Book Review: How to Get People to Do Stuff

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How to Get People to Do Stuff: Master the Art and Science of Persuasion and Motivation by Susan Weinschenk

The somewhat tongue-in-cheek title neatly summarizes what the book is all about. Unlike Dan Pink's "To sell is Human", which I read just before this, Susan Weinschenk doesn't focus on "selling" (even by Dan Pink's wide definition); the book is really about what motivates people and how you can use these drivers, as she calls them, to get people to, well, "do stuff".

The 7 Drivers

The author identifies 7 main drivers, which she discusses in detail in as many chapters:

  1. The Need to Belong
  2. Habits
  3. The Power of Stories
  4. Carrots and Sticks
  5. Instincts
  6. The Desire for Mastery
  7. Tricks of the Mind

Each chapter is broken down into smaller sections, during which she explores aspects of each of the drivers before she summarizes them in one or several strategies. The format isn't too different from her "100 things ..." books, only that this time there are 140 strategies in total.

In chapter 9, she then gives examples on how to use the drivers and strategies she discussed in the book:

While I was writing this book, I asked my readers for their ideas of examples to use. I asked them to tell me what they want to get people to do. I’ve included many of their responses as case study examples, and added some of my own.

Patterns

It was only when I read this chapter that it occured to me that this is a patterns book; a patterns book done right, for a change.

The concept of design patterns, in case you're not familiar with the term, goes back to the architect Christopher Alexander who found that in designing buildings he often approached things in a similar way. A pattern is not quite a recipe or an algorithm, but an established, proven way to tackle a problem but in a way that depends on the context you're currently working in. From architecture, the patterns idea swept over to software development and then on into other areas.

What has always bothered me about all those patterns books, though, is that they are a drag to read. Eventually, they come to the point where they simply list all their patterns and as the reader you are then left to read them - which is boring but necessary to get to know them - and then apply them - which is hard since there are usually so many to choose from.

What Susan Weinschenk is doing here is a much better approach. She doesn't call her strategies "patterns", mind you, but they are very similar in concept. In the book, she takes us through all the 140 strategies - not by formally listing them (like a patterns book would) but by explaining how things work and then adding the strategies at the end of each section, as a sort of summary. Then, at the end of the book, she gives concrete examples of how to approach real-life problems (collected from her readers) with these strategies. And suddenly the strategies/patterns make sense, not only in the abstract sense that you already got when reading their description earlier on but also in context, when using them to approach a real issue.

Weinschenk also briefly discusses ethical aspects of her work. Isn't this about manipulating people? Obviously, she admits, these strategies can be used for questionable purposes. Her guideline is to do good or to do no harm. To apply and follow this guideline is up to the reader.

At this point, you may ask what this book has to do with presentations. Most of the time, your presentation will have a call to action. There's something you want your audience to do as a result of them listening to your talk. Weinschenk also explores storytelling and why it works, as well as the subject of credibility. All of these (and some other topics she discusses) are relevant to presenting.

Quotes

Here are some quotes from "How to get People to do Stuff" to give you a better idea:

On credibility and persuasion:

  • You’ll have to decide whether you’re dressing for authority or similarity
  • leaning against something like a table or chair undermines your confidence and authority.
  • To get people to do something, show that you’re passionate about what you’re asking them to do.
  • Remember that emotions are contagious. Convey your passion for the project with your tone of voice to get others excited.

On storytelling:

  • If you tell people a story, they’re more likely to be willing to take action on the information than if you just present data.
  • Even when you have facts and figures to report or share, provide them inside of, or in addition to, one or more stories.

On attention:

  • People tend to pay attention to what they already believe, and filter out information that doesn’t fit with their opinions and beliefs.
  • If you want people to think about something rather than just glossing over the information, then you may need to surprise them
  • keep the message simple and expose them to it five to seven times.
  • To get people to truly grasp what you’re telling them, build in breaks at least every 20 minutes.

Summary

I would recommend "How to get People to do Stuff" even if you are mainly looking for books that help you to become a better presenter. While not all the content of the book is immediately applicable or relevant to presenting, it does touch on quite a few areas that are. And it certainly can't hurt to read the rest of the book, too. Often enough, you will have to get people "to do stuff" - for example to convince them to accept your talk for their next conference.

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Creative Commons Licence "Book Review: How to Get People to Do Stuff" by Dirk Haun is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.