Three truths about how people respond to information

A warning. This blog will only be of interest if you’ve ever experienced someone:

  • Refusing to change their mind despite evidence to the contrary
  • Being blind to their faults
  • Making decisions differently depending on what day you catch them on

That’s all of us, right?

Influencing the behaviour of your customer starts by recognising they are not a blank slate, eagerly awaiting your brilliance. In my experience there are three truths about where they are coming from, and this shapes how to approach best them. If you want an insight in how I use these truths to structure proposals, presentations and websites, read on.

1. Your customer is the scriptwriter

Whatever you tell your customer will be slotted into an existing narrative about the world.  It’s like you are trying to introduce a new storyline into an existing TV series they have scripted with established characters and plot points.

Known as the “Narrative Fallacy”, people tend to bind facts or events together even where no causal relationship exists. If you listen to one of hundreds of podcasts on how an entrepreneur has found success you’ll hear such narratives play out. In share trading, people tend to believe past performance will help them predict future performance, ignoring the role of luck and uncontrollable events.

It means your customer will have a view of how the world works, and will treat your perspective as something that either fits or does not.  As a result, they are prone to:

  • Proactively seek information that confirms rather than disaffirms their view (Confirmation Bias) and
  • Reactively distort information to retain equilibrium (Resolving cognitive dissonance)

A potent illustration of this comes in the form of a survey of 174 business executives.  When asked to describe their decision-making style, 42% said they were data-driven and 17% empirical. Only 10% claimed to be intuitive.

When subsequently asked how they would proceed if data contradicted their gut feeling, 57% said they would have it reanalysed and 30% said they would collect more data. Only 10% said they would follow the course of action suggested by the data.

In other words, almost 9 out of 10 of decision-makers, the majority of whom believe they are data-driven, ignore or refute data that does not fit with their narrative!

For you:

  • Understand their story. What assumptions are they making about their industry or customers?
  • To get them to be open to considering new input, first uncover reasons why the existing narrative is flawed – this is your grounds to provoke new thinking
  • Then, to start re-writing the narrative get them to agree that the status quo is not perfect
  • Finally, introduce your new storyline that they can easily integrate into their perspective


Before I can get people to consider using behavioural economics I must first get them to agree that there are flaws in how we currently think people behave. My training sessions deliberately start with a consideration of why we can’t rely on what people say they’ll do or assume they are rational.  Only once we’ve agreed that these problems exist can I introduce a way to resolve the challenge.

And for bonus points, did you notice how I introduced this blog? I started with shared frustration to incite curiosity.

2. Your customer is the hero of their own story

Not only does your customer write the story, they make themselves the hero. Avoid diminishing or insulting their sense of uniqueness, and always approach the situation from a “what’s in it for me?” perspective.

Being the hero means your customer will rationalise and justify their beliefs and actions. They will be prone to:

  • Act differently depending on whether they are addressed personally (Identify Bias)
  • Excuse their own poor behaviour if they are otherwise ‘good’ (Self- licensing)
  • Internalise credit for their own success but blame the external situation for any missteps, whilst attributing reasons for the success and failure of others’ in the opposite direction (Fundamental Attribution Error)

For you:

  • Treat them as a person not a process and ensure everything you do considers their “WIIFM?”
  • Presentations – proposals or seminars – will tank if you start by talking about yourself. They don’t care about you yet, so lead with insights about them or their industry before introducing what you have to offer later.
  • Spell their name correctly!


  • The first 75% of my proposals are all about the customer – their situation and how it can be resolved. I only include details about my credentials at the end, by which time they are curious.
  • When asking your customer to do something (e.g. sign up to a newsletter), tell them what they get (free news) before what they have to give (their email)
  • Your website needs to be about them, not you. Your history and philosophy should be deprioritised  (i.e. not on the home page). Rest assured,  if your customer is interested, they’ll find it.

3. Your customer runs on batteries

Emotional and cognitive energy is limited.  That means your customer will follow the path of least resistance wherever possible and is prone to making superficial expedient decisions. That means “good enough’ (or “satisficing”) rather than “maximising” decisions.

You will have seen the implications of limited battery-power in your friendly neighbourhood supermarket.  There’s a reason they sell sweets at the checkout -people are prone to indulge once their self-control is depleted.

