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ELSE Discusses … Influence

Each month a group of us from ELSE get together to discuss a book we’ve read. Unlike a normal book club, we don’t all read one title and compare notes on it. We choose a theme and each one of us selects a book which is related to that, but also looks like it’s going to help with an area of our own personal or professional growth.

This month we chose the theme of influence. We took quite a broad view of this one, with some taking it to mean personal influence in meetings, conversations and around the workplace, while others took it to mean larger scale influence through design and behavioural science.

What we read

Matt read Just Listen by Mark Goulston

“It’s about how your behaviour as a listener influences someone who’s speaking to you, and how empathy works. There’s a lot in the book about how we feel left out if we’re talking to someone and they’re not showing that empathy. At that point you’re not going to listen to that person, either. So if you want to change someone’s mind, first you need to listen to them properly”

Would you recommend it?

“Yes. It’s a bit more earnest than I expected and there are some cultural things that might work in the US but not so much in the UK. But it’s a really easy read and very practical.”

Karen selected Herd by Mark Earls

“It’s about changing behaviour en masse and whether that’s persuasion or influence. It talks about influence being the most powerful thing. The bit I thought was most interesting is that companies think that the influencer market is the most powerful one. But actually what’s really powerful is the interaction between the people they influence. “

Would you recommend it?

“It feels a bit dated. It was probably ahead of its time back in 2009 when it was written, but it’s not the best book I’ve read on the subject.”

Stew chose Taking People with You by David Novak

“The book talks about how when you want to make big ideas happen, establishing and maintaining genuine support can make all the difference. Energy and a good plan are great, but these things don’t always translate into buy-in from colleagues, stakeholders and decision makers. The book is full of techniques for bridging the gap, to get from vision to action. Starting with shaping an initiative into a proposal, and then the process and, critically, team dynamics and communications, to develop real support and belief.”

Would you recommend it?

“Yes. It’s very insightful, with lots of great material. It talks through several components of leadership and techniques for building buy-in that scales. It’s founded on a greater self-awareness, empathy and communication. The tools and exercises keep it very grounded and actionable — which is great”

Baz went for Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader by Herminia Ibarra

“It sounds very different to what everyone else has been reading this time. There’s a kind of fake it til you make it theme where you need to start behaving a certain way until you feel comfortable enough doing it, and that’s when it becomes natural for you as a lead. She points out that everyone has to find a way to start being more like an influencer and improving their own perception. Things like Margaret Thatcher having a lot of vocal coaching in order to give her gravitas.”

Would you recommend it?

“I listened to it as an audio book and found the narrator’s voice a bit off-putting to start with. But once I got over that and got into the content, there are some really helpful ideas in there. I just need to find my take on them so that I can adopt into my own leadership style.’

Greg chose Influence by Robert B Cialdini

“The book centres around 6 principles that create persuasion, and his team running experiments to validate and understand them. It looks at the cognitive biases that affect us and the power of things like authority and social proof. He uses lots of examples to illustrate the theory.”

Would you recommend it?

“Yes it’s a really good book. I listened to it on Audible and it’s those stories that really stick. I’d keep picking up my phone and skipping back to make notes.”

Holly went for The Power of Soft by Hilary Gallo

“It discusses how you flip between the hard and soft in your approach to life and business. Traditionally we armour up to hide our vulnerability, whereas we should be building a strong core from within but presenting a softer front. This makes for more effective conversations, so we negotiate better and ultimately get what we want. It talks you through practical exercises to tackle to the ‘four’ challenges we face in life (power, perception, people and principles).“

Would you recommend it?

“I found this a difficult read as it’s written from a male perspective. In some instances, I felt that I don’t always demonstrate a hard exterior and naturally have a softer perspective , so I couldn’t relate as well as I’d have liked to. That said, I liked the book’s idea of leaning into discomfort, particularly when when your ‘guard is up’ and you need to work harder to change how you feel you come across.”

Jack chose the classic Nudge by Richard H Thaler and Cass R Sunstein

“Nudge theory is a concept in behavioural science which highlights the ways in which people are indirectly influenced to change their behaviour. These are often very small things and usually inexpensive to implement. A good example of a simple nudge is replacing speed cameras with those signs that show your speed and a happy or sad face. Drivers are nudged towards slowing down rather than being fined for speeding.”

