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Principles of Influence

The Management Centre

Five Key Principles

There’s an extensive body of academic research which suggests there are a number of universal cross-cultural principles underpinning influence. There’s some debate about how many principles there are- with numbers ranging from 3 to as many as 10. Many of these were developed by Robert Cialdini in his book Principles of Influence.

For the purposes of this article we’ve categorized them into five broad ones.

To be successful you don’t need to employ all of the principles all of the time – but you may find yourself accessing several in any influence situation.

Here’s a quick overview of the principles:

1. The first, and perhaps most important principle, is reciprocity. When you give people something that they perceive is of value, they want to give something back to you – usually of the same perceived value. At its simplest if I send you a Christmas card you feel you should send me one. This is a universal and seemingly binding rule.

2. The second principle is scarcity. People value something more if it’s in limited supply. They especially they like to feel they’re getting something different that others don’t have – hence the attraction of ‘limited editions’, whether it’s stamps, prints, or experiences. Hence also why an exclusive donor club can be attractive to supporters.

3. The third important principle is connection. We attribute credibility and authority to those who are endorsed by people we like and respect. This principle of connection can be direct- friends or relations- or indirect as in those we respect through their ‘fame’ or importance. Hence the importance of endorsement by a friend or a TV star.

4. Fourth is contrast. In order for people to trust and value you, and what you do, you it helps to create contrasts. These contrasts can take a number of forms – between your opinion and that of others, or between positions or propositions, or even between perception and reality. So if you begin by asking someone for a major gift and then drop to a smaller, but still substantial one, that’s using the contrast principle.

5. Fifth is consistency. We like to adopt and maintain key positions or beliefs. Even when there is evidence to the contrary that the position is not ‘true’, people will often still try to maintain their position. So we tend to look for data to justify our existing opinion. For example, “She couldn’t have done that – it’s not like her.”

Let’s look at each principle in more detail and explore how it can apply in more general situations and specifically for fundraising.


Reciprocity is seemingly part of our psychological DNA. And importantly it applies everywhere in the world. It’s Here’s how it works: if I give you a gift or help you in some way, you feel you should give me a gift back or help me out. Here’s the most obvious example. It’s 5.00pm on 24 December. The office is almost about to close. A smiling colleague at work approaches you with a package. As you accept the package your worst fears are confirmed. It’s a Christmas present. It’s nice that they though of you. But the challenge is you haven’t got them one. And there are no shops nearby that would allow you to nip out to get one and recover the situation. You take the present with as much grace as you can muster. And you feel TERRIBLE. You have failed to meet the basic rule of reciprocity that says that if I do something for you, you have to do something for me. You spend a year worrying and fretting.

This is not simply anecdotal. Two eminent social scientists, Kuznets and Walcot, report how a researcher set up an experiment in which he sent Christmas cards to a number of people he did not know with a very general ‘hope you are well’ greeting. Much to even his astonishment almost 50% of the respondents sent back a card, often with a warm if also slightly bland greeting. They were writing back to a stranger. Why? Because they felt obliged to conform to the principle of reciprocity.

“I had a fair idea of barter. I gave one man a large nail (a most valuable present) without making any signs for a return; but he immediately picked out two fish, and handed them up on the point of his spear.”

class=”quote-name”>Charles Darwin on the natives of Tierra del Fuego from Voyage of the Beagle


Fundraisers use this principle all the time. Think of the first time the famous Easter Seals DM (direct mail) pack went out. Potential donors were sent a selection of personalised self-adhesive return address labels as a gift with a letter asking them to donate. The letter made it clear that the labels were a gift from the organization regardless of whether the recipient sent a gift. (Now for those of you who aren’t familiar with direct mail, the usual response rate for a cold mailing is 1.7-1.8% and a warm mailing around 2-2.2%.) However, when Easter Seals’ response rate was compared with DM packs that had no ‘free’ gift, it was found that almost 20% more people had contributed than normal. That basic model of sending DM packages with the ‘labels’ gift has remained constant for many years.

