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What can you learn from children about persuasion?

A lot.

Ever hear of a kid ask for a pony. After rejection she follows up immediately and asks for a cat. Turns out she’s not just a cute 6 year old — she’s learning persuasion techniques.

This rejection and then retreat strategy works more than you might think. Study after study has found we are more likely to say ‘yes’ to a smaller request immediately after saying ‘no’ to a larger one.

Tips for making this work: the rejection must be followed up immediately with another request (don’t wait overnight) and ask for your ideal scenario first. In an attempt to avoid a refusal we’ll reduce what we ask for in the first place. In doing so we also reduce our persuasiveness.

Imagine you are approached one day by someone introducing themselves as a local youth centre worker. They want to persuade you to become a volunteer. In fact, they have a specific task in mind: “Would you be willing to escort a group of children on a trip to the zoo this weekend?

You politely decline, thinking that the youth centre has its work cut out persuading people to sign up to such a scheme. And you would be right. Only a few people were willing to say ‘Yes’ to such a request.

But the next day the youth centre is able to triple its success rate by making one small change. Remarkably this change costs nothing to implement.

“Would you be willing to become a counsellor at the centre?” people are asked. The representative then goes on to explain that this would involve two hours of their time every weekend on a programme that lasted three years! No surprise when everyone refuses. But immediately after they do, they are asked, “Well, if you 
can’t do that would you at least go on a zoo trip with some kids this weekend?” The result? A 300 per cent increase in people who say ‘Yes’.

This zoo trip appeal was, in fact, part of a study carried out by persuasion researchers keen to understand how people respond to concessions. What this study, and others like it, have found is that we are more likely to say ‘Yes’ to smaller requests immediately after we have said ‘No’ to larger ones.

One reason for this is that people feel more psychologically obligated to give a concession to those who have given them a concession first.

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Do you want to be more persuasive? Try reading Yes! 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion.