Book Review: “The small big – small changes that spark big influence” by Steve J Martin, Noah J Goldstein and Robert B Cialdini

As a psychologist and a salesperson I was blown away when I first read Cialdini’s great book on the psychology of persuasion (was that really over 10 years ago?). There’s a summary of the six principles below. His work features in many of my influence, persuasive writing and buy-in training workshops. So here’s a look at his latest work – Book Review: “The small big – small changes that spark big influence” (persuasion science) by Steve J Martin, Noah J Goldstein and Robert B Cialdini.

I had already booked to go and see Dr Cialdini and Steve Martin when they talk about persuasion science in London at the end of January 2015 so I was delighted when Professional Marketing magazine asked me to review this book for them. The formal review will appear shortly. Behavioural science is very topical at the moment. This book focuses on the idea that a small change in the setting, framing, timing or context of how information is conveyed can dramatically alter how it is received and acted upon. Each one of the 50 small changes that can have a big influence is featured in its own short chapter and supported by the relevant scientific evidence and practical suggestions for how you might implement it in practice.

This book has something for everyone – whether you are in marketing, business development, sales, customer service, relationship management, human resources, coaching, procurement or project or change management. The techniques are applied to situations as diverse as: negotiation, motivation, time and meetings management, team building and copywriting as well as environmental and health situations. And the majority of the techniques discussed can easily be applied to situations in professional services.

Here’s my hasty summary of the main points covered, organised in a way that will make them more a little more accessible for implementation when influencing, persuading or copywriting.

Prompting action 

  • Simply and honestly tell people what the majority of others who are similar to them are already doing (i.e. frequently adopted and desirable behaviours) that you would like them to do (the injunctive norm)
  • Ensure that your message aligns closely with the social identity of the target group as there is real emotional cost in going against the group
  • Indicate a specific and close deadline

Preventing action

  • Adopt a zero toleration policy – when people observe that their peers have violated one social norm, not only are they potentially more likely to violate that same norm themselves but they are also more likely to violate a related by different social norm.
  • To avoid people hanging up when they are holding on the telephone, allow them to personalise their choice of on hold music or activity.

Gaining commitment

  •  Request a simple verbal commitment – ideally, get them to write down that commitment themselves. Ask recipients to signal a simple “yes” response that the notes you sent are an accurate reflection of their understanding of the next steps.
  • Seek specific initial commitments and include cues in the environment that can act as triggers for other related and desirable behaviours.
  • Ask people to produce an implementation intention plan to ensure commitment and follow through when there is a delay between agreeing to take action and the time when the action is carried out.
  • Ask your audience to commit to a change at a given time in the future if you suspect you will meet resistance for immediate behaviour change.
  • Appeal to people’s sense of moral responsibility to the future version of themselves
  • Accompany an active choice (between two options – rather than a default) with a specific loss message 


  •  Use people’s (first) names in communications to increase their motivation to do something
  •  Include examples of task significance, for example, provide personal stories and/or case studies
  • To get people to re-engage with a previous goal that they set themselves, set a goal with a low-high range that averages that same. This engages both challenge and attainability influence factors
  • Using the small area hypothesis, highlight the smaller are of attainment achieved or remaining
  • Although people report a preference for flexibility when achieving goals and objectives, rigidity can have a surprisingly positive influence on whether those goals are completed
  • Optimise incentives by offering rewards that fall into two distinct categories and then allow the team access to the second category only after they have earned one from the first 

Sales and marketing  

  • When meeting someone for the first time, it is important to dress in a style that is similar to the group you wish to influence but at one level higher (authority)
  • Stimulate readers to talk positively to themselves about all aspects of your letter and avoid the possibility of negative self-talk and include references to expert credentials early in the communication
  • Position messages in a way that first focusses client’s attention on the potential future benefits your proposal offers, followed by examples of what your organisation has previously delivered
  •  Use the love association with hardwired cue words such as love and heart shapes to increase generosity
  • Advice and recommendations from experts who are themselves uncertain is most compelling as the source’s expertise, when coupled with a level of uncertainty, arouses intrigue 
  • Complex choices appear easier when viewed from a greater physical distance
  • Positive online review are seen as valuable as negative ones if the reviewer truthfully states that the review was based on an experience that had happened the same day
  • Allow people to touch products or documents – or to imagine that they are doing so as it increases the emotional connection
  • Build in a peak-end effect – something pleasant at the end of an experience 