Recently an interesting variant in the UK has been charities sending out DM packages that include an opinion-seeking survey and a pen- ostensibly to fill the questionnaire in. This approach has been tested with and without the pen. The results are incredibly clear. The inclusion of the (very) cheap pen (20cents) in the pack significantly increases the number of people who respond to the survey, AND it also impacts on the number of In the commercial sector we find companies offering to give free trials of goods or services – or even giving you a free ‘no obligation’ sample. Once accepted, there is then an implicit psychological contract that you should take the next step and order the service for longer-term use or purchase a full-sized product.

The gift needn’t be a ‘thing’. It could be a service or some help. For example Bernard was asked by a colleague to help out by making a speech at a conference at short notice. The colleague offered a small fee. He refused the fee. But then was happy to say to the grateful colleague “I was happy to help- I’m sure you’d do the same for me.” Some months later Bernard needed a favour. Actually he needed a bigger favour than the one he had given. But undeterred he called the colleague. And immediately got a ‘yes’ in response to the quiz. An early small social investment can pay significant paybacks.

Effective, long-term reciprocity is about looking for opportunities to make ‘gifts’ in advance to people that you plan to influence. The gifts as we’ve indicated above can be thanks, help, free advice, a small gift etc.

To be successful with reciprocity make sure that:

  • Whatever the gift is, it will be valued by the recipient.
  • It’s not so big that people feel they are being ‘bought’
  • That you don’t put on obvious ‘do it now’ pressure
  • You make it clear to the person you might want some reciprocal help at a later point

2. Scarcity

Our second principle is scarcity. By making others believe- whether it’s really true or not- that something is in short supply, or hard to get, or exclusive, we can make it more desirable for them.

  • There are examples in ‘ordinary’ consumer behaviour of exclusivity being used to help reinforce the behaviour the marketer needs. Companies try to make readily available mass consumer products appear special. Coca Cola often produces limited edition cans for its products. These are seen as more desirable that the ‘normal’ ones. Nike can attract a premium for ‘short runs’ of trainers.
  • China figurines or other ‘collectables’ like those produced by Franklin Mint will sell more quickly if promoted as a limited edition. And fine artists will often number a line of prints as 1/500 or 57/100 or whatever. These small quantities then attract a premium.
  • Even if there is an absolute limit on numbers another way to create the impression of scarcity is to empathise the time-limited nature of something. In stamp collecting first day covers- only normally available on a specific day- attract special excitement and are perceived to have a special value. Normally the day of issue is not central to the stamp so it is an entirely ‘manufactured’ frisson.

We can apply this principle successfully to influence in a number of ways.


Many charities have memberships for business or individual supporters. These are designed to help generate funds by encouraging companies or individuals to show their support for the cause. They’re especially popular in arts and cultural organisations. In exchange members often enjoy benefits like discounts on tickets for show reduced rates on adverts in programmes etc. At =mc we’ve developed a fundraising approach that called combines the scarcity technique and memberships called superclubbing. On the surface a superclub looks like a membership scheme. In fact it’s fundamentally different.

A superclub is different in that:

  • each level has tiers or levels of membership. And these levels generally separated by quite wide financial contribution bands.
  • within each tier there are only a limited number of members- from say 10 up to 30. And once membership is closed it’s closed unless someone leaves.
  • by joining a given tier you gain access to a number of benefits- but you must pay extra for these. Your joining fee is only an entry fee.

So you join the club at one of, say, three levels. (Importantly these are not Gold, Silver and Bronze. Why not? Because no one wants to be in the Bronze Club! So you need to name the levels after attractive elements. In a visual art organisations the levels might be Picasso, Matisse, and Gauguin. For a sea safety agency a parallel structure might be Rear Admiral, Admiral, and Captain.) One simple example is at the Natural History Museum in the UK. If you join the highest level of the museum superclub you gain the right to hire the impressive Dinosaur Hall for private parties at New Year. If you’re not a member you can’t hire it.


Listen do you wanna know a secret? Do you promise not to tell?

Even information can appear scarce. And by giving people access to that information that can give you a lever of power over people.

Many investor services, for example, offer to provide you with leading edge information about share prices and movements- for a price. The argument goes that in a fast moving word you can gain those few minutes of advantage that will help you improve your wealth. And the information- of course – only has value if you don’t share it with others.

A variation on this is the idea that secrets or special confidential information is available.

