How to Craft Business Stories that Grow Your Influence (and Your Sales)

Photo by  Austin Chan  on  Unsplash

Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash

Most books written today on persuasion refer to Robert Cialdini's seminal work, "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion," first published in 1984. That's because Dr. Cialdini has taken mounds of scientific literature and his own research on the psychology of decision-making and distilled them into six "weapons of influence":

  1. Reciprocity

  2. Commitment & Consistency

  3. Social Proof

  4. Liking

  5. Authority

  6. Scarcity.

This book is a must-read for any entrepreneur because your venture's success hinges on your ability to tell stories that influence, persuade and win people to your cause.

And you also need to know how to recognize when other people might be using persuasion tactics on you in an unethical manner to get you to comply with requests that go against your (or your company's) interests.

"Influence" equips you with that knowledge, with practical applications on how to use the "weapons of influence" in a positive, constructive and ethical way.

So, here are my notes from Cialdini's work—which you can use as a "cheat sheet"—with my biggest takeaways on how you can tell more powerful and persuasive stories to grow your business.  

#1. Reciprocity

Big idea: Give to get.

Objective: Elicit a sense of obligation from the other party to say Yes.

Key Quote: “Most of us find it highly disagreeable to be in a state of obligation. It weighs heavily on us and demands to be removed.”


1. The story of how Ethiopia donated $5,000 in aid in 1985 to Mexico to help victims of that year’s earthquakes in Mexico City, despite the country’s own enormous needs.

“The money was being sent because Mexico had sent aid to Ethiopia in 1935, when it was invaded by Italy…The need to reciprocate had transcended great cultural differences, long distances, acute famine, and immediate self-interest ... against all countervailing forces, obligation triumphed."

2. The "Krishnas Dilemma": how to increase donations without changing their religious garb that seemed to scare off potential donors.

“The Krishnas’ resolution was brilliant. They switched to a fundraising tactic that made it unnecessary for target persons to have positive feelings toward the fund-raisers … The new strategy still involves the solicitation of contributions in public places with much pedestrian traffic, but now, before a donation is requested, the target person is given a ‘gift’ — a book (usually the Bhagavad Gita), the Back to Godhead magazine of the Society, or, in the most cost-effective version, a flower."

This Krishna strategy is an example of “benefactor-before-beggar” strategy.

3. Making strategic concessions by using the "rejection-and-retreat technique" in negotiation.

My note: Make a big request—greater than what you actually want. And when it's rejected, "fall back" and make a concession for what you really want. This will work more effectively than simply asking for what you want upfront.

How You Can Apply Reciprocity

  • Tell a story that, in itself, invokes reciprocity—a story that is compelling and brings genuine value to an audience. A good story that connects with an audience will cause that audience to be more inclined to listen and to act on your message.

  • Be vulnerable. Share a story of an embarrassing moment or failure that has a happy ending—to cause the audience to want to reciprocate and be attentive and real with you.

#2. Commitment & Consistency

Big idea: Start slow to go fast.

Objective: Get a commitment from the other party so the pressure of consistency—caused by the desire to be consistent with that commitment—kicks in.

Key Quote: “Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and internal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment."


1. Racetrack bet.

Our confidence is always higher after we have placed the bet than before.

2. Toy manufacturer advertising.

Cialdini provides the example of toy manufacturers that would create advertising that gets parents to commit (to their kids) to buying a hot toy in the holiday season, and then intentionally reduce the supply of that product so it’s not available to many parents when they come to purchase it. The parents then "fallback" to buy another toy, but in the back of their mind, they know the child will be disappointed. Then, after the holiday season, more ads come out promoting the hot toy, and now there’s supply. The parent who has made the commitment feels compelled to go back to store to buy that toy. So, the toy manufacturer was able to smooth out their sales cycle by essentially double-dipping—getting you to buy a less popular toy during the holiday shopping season and then getting you to buy the popular toy in the slower sales market.

3. Chinese tactics with American prisoners of war during the Korean War

The Chinese used commitment and consistency tactics to get American prisoners to collaborate with the enemy in one form or another. The idea was to start small, with minor requests. 

“Prisoners were frequently asked to make statements so mildly anti-American or pro-Communist as to seem inconsequential (‘The United States is not perfect.’ ‘In a Communist country, unemployment is not a problem.’) But once these minor requests were complied with, the men found themselves pushed to submit to related yet more substantive requests. … Once he had so explained himself, he might be asked to make a list of these ‘problems with America’ and to sign his name to it. Later he might be asked to read his list in a discussion group with other prisoners. ‘After all, it’s what you really believe, isn’t it? … Suddenly he would find himself a ‘collaborator,’ having given aid to the enemy."

4. The persuasive power of the written commitment.

“The Chinese knew that, as a commitment device, a written declaration has some great advantages. First, it provides physical evidence that the act occurred. Once a man wrote what the Chinese wanted, it was very difficult for him to believe that he had not done so … A second advantage of the written statement is that is can be shown to other people. Of course, that means it can be used to persuade other people."