In a study by Shiv and Fedorikhin (1999), for example, a group of participants were required to remember a two-digit number before being asked to venture down the hallway for an interview. On the way, and seemingly as an after thought, they were offered their choice of fruit salad or chocolate cake from a snack cart. People chose fruit and cake in almost equal measure.

A second group were required to remember a seven-digit number. This time people overwhelmingly chose the chocolate cake. Why? The longer number had chewed up their battery, leaving them to the mercy of their indulgent impulses.

Being battery-powered means customers will be prone to:

  • Leave things as they are when they are fatigued (Ego depletion)
  • Rely more heavily on fast, intuitive, habitual System 1 thinking when tired, than slow, deliberate, detail-oriented System 2
  • Follow recommendations if they trust the person making it

For you:

What state of energy do you want your customer in? 

  • High energy can mean your customer will be open to thinking more about what you are suggesting, but that can also invite pointed objections.
  • Low energy can mean a more passive audience, which can be good or bad depending on their mood. A passive, negatively disposed customer will not be bothered to contemplate change unless it is the easiest path to follow. A passive, positively inclined customer will tend to roll with your suggestions.


  • I send my newsletter to most people in the morning so they are fresh and interested in new ideas.
  • I believe my Friday coaching sessions are more popular than Mondays for two reasons. Mondays often have a condensed, business-as-usual vibe where people are just getting back in to what they need to get accomplished. Fridays are typically more expansive, where people like to talk about interesting concepts.

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

What your voice says about you

As someone who is interested in behavioural economics, you are clearly interested in the hidden forces that shape behaviour.  Here’s one that’s been right under our noses the whole time – our voices.  People judge us not only by how we look, but how we sound.

Snap judgments

On the back of studies confirming people judge the health, attractiveness, warmth and competence of others based on how they sound, researchers from the University of Glasgow were interested in how long this impression takes to form.

The answer? People make these judgments in the time it takes to say “hello”.

First whittling a passage of text read by sixty different people down to the word “hello”, the researchers had 320 people listen to that single word and rate the anonymous speaker according to a list of personality traits such as trustworthiness, warmth, dominance, aggressiveness, attractiveness, masculinity and femininity.

The interesting finding was that there was consensus across participants about the ratings given to the voices. In other words, 320 people broadly agreed which voices were warmer, more dominant, more trustworthy and so forth.

Were these assessments accurate? Was the person who sounded the most trustworthy, actually trustworthy? That’s not what the researchers were interested in, so we don’t know. The important (and alarming) take away is people make the judgments irrespective of evidence.

If you overlay this with behavioural concepts such as the halo effect and confirmation bias, it means that once you are judged (or judge) in a certain way, evidence confirming that judgment will be prioritised over anything that disaffirms it. If Bob sounds trustworthy, I will naturally look for examples of trustworthy behaviour from Bob and discount contradictory information.

What first impression are you creating?

Knowing that you and your staff will be judged by how you sound, it is worth thinking through the points of first impression. Are you meeting customers in person or over the phone? What does your voicemail message say about you? Have you paid enough attention to the vocal ‘talent’ that represents your business in ads, videos and recordings? Make sure your voice hits the right note with customers because it is likely to be one of the behavioural forces that has been overlooked.

Can you change your voice?

The natural question after finding out that we are judged by our voice is to ask what we can do about it. Can we change our voice?

That’s actually what got me started on this line of enquiry. I came across “Four Ways to Tell What Your Voice is Saying About You” in Fastcompany, and as someone who speaks regularly in front of groups and in the media, I was curious about what messages my voice was sending without me realising, and whether I could influence it.

The upshot from what I’ve read in Fastcompany and other literature is you can change your voice, but only to a degree.  

  • Pitch and rhythm you can control, and vocal exercises (how now brown cow) and mindful breathing can help (Google “vocal training” or “executive speaking” to find some options). 
  • Other aspects of your voice like resonance are more difficult to change because they are a function of your physiological make-up like height and length of your vocal tract.

Of course, there’s always a gulp of helium to set your voice apart, but I think we’ll agree this strategy is ill advised for reasons of health and credibility.