fell flat. How some adverts tapped universal appeal, and others neglected to do so.

The good news is that you don’t need to spend millions of dollars on creating a fantastic TV advert to influence people. The great news is that you can easily tap into the four universal appeals.

And I'll come to those four universal appeals in a moment.


You'll remember in the triangle of influence that the motivation to change is the result of the evaluation of the personal benefits gained and the personal cost in the resources required to achieve a specific outcome.

Whether that outcome is buying a new toothpaste or a new car, giving our time to serve in a soup kitchen or sharing our wisdom with a stranger. We weigh up what we get from the action and what it costs us. We will then be motivated to act when our perceived benefits outweigh our perceived cost.

Influence is maths. When the perceived value is greater than the perceived cost, we are motivated to act on the change.

Influence is maths. When the perceived value is greater than the perceived cost, we are motivated to act on the change.

If you know what I am likely to perceive as beneficial and what I perceive as costly, then you should find it easier to influence me.

Influencing someone you know well

When we know someone very well, we can influence them more easily. For example, if I want to go to a particular holiday destination with my wife, and she wants to go elsewhere, I might emphasise all the aspects of the type of holiday she desires (honestly) regarding my preferred destination. I might lay on some evidence to add credence to my interpretation such as photos, TripAdvisor recommendations and so on.

If I want to buy a particular car model, and she would prefer another, I might focus on specific qualities of my chosen car that I know will appeal to her.

It's not manipulation; it's just a conversation. It's something we all do, every day. We will sway or steer others towards our preference.

We are in a position of influence every time someone allows us to communicate with them. Most of the time, we are unconsciously influencing entirely based on our personal bias.

But that's selfish!

Yes, you’re right. I am. So are you. So is the person beside you.

I am, and you are. Even when someone is apparently altruistic, the reality is that they get something valuable personally from being so.

What if I don’t know the other person well, how do I influence them?

People are more easily influenced by people who show empathy for their situation and can be trusted. But more than that: people will do anything for those who encourage their dreams, allay fears, justify their failings, or help them throw rocks at their enemies.

Some of the most effective and powerful ways of influencing appeal to these four universal motivators:

Encourage their dreams, allay their fears, Justify their failings and helping them throw rocks at an enemy.

1. Encourage their dreams

If a genie gave you 3 wishes, what would you ask for?

If a genie gave you 3 wishes, what would you ask for?

Every single person I have ever met has dreams. They want to achieve something in their life, they may not know exactly what that is, but it is better than whatever they have achieved thus far in life.

To influence someone, you could encourage their dreams. That the benefit, they will attain moves them towards their dreams.

You might be encouraging the dreams of your child to get into a great university if they study hard, or more relevant perhaps, the new iPad you will buy them if they get an A.

You could be encouraging someone to diet or exercise by communicating how good they will look and feel (and hence be more attractive.)

2. Allay their  fears

Everyone has fears. Most people will admit that they fear failure to some extent. Many people fear death. Does anybody like to be rejected? Some are afraid of flying. According to studies, more people fear public speaking than anything else.

To influence someone to act you could allay their fears. That the benefit will be greater confidence, for example, competence or simply the courage to act at all.

You might also reduce the cost burden by allying someone's fears of undertaking the action you are proposing.

To allay the fears that someone buys something they don’t ncould “guarantee satisfaction” or set up a payment plan to spread the cost over time.

3. Justify their failings

We have all failed in our lives. Many of these failings we keep to ourselves through a false sense of pride, or worse that others will think badly of us if we admit them. We all have them. Nobody likes to fail. It hurts. And isn’t it so good when our failure is not our fault?

A powerful tool in the influencers arsenal is to have enough courage themselves to admit their failings to others (you are not alone) and that there is a perfectly good reason (excuse) for failing.

One of the biggest issues my clients tell me they have is a lack of time. That there are simply so many, more pressing things to do. And this is true, so it's not their fault. It's modern society. So it's no surprise that you haven’t found the time to do this, but just think of the benefits you would get if you just took 5 minutes each day…

Now, you were already being swept up in the argument and nodding away…

Lastly, we can:

It's their fault that you haven't succeeded. Go get 'em...

It's their fault that you haven't succeeded. Go get 'em…

4. Help them throw rocks at their enemy

There's nothing quite like a common enemy to unite people. And that enemy doesn't have to be other people. An “enemy” could be as simple as “dirty hair” – watch any shampoo advert.

Do you know anyone who isn't struggling with something? Overwork, stress, a boss who doesn’t recognize their efforts, an impossible sales target.

Whatever their enemy, the chances are pretty high that you have had that enemy in the past too. Concur, agree and help them throw rocks at it.

Have you ever attended a meeting and wondered why you were there and what was the point of meeting at all? Sure you have, we all have. Who's the enemy, well, meetings are the enemy, or is it, the common boss who hosts the meetings, or the lack of structure to the meetings… whatever is the common enemy…

Why is it important to understand these 4 universal appeals?

You are being influenced every day. If you watch television at all, you'll be bombarded with messages designed to influence you. Some have a lasting effect, others less so.

You influence other people every day as well. Some people you will influence just by being alive. They could be emulating you. If you have kids, they are emulating you. If you’re in a bad mood, they'll know it and change their behaviour accordingly. When my dad came home from his London office when I was a young kid, I would hide in my room because he would always be in a bad mood after a train journey from London.

You influence some people deliberately. And for those times when you are successful, the chances are extremely high that you appealed to one or more of these universal appeals.

  • You encouraged their dreams
  • You allayed their fears
  • You helped them justify their failings, and/or
  • You helped them throw rocks at an enemy of theirs.

But there's something very very critical here that I don’t want you to miss.

You might have got it already, which is terrific. But maybe you've missed it, which is OK because most people miss this.

It's “their”! THEIR

  • Their dreams
  • Their fears
  • Their failings
  • Their enemy

It's not about your wants, your dreams, your concerns, your desires. It's all about the other person.

Influence is about motivating the other person to change for their benefit.

When the benefit of the change is mutual - that's what we call a "win-win"

When the benefit of the change is mutual – that's what we call a “win-win”

But surely, you may ask, I want to influence someone else for my benefit?

And that's where the problem lies. It's not about you. It's about them.

If it's about you, and not about them, you are not influencing them. You are either manipulating or coercing them. And that, my friend, will lead to them desiring, if not taking, revenge upon you.

But, can’t the benefit be mutual?

For sure. If they benefit, and incidentally you do too, that's wonderful. We call that a win-win don’t we?

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