“Once an active commitment is made, then, self-image is squeezed from both sides by consistency pressures. From the inside, there is a pressure to bring self-image into line with action. From the outside, there is a sneakier pressure — a tendency to adjust this image according to the way others perceive us."

5. Preventing people from backing out of contracts.

“The companies have since learned a beautifully simple trick that cuts the number of such cancellations drastically. They merely have the customer, rather than the salesman, fill out the sales agreement."

“Yet another reason that written commitments are so effective is that they require more work than verbal ones. And the evidence is clear that the more effort that goes into commitment, the greater is its ability to influence the attitudes of the person who made it."

6. Foot-in-the-door technique. 

“Notice that all of the foot-in-the-door experts seem to be excited about the same thing: You can use small commitments to manipulate a person’s self-image; you can use them to turn citizens into ‘public servants,’ prospects into ‘customers,’ prisoners into ‘collaborators.’ And once you’ve got a man’s self-image where you want it, he should comply naturally with a whole range of your requests that are consistent with this view of himself."

How You Can Apply Commitment & Consistency

  • Point to beliefs an audience has or commitments they've made. And then talk about how their current state is not consistent with their commitments—which causes them to feel a lot of tension—but you have the solution to help them get back on track and resolve the tension.

  • Get Yes to a small request and then build up from there.

  • Get commitment upfront—If I could...would you? If I could show you/ save you money/etc., would you …?

  • Get the prospect to state her goals and expectations relative to your product, and then tell a story that frames your product/service in a way that aligns with those objectives.

#3. Social Proof

Big idea: The fear of missing out (FOMO).

Objective: Show that your audience would be in good company by saying Yes to you.

Key Quote: “One means we use to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct."


1. Canned laughter example with TV sitcoms.

2. Advertising strategies.

“Advertisers love to inform us when a product is the ‘fastest-growing’ or ‘largest-selling’ because they don’t have to convince us directly that the product is good, they need only say that many others think so, which seems proof enough."

3. Recognizing the prevalence of the herd or bandwagon mentality--and tapping into it.

Cialdini quotes Caveat Robert, a sales trainer: “Since 95 percent of the people are imitators and only 5 percent initiators, people are persuaded more by the actions of others than by any proof we can offer."

Says Cialdini: “In general, when we are unsure of ourselves, when the situation is unclear or ambiguous, when uncertainty reigns, we are most likely to look to and accept the actions of others as correct."

3. The danger of the herd mentality: pluralistic ignorance.

Cialdini defines pluralistic ignorance as “the failure of entire groups of bystanders to aid victims in agonizing need of help.”

Cialdini here is referring to the Catherine Genovese murder in the 1960's, where there were many witnesses, but no one tried to help, each thinking someone else would step in. And no one did, no one acted.

4. The power of similarity in social proof.

“Without question, when people are uncertain, they are more likely to use others’ actions to decide how they themselves should act. But, in addition, there is another important working condition: similarity. The principle of social proof operates most powerfully when we are observing the behavior of people just like us."

This is a reason why you see more “ordinary people” used in ads today.

How You Can Apply Social Proof

  • When rolling out a new initiative, tell stories about how the experience of "employee-ambassadors" with how they're adapting to the new software system, or company vehicle models, etc. Better yet, have them tell their own story as champions of the change.

  • Collect and share customer testimonials and success stories.

  • Weave in interesting research/ data that suggests social proof.

#4. Liking

Big Idea: Connection on a human and emotional level opens people’s minds and hearts to consider your message and request.

Objective: Increase likability through connection, association, and attractiveness.

Key Quote: “As a rule, we prefer to say yes to the requests of someone we know and like."


1. The Tupperware business model.

“Despite the entertaining and persuasive salesmanship of the Tupperware demonstrator, the true request to purchase the product does not come from this stranger; it comes from a friend to every woman in the room."

2. Asking for referrals with mention of a friend. 

Cialdini talks about the “endless chain” method for finding customers, using an example of The Shaklee Corporation:

“Once a customer admits to liking a product, he or she can be pressed for the names of friends who would also appreciate learning about it. The individuals on that list can then be approached for sales and a list of their friends, who can serve as sources for still other potential customers, and so on in an endless chain."

3. The power of physical attractiveness.

The “halo effect” occurs when one positive characteristic of a person—like good looks—dominates the way that person is viewed by others.

“A study of the Canadian federal elections found that attractive candidates received more than two and a half times as many votes as unattractive candidates."

4. Similarity: increase compliance by appearing similar—in dress, religion, age, habits, etc.

“One researcher who examined the sales records of insurance companies found that customers were more likely to buy insurance when the salesperson was like them in such areas as age, religion, politics, and cigarette-smoking habits."

5. Compliments.

“An experiment done on men in North Carolina shows how helpless we can be in the face of praise … There were three interesting findings. First, the evaluator who provided only praise was liked best by the men. Second, this was the case even though the men fully realized that the flatterer stood to gain from their liking him. Finally, unlike the other types of comments, pure praise did not have to be accurate to work. Positive comments produced just as much liking for the flatterer when they were untrue as when they were true."

