From the Lab: The Motivating Power of Identity

In a 2011 study, when prospective voters were asked “How important is it to you to be a voter in the upcoming election?” they were significantly more likely to be interested in voting than they were when they were asked ““How important is it to you to vote in the upcoming election?” (emphasis added) In addition, they were significantly more likely to actually go out and vote (95.5% turnout vs. 81.8% turnout).

Simply by changing the part of speech of a word (from the verb “to vote” to the noun “voter“), researchers tapped into the motivating power of identity: while voting is just something you occasionally do, being a voter is part of who you are. As the researchers note, “although the wording manipulation in these studies was subtle and rigorously controlled, the effects observed in [these experiments] are among the largest experimental effects ever observed on objectively measured voter turnout.”

You too can tap into this powerful motivation by asking your audience to be (or not be) a noun, rather than simply asking them to do (or not do) a verb. As the researchers note, this effect is likely to hold true for other moral identities (being “a healthy eater” is better than “eating healthy”), and the opposite effect is likely to hold true for negative behaviors (i.e., being “a quitter” is worse than “quitting”).

From the Lab: You Can Do It!

In a 2014 study by Sandra Dolcos and Dolores Albarracin, reported by BPS Research Digest’s Christian Jarrett, they found that when it comes to motivating yourself, saying “you can do it” is better than “I can do it.” Participants who were instructed to tell themselves “you can do it” reported greater motivation to solve a set of puzzles and actually succeeded in solving more puzzles than participants who told themselves “I can do it.” This effect also held true for exercising: participants who told themselves “you can do it” reported more positive attitudes toward exercising and expressed greater intentions to exercise in the coming week than those who told themselves “I can do it.”

As for why this might be, the researchers “speculate that second-person self-talk may have this beneficial effect because it cues memories of receiving support and encouragement from others,” which, as we’ve seen before, can be an effective method for calming your nerves. This study goes one step further to suggest that we might be able to provide this for ourselves, simply by speaking to ourselves in the second person.

From the Lab: Easy to Read, Easy to Do

In a 2008 study, Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz found that when instructions for a task are presented in a font that is difficult to read, readers believe that the task will take significantly more time to complete and are significantly less motivated to attempt it.

This underscores the importance of making your presentations easy to understand, particularly when you are asking your audience to do something. (This principle applies to both your words and your visual aids—all parts of your presentation, really.) When the audience finds it difficult to understand your presentation, this will cause them to view what you’re asking them to do as more difficult, and they will be significantly less likely do it. On the other hand, if you make everything easy to understand, your audience will think what you’re asking them to do is easier, and they will be significantly more likely to do it.

Note: In a followup study in 2009, Song and Schwarz found that when the names of food additives or amusement park rides were hard to pronounce, they were perceived as riskier than those with names that were easy to pronounce.

Off the Shelf: What’s In It For Me? (WIIFM)

In The Science of Speaking, I talk about Jerry Weissman‘s idea of WIIFY, which stands for “What’s In It For You?” When making a pitch, you always want to make it clear what’s in it for the audience.

In Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins, Annette Simmons presents a subtle counterpoint to WIIFY. While it’s important to present what’s in it for the audience, she says, it can also be beneficial to reveal what’s in it for you, or rather, “What’s In It For Me?”—WIIFM.

Of course, Simmons is not suggesting that you focus on WIIFM while ignoring WIIFY—that’s exactly what Weissman is warning against, and if you do that, your pitch won’t be nearly as effective. So what is Simmons actually suggesting?

She’s suggesting, as I have in the book, that it’s good to be transparent. In this case, she cites research that shows that when we perceive a deal to be unfair, we’ll refuse to take it, even if it’s to our own detriment.

For example, in the experimental setup known as the Ultimatum Game, one participant is offered a reward and asked to split it between themselves and another participant—however they want. This means they could propose a 50/50 split, an 80/20 split, or even a 100/0 split. The catch is that the other participant gets to decide whether to accept the deal, in which case the reward is split along those lines, or to reject the deal, in which case no one gets anything.

If humans were economically rational beings, we would expect people to accept anything other than 100/0—even 1% of a reward is better than nothing, after all. But in practice, this isn’t what people do. In general, people tend to reject offers below 30%. Even though it means they lose guaranteed money, they do it anyway to punish their partner for making an unfair proposal. People don’t like to be used.

Back to Simmons’ WIIFM. If you don’t reveal this yourself, she says, the audience may wonder what’s in it for you, and reject your proposal if they suspect you may be using them. By explicitly laying out your own motivations, you assuage any doubts that your audience may have about you.

In addition to assuaging any doubts, revealing your own motivations can sometimes help motivate your audience as well. As I note in the book, one good way to find ways to motivate the audience is to think about what caused you to care about your cause in the first place. For example, if you’re motivated by the possibility of saving lives, there’s a good chance that your audience will be as well. By revealing that that’s WIIFY and M, you can make that motivation even more powerful.