The scientology cult beloved of Tom Cruise and John Travolta promises you access to such secrets- actually psychological insights about yourself- but only membership if you acquire the scarce membership.

How can you use this?

Fundraisers can and do make use of this approach all the time:

  • Some charities actually make their basic proposition appear scarce. So WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature) had a massively successful animal adoption programme that emphasised the idea you were adopting the rarest of creatures- for example ‘Notch’ the white rhino. All the copy made it clear that Notch was one of the very few white rhinos left. You were encouraged to save him and his remaining relatives. (You could also save Notch’s sister and cousin.)
  • One of the most successful fundraisers in UK is Colin Mackenzie until recently the head of development at the National Gallery in London. He created a special club for high value supporters. But the problem is the gallery is basically free. So why would you join an expensive supporters club? Well only if you know that Colin could arrange for you to have special ‘behind the scenes’ tours not available to anyone else. (For example seeing skilled staff at work looking after some rare 15th century painting.)


A third important principle is that of connection. This works when it is the perception of the person you want to influence that you are important and your ideas are worth listening to because you have a connection to someone they admire. Essentially if you want someone to do something or think in a particular way, the easiest way is to get a person they have a connection with to endorse the action or proposition.

This connection can take several forms:

  • friends or associates
  • mavens
  • heroines and heroes

Friends and associates

Friends and associates will be the most straightforward ambassadors with the person you’re trying to influence. Essentially the underlying issue here is that you are much more likely to do something if a friend, or someone you have strong connection with, with asks you. The selfsame principle means you’re much more likely to visit a restaurant or go to a movie if endorsed by an individual you know than one you don’t.


A laboratory demonstration of influence – the Milgram experiment

Many of you will have heard of the famous Milgram experiment. Conducted in1974, it involved Individuals being asked to take part in an experiment – ostensibly about learning. Each volunteer ‘teacher’ – could be a man or women, old or young – was asked to help another ‘volunteer’ – a ‘learner’ – to learn something.

The learning help apparently involved administering variable electric shocks to the ‘learner’, whom they could see through a glass panel. A dial indicated the intensity of the shock. (In fact the dial was not connected to anything and the learners were faking their response – they were part of the research team.) The shocks started out small. And each time the ‘teacher’ could see and hear the ‘learner’ grimace in response. The learner apparently continued to fail. After each failure the teacher was asked to increase the voltage. Over a period the voltage was increased in 30 unit chunks until it reached 450 volts. By this time the learners were faking significant levels of pain. The teacher heard and saw the effect on the learner of the increased electric shock. The teacher even heard the learner crying out to stop the shock.

Why, you might wonder, did the ‘teacher’ carry on? What kind of people were they to carry out this appalling act on another human being? Well the answer is simple: they were people like you and me. But when they arrived they had been taken to an official looking laboratory where they had been greeted by a researcher wearing a white lab coat and glasses and clutching a clip board with important looking figures and graphs on it. This person was introduced as a professor. The ‘professor’ asked the teacher to sign a form promising to follow official instructions precisely, no matter what anyone else asked them to do. The teachers were also told that a number of other volunteers – up to 50 – had successfully completed the experiment.

Milgram experiment used two principles and a characteristic of successful influencers to building credibility and ensuring compliance:

  • Asking people to sign something and make a commitment – so working on the principle of consistency
  • Stressing that other people – 50 – had successfully completed the experiment which meant completing it was normal and part of a community – the principle of association

And finally:

  • Introducing an authority and expertise figure to ask the person to carry out the task – using the characteristic of expertise and authority.
  • The Milgram experiment also graphically demonstrated what can happen when these powerful techniques are used unethically.


Mavens are important in influence. This is a term – taken from the Yiddish meaning people who have strong social power – used by Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point. In the book he points out that some people have social power largely through their extensive social connections. If you ask a maven what’s a great restaurant, they probably have the names of six or seven at their fingertips, all nominated by different friends, acquaintances, associates. Or if they don’t know themselves they ill have a number of people they can contact to find out what’s hot. Mavens often have very high levels of emotional intelligence. They may not be the smartest individuals in the world or even especially efficient but they have connections – a lot of people know them and like them. If you ask “Do you know anyone in Glasgow?” they’ll offer you a choice of ten. They often have big Filofaxes/Dayrunners crammed with contacts, or massive Outlook address books.