6. Contact and cooperation (familiarity).

A couple points here:

  • We like things that are familiar to us

  • Cooperative efforts—like volunteering together for a charity—opens doors to influence.

7. Tapping into the "association principle" by associating your product with attractive models, linking to celebrities

“According to association principle, if we can surround ourselves with success that we are connected with in even a superficial way (for example, place of residence), our public prestige will rise."

8. The luncheon technique.

Based on research conducted in the 1930s by psychologist Gregory Razran:“He found that his subjects became fonder of the people and things they experienced while they were eating."

How You Can Apply Liking

  • Tap into common ground with your audience. Do you know some of the same people? Are you from the same town or region? Did you attend the same school? Are you involved in the same groups? Do you participate in similar hobbies? Do you share religious practices?

  • Deploy civil discourse when you must defend yourself in speech or writing to de-escalate the tension and create the opportunity for resolution.

#5. Authority

Big Idea: Legitimate authority—and even the perception of authority—taps into our conditioned impulse to obey. (The idea here is: They must be right; look at what they’ve accomplished.)

Objective: Position (and promote) yourself as a trusted authority in your field.

Key Quote: “Because their ‘authority’ positions speak of superior access to information and power, it makes great sense to comply with the wishes of properly constituted authors—[even] when it makes no sense at all."


1. Perceived authority often creates an automatic reflex to comply.

“Once we realize that obedience to authority is mostly rewarding, it is easy to allow ourselves the convenience of automatic obedience."

“Once a legitimate authority has given an order, subordinates stop thinking in the situation and start reacting."

2. Stanley Milgram’s “shock" experiment on obedience to authority

“Rather than yield to the pleas of the victim, about two-thirds of the subjects in Milgram’s experiment pulled every one of the thirty shock switches in front of them and continued to engage the last switch (450 volts) until the researcher ended the experiment."

"According to Milgram, the real culprit in the experiments was his subject’s inability to defy the wishes of the boss of the study — the lab-coated researcher who urged and, if need be, directed the subjects to perform their duties, despite the emotional and physical mayhem they were causing."

3. Symbols of authority: “Appearance of authority was enough"such as titles, clothes, etc.

“A series by social psychologist Leonard Beckman gives an indication of how difficult it can be to resist requests that come from figures in authority attire."

Trappings: These include signs of status—car, home, jewelry.

How You Can Apply Authority

  • Prove that you have the right expertise and credentials to be telling the story. Refer to achievements that are relevant to your audience. For example, if you're giving an investor presentation for your startup, you'd want to highlight things like: raised $100 million in venture capital, sold previous company for $500 million, wrote bestselling book, earned Ph.D., etc.

  • Become a thought leader with published articles and books, which increase your exposure and credibility in the marketplace.

#6. Scarcity

Big Idea: Opportunities seem more valuable to us when their availability is limited. And the fear of loss is stronger than the desire for gain.

Objective: Tap into a sense of urgency--based on the fear of loss--to motivate your audience to action.

Key Quote: “…people seem to be more motivated by the thought of losing something than by the thought of gaining something of equal value. For instance, homeowners told how much money they could lose from inadequate insulation are more likely to insulate their homes than those told how much money they could save."


1. Limited-number technique. 

“As a rule, if it is rare or becoming rare, it is more valuable."

2. The deadline tactic. 

“people find themselves doing what they wouldn’t particularly care to do simply because the time to do so is shrinking."

3. Psychological reactance.

Here's how Cialdini defines this:

“As opportunities become less available, we lose freedoms; and we hate to lose the freedoms we already have. The desire to preserve our established prerogatives is the centerpiece of psychological reactance theory. According to the theory, whenever free choice is limited or threatened, the need to retain our freedoms makes us desire them (as well as the goods and services associated with them) significantly more than previously. So when increasing scarcity — or anything else — interferes with our prior access to some item, we will react against the interference by wanting and trying the possess the item more than before."

"Do couples suffering parental interference react by committing themselves more firmly to the partnership and falling more deeply in love? According to a study done with 140 Colorado couples, that is exactly what they do."

The bottom line: “When our freedom to have something is limited, the item becomes less available, and we experience an increased desire for it."

This is why censorship backfires—creating greater demand for the item/ idea being censored.

“This pattern offers a valuable lesson for would-be rulers: When it comes to freedoms, it is more dangerous to have given for a while than never to have given at all. The problem for a government that seeks to improve the political and economic status of a traditionally oppressed group is that, in so doing, it establishes freedoms for the group where none existed before. And should those now established freedoms become less available, there will be an especially hot variety of hell to pay."

In other words … “Freedoms once granted will not be relinquished without a fight."

How You Can Apply Scarcity

  • Frame your story/ your argument in terms of what the audience stands to lose if they don't take immediate action.

  • Talk about all that's at stake and explain why time is running out--why there's such an urgency.

  • Tell stories of other people who failed to act in time on a particular issue--and what happened to them as a result.

  • Set a deadline with your call to action.

Sean M. Lyden is CEO of Lyden Communications LLC, an Orlando, Fla.-based consulting company that helps entrepreneurs increase sales through storytelling. 

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