Editor's Note: The National Center for the Middle Market recently published an interview with author Robert Cialdini on the art and science of persuasion and influence. These skills are certainly important for any executive but of particular use to midmarket CIOs who must work closely with their company business leaders, partners and suppliers. Below is the interview Chuck Leddy conducted with Cialdini. We edited the interview but you can read the entire blog here.

Robert Cialdini is a giant in the psychological study of influence, renowned globally for his groundbreaking and bestselling book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, as well as his pioneering academic research in the field of behavioral psychology. Cialdini is also CEO of Influence at Work, a company which trains individuals and organizations on how to be more influential. His new book, his first solo effort in three decades, is Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade.  

Leddy: What is “pre-suasion”?
Cialdini: Pre-suasion is the process of arranging for others to be more receptive to a message before they encounter it. It works by creating a mindset in the listener that is consistent with the central element of your message before you send that message. 

Leddy: How might middle market company leaders benefit from understanding pre-suasion?
Cialdini: Pre-suasion will help you move from ordinary influencer, just focused on what you can say in your message, to extraordinary influencer--by recognizing that what you can say or do before the message can ensure that your listeners will be susceptible to your message. 

Leddy: Can you offer some examples of how middle market leaders might influence their customers or employees through pre-suasion?
Cialdini: Suppose you have a brand new product or service, and you want to convince people to give it a try. What typically happens is that people hang back and are reluctant to try something that’s untested or unfamiliar. One thing you might do is ask people or the entire market whether they are adventurous. Simply by raising the concept of adventurousness, you steer people toward adventurous associations within your message, and they become far more receptive to your message about trying the brand new product.

Leddy: You did a lot of interesting field research for the book. Can you explain what you learned?
Cialdini: I actually went undercover and infiltrated many training programs of businesses that seek to influence others, in areas like sales, advertising, marketing, management, fundraising, public relations, etc. As part of these training programs, we were often allowed to observe an old pro who was accomplished at doing business. I expected that these “aces” of these influencing professions would spend more time developing the specifics of their requests, its logic and its features. But that’s not at all what I found.  

Instead, the highest achievers spent more time crafting what they did and what they said immediate before making their request. They went about their mission as skilled gardeners who know that even the finest seeds will not take root in stony soil. The best performers spent their time pre-treating the soil and making it ready for growth. That’s pre-suasion.

Leddy: Business leaders don’t typically talk about mistakes or weaknesses, but your book cites this as pre-suasive. How so?
Cialdini: In a lot of situations, customers and our employees are skeptical about what we’re saying. I’ve learned from the research, as well as from observing what Warren Buffett does in all his annual shareholder reports, that leaders are likely to reduce the skepticism of listeners if they first make an admission of a weakness in their case. That causes people to view them as trustworthy communicators, so that when they present the strong points of their case, listeners are much more ready to believe them.

Leddy: How can asking others for advice make middle market leaders more influential?
Cialdini: When we want to have a partner in an initiative, we commonly ask for someone’s opinion about it. This is a mistake. Instead of asking for an opinion, we should ask for advice. Asking for an opinion causes people to step back from us and reflect inside themselves, and so they psychologically separate from us. But asking for advice causes people to step toward us and approach the situation in a cooperative mindset. The behavioral science research is clear. If we ask for advice, people are more likely to support us than if we ask them for an opinion..

Boston-based Chuck Leddy is highly collaborative, versatile communications professional with a proven track record as both a journalist and business communications trainer for Fortune 500 companies. As a reporter and freelance writer for the Harvard Gazette and Boston Globe, he's published hundreds of stories, features, profiles, and interviews. As a business communications trainer in Boston, he's worked with C-level executive from around the globe, helping them improve their business English skills in writing, presentations, negotiations, and other forms of communication. Leddy graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, then graduated from Boston College Law School in 1991, after which he practiced law in Greater Boston for three years. He's been a journalist and teacher since 1995.