A good example of mavens at work was the innovative multi-site fundraising gala dinner organised the New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The Met wanted to reach new donors and maybe even people who wouldn’t normally go to the opera. They also wanted to have the event outside the opera house, as it wasn’t really suitable for a large dinner. The question was how? The answer was to approach a number of the most prestigious restaurants in the city and ask them each to host a dinner. The Met went to the maîtres d’ and persuaded them to use the private direct numbers from their address books to invite high rollers and key society figures they knew to a dinner.

Each of the maîtres prided themselves on the range and scope of their address book. They also knew how to make a call. To some customers they said, “We’d love you to be there – and you know others will come if you will.” To others they said, “I know you’d love to meet so and so and they’ll be there. This is your chance to meet them.” Each restaurant was asked to pull out all the stops on a special dinner. And each guest was asked to pay a premium price for the for the privilege of eating – or attending – the dinner. The maîtres had used their maven qualities.

In a different way you probably have a maven in your office. This is the person whose opinion, although they might be quite junior, counts for a great deal. If there’s a night out planned and the maven is going, then the event will be a success. Mavens are not friends, they are people with connections. To successfully influence another person, the maven’s endorsement can be important.

Heroines and heroes

Heroines and heroes can be an even more important connection in influence than a maven. We all have heroines or heroes – people we admire – usually from a different walk of life such as sports stars, pop figures, artists, musicians, religious figures or even politicians and royalty. (It never ceases to amaze us how impressed people are – especially non-British people, by the British royal family!) An endorsement or introduction from a particular celebrity can prove hugely valuable for you, your cause or case. It’s important that the endorser – the heroine or hero – is someone that the person you want to influence admires, not just you. In order to be successful, the endorsement needs to be not just be about your case, or even your organisation – it needs to be about you.)


Pele? You mean I would meet Pele?

We were recently carrying out some work for a well-established Brazilian NGO helping them raise money in Europe. We went to see the CEO of a Belgian Foundation who had a set of funding criteria which exactly matched the operational programmes of our NGO customer. But despite our best rapport building the CEO just didn’t seem to like us or the NGO. (We were only asking for a meeting – so this was a serious level of rejection.)

We decided to try the heroes and heroines approach. First, we mentioned that the Chair of the NGO was a famous political figure. CEO was unimpressed. Then we pointed out the vice-chair was an influential, world-renowned writer. Still not impressed. We stressed that yet another member of the board was a well-known musician. Blank. Then, in despair, we pointed out Pele was on the board, expecting this very cerebral CEO to continue being unimpressed. Instead his face lit up. In fact he stood up.

He said “Pele? You mean I would meet Pele?” And as he said this he kicked his foot as though he were kicking a ball. We noticed that he was now staring straight ahead – obviously into an associated fantasy. We assured him that Pele was indeed on the board, and that if he agreed to meet the board on their visit to Europe he would indeed meet Pele. (As we offered the re-assurance we also made the same kicking motion.) He smiled. “Would my little boy meet Pele?” He asked, again making that distinctive soccer ball kicking movement. “Of course,” we said. He agreed the money.

4. Contrast

Contrast may seem like an odd basis for a principle but it’s actually a very important way of creating influence. Contrasts work by comparing two different elements to change someone’s sense of balance. It’s very commonly used in retail settings. You’re buying a $600 suit and the sales assistant suggests you complement it with a $50 tie. You say ‘yes’ since it seems like a reasonable extra in the context of the suit. Or you spend $400 on a pair of shoes and the assistant offers a $40 protection spays to preserve them. The investment seems reasonable partly through contrast.

Here’s how it works. Mable was at home one day and a very charming young man came to house explaining that he was an ex-offender working his way back into employment through a supervised door-to-door selling scheme. Would she be interested in buying a complete household cleaning kit for £15.99? (About $30US) “Well” said Mable “I’d like to help. But we’re about to move house and are actually trying to get rid of stuff at the moment. And £15.99 seems like a lot.” “Ah,” replied the young man, “I understand. How about a set of dusters for only £4.99 ($10US)? They won’t take up much room in the packing, and will be useful the other end.” Delighted to be given an opportunity to help at a level that fitted in with her current circumstances, Mable bought the dusters. It was only 15 minutes later that she began to wonder why she had bought things she absolutely didn’t need or want – even if it was for £4.99.

