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What are the keys to motivate and persuade? The psychologist-author Nathalie Nahai explains

What are the keys to motivate and persuade? The psychologist-author Nathalie Nahai explains

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This British psychologist, author of two books (‘Business Unusual’, ‘Webs of Influence’), speaker, moderator, is a great expert on the human mind and especially on motivation and persuasion methods. She now lives in Barcelona, in case you are looking for an English-speaking moderator or speaker for your conference. We took the opportunity to ask her about how our collective psychology is changing, how relevant events are, and how we can get our target audiences to be persuaded.

You are a psychologist, one of the types of professionals most necessary today since we need to understand customers or employees. Between a pandemic and a war, how do you see the psychological context today, for these target groups?

The pandemic has catalysed many trends we were seeing before; the most important ones are about our desire for meaning, integrity and purpose. We saw it before but it has intensified and moved to consumption, with consumers applying values to buying decisions. Also it applies in companies with the ‘great resignation’, people wanting shorter working weeks and looking for meaning in their work. So, whether you are marketing to customers or managing employees, if you want to be successful, you have to meet their deeper human needs.

The pandemic has catalysed many trends we were seeing before; the most important ones are about our desire for meaning, integrity and purpose

What impact does the war in Ukraine have? Does it merely strengthen this move towards values and humanity in a complex world?

One of the interesting things is the idea of entanglement, social entanglement: we are more and more able to access information, so when we see hard images from Ukraine the emotional impact of that seems close. We also have economic entanglement, since the health of the whole system depends on a few nodes. We are more interconnected and interdependent than ever before. But there is a psychological dissonance between our situation (in Western Europe, we are at peace, we can enjoy many things…) and these images taking place in Ukraine. Integrating this local and global realities is difficult. And in this context, for brands there is now a need to play a role, to help in a way which is not self-serving.

In this difficult moment, is it companies’ role to help in the mental health or psychological well-being of their employees or even customers?

The short answer is yes because if we don’t collaborate in these difficult moments, we won’t be resilient enough. One of the keys for that, which I quote in the book is self-determination theory: We have to give people the ways to meet three basic needs:

  • Competence: give people the skills to be able to cope, upskilling for their work or helping them meditate for instance.
  • Relatedness, giving people a sense of belonging: we know if people have a sense of community, they are more likely to thrive.
  • Autonomy, in making decisions in their life, with flexibility for remote work for instance.

How we can help people in these three aspects? If you look at social psychology, we know these three are essential for well-being, and often brands have meaning and purpose but don’t think of these three. So it is something companies can openly manage: can have a conversation with employees about these three notions as a framework, asking the right questions about how to help them.

We want purpose, meaning, values, inclusiveness, but part of society finds it too disturbing (see the reactions to “woke”, “great substitution”, “cancel culture”). Are we ready for this conversation, this change?

As we go into more conversations about bias, prejudice, trauma, identity… conversations are also becoming increasingly narrow, with each side sticking to their point of view and strengthening it rather than engage in a dialogue. We need to create the frameworks where people can speak freely about difference and shared commonalities. It is tricky when you are talking about issues which arise from centuries of trauma (sex, identity, race, etc.). Social media has eroded this possibility of dialogue since it rewards and amplifies negative (rage, anger, fear, sadness…) and puts everyone in small pockets rather than enable an open conversation.

These open, honest, tolerant conversations… will need to take place face-to-face, since online algorithms don’t facilitate it?

Yes, it is a key strength of events. We want to have a sense of belonging, and events do that perfectly, they bring people together with a shared goal, in a shared setting, and usually these environments are stimulating and fun, not in a hedonic way, but more eudemonic sense: purpose, meeting new people, growing, exploring new ideas. And events have these two dimensions: the surface one (pleasure, happiness, enjoyment) and a much deeper one (connection and possibilities, which you don’t get online), and being physically present with people is something we will enjoy more after the pandemic. It is time for well thought-out, curated and facilitated events.

To get people to change their mind, do we need special dynamics?

It also depends on how you frame the conversation. Some people enter the conversation with an open stance, wanting to find out and see the other as a source of wisdom. When you start like this, and really try to really understand the other person, you end up with a really richer conversation and realise things you did not realise before.

We are entering the post-pandemic world. Are there characteristics of events which will make them more relevant? Is ‘high touch’ more necessary when we are becoming more ‘high tech’, for instance?

We are seeing a desire for rich experiences. If you look at the motivations of millennials and gen-Z, it is not about status, money, extrinsic motivation, but about having a rich life, living cool experiences, going to events…

Also, on a deeper level, when we have to deal with trauma and uncertainty, we know from research that if you bring people together with a shared purpose, you can reduce stress level, give them hope and inspiration. Today, people are desperate to have a meaningful moment with others. Being events where you give them food for thought, food for the heart and the possibility to be emotionally connected, is huge on many levels. The questions is: how can you make these events and experiences as meaningful as possible, and what can people bring back both on a professional and on a personal level.

How about persuasion. What are the characteristics of human mind which we should take into account when persuading someone in live communication?

Classical economic models are about people weighing costs and benefits and making a rational decision. But behavioural science has shown that we are irrational. We convince much better with emotive storytelling rather than facts and figures. To convince, it is good to have the facts but they should be embedded into a storytelling. What stories are most impactful? Stories which make people feel good, make people feel trust, and meet people’s values: social justice views, the environment, being a local business, giving back to employees… How do you help me become that better version of myself, taking into account my values? That is the question.

Is the Ikea effect (the idea we are much more attached to something if we have had a role in creating it) real? We have traditionally given pre-made ideas to the audience in events, should we get them to co-create them?

Participation is very important, we know it gives people a sense of intrinsic motivation, which is about finding joy in the task itself rather than doing something for an external reward. Giving a chance to participate also gives them a sense of autonomy. Even if it is limited, like giving the audience 5 minutes to comment on the learnings of a conference with the person next to them, is important.

The idea could be that everyone going to an event should feel they have brought something?


How about personalization: how important is it and how possible is it?

It depends on the type of events. While personalization is important online, in an experience it could end up having the audience atomised and fail to create the sense of common purpose and shared experience that is so important. The ideal is probably to create this shared purpose and common experience, you can personalise the experience by facilitating workshops where you give people a chance to contribute in their own personal way. We need a balance between contributing individually and sharing an experience.