Would you recommend it?

“Yes. The main take away for me was the quantity of nudges which affect us on a daily basis. Unhelpful nudges are everywhere, particularly in marketing, advertising and government — some accidental, but most deliberate. But there’s definitely an opportunity for nudge theory to be used responsibly to have an environmental or social benefit. That’s what excites me most.”

What we talked about

Given the range of books, our discussion covered a lot of ground in only a couple of pints …

Influence as a designer

As designers we’re often trying to create a mass influence. Here at ELSE we’re not in the business of dark design, but if our clients’ clients are going to buy something, we’re interested in making sure that their products and services are much more appealing than the competition.

This part of the discussion found some common themes — Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point came up a few times, as did Milgram’s famous experiment on the power of authority figures.

Authority can come in unusual forms, as an example from Greg’s book showed. “In America there’s an advert that uses the actor who plays Joey in Friends, but as a doctor. On the surface no one should fall for that, but the ad was still a success.”

Another example Greg quoted is the Copy Machine Study. It turns out that a relatively minor change in your language can make quite a difference if you’re asking for things. “Giving a reason, even if it was really trivial, was enough to persuade people to let someone into the queue to use a photocopier. ‘I’ve got a cat, can I go in front of you?’ Odd, but it works.”


Another theme that came up a few times was Reciprocity. This begins with the simple idea that if you do someone a favour, they’ll feel obliged to do you one back.

It also works in reverse. If you can get someone to do you a favour it creates a dissonance — why would they help a complete stranger? Most peoples’ brains resolve this by concluding that they must have done it because they like you. This back-to-front application — also known as the Benjamin Franklin Effect — is another way to get someone on your side.

If you combine reciprocity with anchoring you get the door in the face technique, also known as reject and retreat. Greg’s book had an example of this, too. “The story is of a Boy Scout charging $30 for a ticket to an event, but he’s also selling chocolate bars for $1. The guy he’s selling to hates chocolate, but having rejected the initial offer of the event he ends up buying three chocolate bars and comes away wondering why he’s got them.”

The rejection creates a feeling of obligation and the high price of the first thing makes the other option seem cheaper. It’s a common negotiating technique, and something that’s also employed in pricing and subscription schemes. Restaurants do it a lot, too — if a waiter offers you an outrageously priced special or suggests a really expensive bottle of wine, that’s reject and retreat right there.


Another mass influence technique that came up in our discussion is scarcity, which plays on our fear of missing out. Matt thought that this can be overdone though, “Like Hotels.com. I can’t use that site any more because it feels so pressured with all those ‘Only three more rooms left!! 6 people have booked this in the last 30 days!!’ messages that keep popping up all the time.”

These kinds of things play on the brain’s desire to resolve those everyday dissonances. App alerts are another way of creating a cognitive itch that we need to scratch.

Barry: “It’s like when you get a badge on a phone icon showing that there are one or two alerts and you view them and it’s like ‘meh’. But then an hour later you do exactly the same again. The power of having to fix that thing that’s outstanding … you just can’t not.”

But too many nudges can become counter-productive, as Karen pointed out, “I’ve got, like, 10,000 unread emails and I just don’t care any more”

Influence as a leader

A couple of us chose books about face-to-face influence, and particularly how to influence as a leader of a team or a group. Stew’s book drew parallels between good design craft and the behaviours that a leader needs to show. “It’s treated like a user experience. Understand the people you’re working with, understand their drivers and motivations. Give them a vision and let them have input in building that vision so they feel involved.”

Bringing people with you is a central idea of Design Thinking. It’s not the designer’s job to have all the ideas, it’s ours to bring together the best ones, which can come from anyone involved in making the product. That’s especially true when we’re working with large enterprises, where there’s a need for influence beyond the immediate team.

Which is why ideation sessions need to include the whole production team. As Stew put it, “You get the benefit of everyone’s creativity and their creative problem-solving. There’s a lot of things that need to be done in a big organisation and it helps to have everyone contributing not just labouring away pushing things round in circles. There’s a line in my book that I really liked, ‘The more people know, the more they care’”

As designers though, it is our job to have the vision that binds it all together. Karen again: “You have to have a passion and a purpose. If you want to influence people you need a passion, but you have to be really clear about your purpose. Then people are more likely to buy into the idea because it’s more likely to succeed.”

Leadership habits

The group had a few mixed feelings when it came to books about leadership. On the one hand we know that it’s something we need to continually develop, but on the other we don’t want, as Greg put it, to “Just follow some dark arts manual.”

Barry’s book in particular created some food for thought around that, “I was a bit uncomfortable reading about that stuff. All those things like networking which feel quite unnatural when you think about them as a skill you have to develop. But they’re important, so you have to find a way to do them that you’re comfortable with, that’s honest.”

Which brought us back to the ‘fake it til you make it’ theme. Stew’s book had something to say on this. “If you act like the person you want to to be then people will treat you that way and it becomes authentic, as long as it’s honest and you’re not just trying to be the person you think other people want you to be.”

Leadership, after all, is something that needs consent. As Barry put it, “It comes down to ‘If I follow you and you do something wrong can I forgive it? We’ve let you be the leader and you owe us that.’ With some leaders you’re like ‘If you f*** up I’m going to be so annoyed with you.’”

Stew saw that as another example of reciprocity, If you haven’t taken the time to understand me then why should I give you anything? If you build it in a way that everyone has ownership then you don’t get that reprisal stuff. Then you’re bringing our vision to fruition, not your vision. Then it’s more like the team has succeeded or failed, not just the one person.”

Face-to-face influence

It’s not just about mass influence or taking a team with you. As designers we’re constantly having to create buy-in for ideas, establish a rapport with test participants or a thousand other things that require us to tell compelling stories, or be relatable as people.

Empathy is the basis of all of this, as Matt’s book explained. “If you stick someone in an MRI scanner and show them pictures of people experiencing strong emotions, the same bits of their brain fire as if they were experiencing that emotion themselves. That’s the basis of empathy.”


One way empathy is expressed is through mirroring, our tendency to unknowingly mimic the gestures, body language or speech patterns of someone if we’re deeply involved in a conversation with them. This is well known, but new to Matt was the idea from his book that mirroring cuts both ways. “When we’re talking we expect to see the other person mirror us as a sign that we’re being listened to.”

You can consciously use mirroring to create empathy. It can seem kind of creepy if you overdo it, or if it’s not accompanied by a genuine interest in what the other person is saying. But like affection, it’s something we miss if we don’t get it enough.

Matt pointed to a piece from his book about this, “[the author] has the idea of mirror neuron receptor deficit. If people don’t see other people mirroring them then they don’t feel listened to and that has an emotional impact if it happens a lot. People get so distracted by the feelings it creates that they can’t listen to anyone else, either.”

In conclusion

If there was a theme to the session it was probably reciprocity. That cropped up in every flavour of influence we looked at, and was probably also a good metaphor for the whole session. We found that creating a common learning experience, and taking time out to discuss and share what we’d learned was a great thing to do.

At ELSE our Slack channels are always lively with people sharing interesting links or meetup dates. Hell, sometimes we even talk to each other … But this intentional way of sharing knowledge felt like a step on from that, so it’s definitely going to be a feature of our culture in the future.

For the next one, we’ve chosen distraction as a theme and we’ll be writing up what we found out about that pretty soon.

About us

ELSE is an Experience Design Consultancy helping businesses create products and services that change behaviour.

We work with business leaders on innovation and digital transformation projects — from large multinationals to lean start-ups.

Clients come to us because they are:

  • Launching something new
  • Responding to disruption
  • Looking to shake things up

We help our clients define new opportunities and then deliver them to market. Our approach is practical, challenging and inclusive — building momentum and alignment as we frame the opportunity and define in detail what it takes to launch.

Visit www.elselondon.com to find out more about our work, culture and Academy of Experience Design.




ELSE is an Experience Design Consultancy helping businesses create transformative product and service opportunities. We work with business leaders on innovation and digital transformation projects — from large multinationals to lean start-ups.

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