In fact it was a very well executed example of the principle of contrast in influence. The young man had begun by making a bigger ask and immediately contrasted it with a smaller one. Mable wouldn’t have bought anything at all if he had stopped with the cleaning kit. But coming in straight away with the suggestion that dusters would be useful, the man offered her a solution that she was comfortable with – at the time anyway!

Robert Cialdini writes a great example of contrast. In his book he recounts an experiment in volunteering run by a mental health charity. The charity began by setting up a stall in the street and stopping passers by. They asked the people they stopped if they would be prepared to give up one day a month to look after a person with a minor mental health challenge. To no-one’s surprise almost all the respondents said no. The experiment was then re-run with a different approach. The passers by were again asked to give up a day. And the same percentage said no. But in an immediate follow up they were then asked, if they couldn’t give up a day a month, would they consider giving up an hour once a week to carry out similar work? 60% of those asked said yes, they would consider this second request. The principle of contrast suggested this would be the outcome.

Again as part of our research we attended a well organised fundraising gala organised by the Brutish Red Cross. During the curse of the event a very charming young woman approached us. “Would you like to buy a raffle ticked was the reasonable request. “Of course was our reply’. ‘There are great really classy prizes’ she continued ‘and tickets are £100 each,” she said holding up a bag bad with the tickets and a credit card machine. ‘£100?’ we asked obviously visibly blanching at that cost. She paused and smiled then held up another badge she held in her other hand. “Or… we have some ticked which are just £25.’ Seeing our relief she went on in a conspiratorial voice. ‘And they have prizes which are relay just as good.’ Delighted at this massive difference in price and the news that the prizes were really just as good we bought four tickets.

The Red Cross ticket seller had very cleverly combined two key principles- that of contest and scarcity in the form of secret knowledge.

5. Consistency

The last principle is consistency. Simply expressed, this says that once we have made a commitment to a particular position, we will tend to stick to that position. More than that, we will experience external pressure from others to live up to that position. So we have two powerful forces help to ensure that we continue on one path once we have some momentum.

This phenomenon exists at a very basic level. In 1968 two Canadian psychologists – Knock and Inkster – undertook a study of people who liked to bet at race tracks. They found that immediately after placing a bet individuals were more likely to believe that their horse would win than in the moments before. The logic of this is obvious when you think about the consistency principle. It’s human nature to want to align your behaviours with your actions, to believe we’ve made the right decision.

There’s a second example of a consistency experiment in Cialdini’s book, mentioned earlier, carried out by social scientists Freedman and Frazer. Pretending to be road safety campaigners, the two social scientists asked local residents if they’d be willing to put a billboard up in their front yard saying DRIVE SAFELY. (The sign was big and badly produced – it definitely wasn’t an attractive addition to anyone’s property.) Residents were shown a photograph of the sign to be used, so they were clear just how unattractive it was. 17% of those asked said yes.

Then Freedman and Frazer went to another neighbourhood to repeat a modified version of the experiment. This time the residents – who had a similar profile to the previous residents – were asked to make a smaller initial commitment to the same basic idea. A fortnight before the main ‘billboard] ask, a different ‘road safety campaigner’ asked people to place a small, 2” by 2” sticker in their front window saying ‘BE A SAFE DRIVER.’ Nearly everyone agreed to this. Two weeks later when the same group were asked to put up the billboard – still just as big and badly produced – 76% agreed.

Through this experiment and a series of others, Freedman and Frazer demonstrated the power of a small step compliance request leading to a much more significant commitment. Freedman and Frazer also found that by making even a small commitment people came to change their view of themselves. So they had to align their behaviours in terms of the way they now perceived themselves.