  • Remove both physical and psychological connections between those deciding to negotiate and those negotiating to avoid escalations in commitment where people subconsciously play not to lose
  • Invest just one extra minute to humanise (with something consistent to the task) your initial exchanges
  • Negotiating on “home” territory increases confidence, whereas negotiating “away” decreases it
  • Encourage people to think about times when they felt powerful and adopt an expansive (taking a lot of space) and open stance to create a psychological and physiological advantage 
  • Be the first to make an offer (this anchors the level for subsequent negotiations) and make it a precise one (i.e. avoid round numbers)
  • People are more persuaded by the thought of losing something than the thought of gaining that exact same thing


  • Recognise the left-digit effect when offering figures
  • As extra benefits can cheapen an overall proposition, invest the same amount in a more significant feature for fewer selected customers
  • Use a unit-asking strategy by asking people what they would pay for each individual item before presenting the cost of multiples of that item. Be aware of perceptual contrast and lead with an item-then-price strategy
  • Frame opportunity costs as unattractive or unimportant 

Relationship management and customer loyalty

  •  Evidence suggests that the longer we know someone, the less likely it is that we will be able to accurately predict their preferences. So occasionally invite a colleague who knows a client less well to uncover new information and new opportunities
  • Take clients to lunch at a place that they have mentioned a couple of times rather than the place you like best as people are happier and more appreciative when they receive something that they have previously said that they would like
  • Ensure what you give first is unexpected relative to the norm 
  • Companies with a strong error management culture are four times more likely to be among the most profitable companies in their industry – the highest satisfaction ratings are not those who report a seamless service but those who experience a service stumble that was immediately put right by staff 

Team work

  •  Focus on shared identities to encourage cooperation and partnership – what binds rather than what divides them. Especially highlight uncommon commonalities 
  • Optimise the giving process in the workplace by being the first to give a favour but be sure to verbally position it as part of a natural and equitable reciprocal arrangement
  • Communicate your appreciation for favours done and the efforts made on your behalf
  • Emphasise the practical benefits afforded to those who ask for help and take steps to assuage in advance the feelings of any discomfort that help-seekers might experience by having to ask 
  • When persuading others to give up resources, focus attention on the identifying features of both the entity and the intervention involved
  • To help make the right moves in business, have ready access to a catalogue of others’ wrong moves

Time and meeting management

  • Consider the audience’s perceptions of social norms before characterising the behaviours that deviate from that norm (so, if there is a perception that lateness is a problem, depict the positive traits of those who arrive on time but if the common belief is that lateness is not an issue then focus on the negative traits of the latecomers)
  • Four tips to increase the effectiveness of meetings:
    • Ask those attending to submit information before the meeting
    • Make sure the person who leads the meeting speaks last
    • Recognise the value of a checklist
    • Use circulate seating to focus on the group’s collective objectives, L-shaped seating to activate people’s need for uniqueness or angular seating for taking responsibility for individual actions
    • Adjust the seating so that the people whom you want to be perceived as the most important are located in the centre
    • If you want to generate creative thinking and new ideas, use a room where the ceilings are high. But if you want specific actions and plans, select a room with a lower ceiling

For more details on these ideas you will, of course, need to buy and read the book which also offers guidance on whether and when these different influencing strategies can and cannot be used together.

Influence: The psychology of persuasion

For those of you who haven’t read Robert B Cialdini’s book “Influence: The psychology of persuasion”, here’s the six principles he describes (they are also described in this 12 minute video on Cialdini’s principles of persuasion) : 

Scarcity – The rule of the few. 

  • Opportunities seem more valuable to us when they are less available

 Reciprocation – Give and take

  • We are obligated/try to repay what another person has given us
  • Big request – rejection – small request

 Commitment and consistency – Hobgoblins of the mind

  • Once we make a choice/stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment
  • Small commitment – big commitment

 Social proof – Truths are us

  • We view a behaviour as correct in a given situation to the degree we see others performing it (especially in uncertainty)
  • We have a desire to affiliate with others

 Liking – The friendly thief

  • We prefer to say yes to the requests of people we know and like

 Authority – Directed deference

  • We have a deep seated sense of sense of duty to authority

Other articles on persuasion

Influence – Cialdini’s six principles of the psychology of persuasion (

Book review – Persuasion: The art of influencing people by James Borg (

Top tips on the psychology of persuasion (

Book review – Peter Frederick’s “Persuasive writing” (

Storytelling book reviews: The Story Advantage and The Story Factor (