Many charities do the same thing. The NSPCC began their influential Full Stop campaign with a letter to every home in the UK asking people to sign a petition or pledge card agreeing that ‘cruelty to children should stop.’ Millions of people did. It seems like a very reasonable proposition to be asked to sign up to. And there was no other commitment involved. One part of the purpose of the letter was indeed to begin the process of building awareness about their ending child cruelty campaign. But the NSPCC also had an implicit hope that those same people would later feel more inclined to give a donation, since they had already agreed with the basic premise.

Consistency is a useful approach for us as social individuals:

  • Others will understand you and the way you act – that makes them more secure with you.
  • You’ll feel better and more sincere about yourself because you’re acting in alignment with your beliefs and values.
  • You have some rules to deal with the complex and often contradictory challenges of life and society

How can you as a charity influencer use consistency? One obvious way is to use it with a potential or currently low-level donor. Ask them to read your literature or proposal. It’s apparently a small request, but it allows you to ask what they like in the proposal, to tell them how other people they know value it etc.

Once they’ve agreed to a small proposition, like the billboard experiment you can build on it. (If you like, using the thin end of the wedge.) Asking someone to begin with one small gift can be the starting point for you to help them work their way up the gift ladder/donor triangle so beloved of fundraisers.


They call me Naughty Lola…

Honesty is a useful tactic. Ever since Hertz admitted they had to try harder since they were only number two in the world of car rental, and Domestos conceded it could only kill 99% of household germs, we like people – advisers, etc. – to be honest with us. And honesty means sometimes admitting to not being perfect.

A great example of this is a recent book written by David Rose, the advertising director of the London Review of Books. The book’s title is They Call Me Naughty Lola: Personal Ads from The London Review of Books. (The book title is a real ad, placed by a 46-year-old male physicist seeking love and friendship).

What’s different here is that the majority of the ads he’s selected – and the most ‘successful’ ones in terms of the level of response – are self-deprecating. They reject the shameless self-promotion of most personal ads – ‘charming’, ‘funny’, or ‘great in the sack’ – and instead present themselves ‘warts and all…’ So in the lonely hearts ads people talk about being ‘desperate’, ‘odd-looking’, ‘obsessive’, ‘incontinent’, ‘neurotic’, ‘miserable’, ‘flatulent’, ‘older than 100’, ‘paranoid’, ‘menopausal’, ‘unfaithful’, ‘bald’, and in one case ‘amphetamine-fuelled’.

There’s some eye-watering detail as the prospective partners tell you exactly what you’d be taking on. Ailments include liver disease, drug addiction, compulsive gambling, alcoholism and even reduced sperm counts.

According to David Rose’s research, these ads appear to be hugely successful not just because of the novelty value, but because their apparent honesty means putative partners feel they know what they’re getting into. And they’re funny.

What can you learn from people writing candid lonely hearts ads? Being candid about your achievements – or lack of – can actually win you more supporters that when you try to suggest there is no room for improvement. Try these:

  • (To a donor when you’re seeking support for a higher education institution.) We’re not as academically rich as Harvard, but then they’ve had a hundred years and we’ve only been going for 25. But we’re catching up pretty fast.
  • (To a donor when you’re seeking support for a drug treatment programme.) The reality is only 1 in 3 of our patients succeed. The reality is they have to want to succeed. We can give them the opportunity. Can you help the 1 in 3?’

Between them using these five key principles – reciprocity, scarcity, connection, contrast and consistency – will significantly increase your effectiveness as an influencer. They provide you with ways to frame your overall approach.


Some final things to note about the principles. They:

  • are not mutually exclusive – you can use one or more in single proposition and if you manage to combine a number you will create significant momentum.
  • all are elements inherent and natural in people’s way of thinking worldwide– as influencers we’re simply building on natural social phenomena.
  • need to be used ethically and sensitively – if an individual perceives you are using a principle like, say, reciprocity manipulatively, they will be very unhappy.

What’s next?

For more information on how we can help improve your influencing skills, contact Bernard Ross on +44(0)20 7978 1516 or email

You may also want to read The Influential Fundraiser (New York Times’ Top-5 non-profit book), written by =mc Directors Clare Segal and Bernard Ross.

And finally, if you’d like to learn many of the most useful influencing (and negotiating) skills available, visit the =mc website and discover dates and details for our one-day Influencing & Negotiating for Results programme.

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