The fascinating science-backed technique to change behaviour

Sometimes, it would be easier to scratch your armpit with your nose than steer the behaviour of others.

Here’s a science backed technique to help you elicit actions from others  without having to perform such stunts.

The technique I’m focusing on here is the ‘Small Yes to Big Yes’.

What the technique is:

In Robert Cialdini’s book ‘Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion’, his research shows that provoking a ‘yes’ to a small request makes people more likely to say ‘yes’ to a larger commitment.

Example One:

Gordon’s restaurant in Chicago suffered, like many restaurateurs, from no-shows and, in this case 30% of customers wouldn’t turn up for the bookings. The receptionist would state “Please call us if you change your plans.”  They didn’t call, the didn’t turn up.

The receptionist then changed the statement to a question: “Will you please call us if you change your plans.”  This would be followed by a pause to cue a ‘yes’.

The result of this simple reframing into a question was that the no-shows plummeted to 10%.

Example 2:

Another example in the research Cialdini covers is that of the American Cancer Society.  The society were seeking volunteers to spend 3 hours collecting door to door donations.  Not something that people would often jump up and down for.  When they phoned the public, the society would only ask them if they would consider doing it, and if so, they would agree to be phoned back another time.  Here, they’re illiciting the ‘small yes’.

Months later, when reminded of the survey and then requested to give their time, the uptake was enormous: there was a 700% increase in the number of volunteers.

Example 2:

A third, more recent example from a 2013 study centres on whether hotel guests would change their behaviour after agreeing to make a small commitment.  The hotel management wanted to increase towel reusage as part of their energy saving measures.  They asked guests to read a statement about the hotel’s commitment to saving energy and then simply sign a checkbox on a card that stated the following: “I care about the environment at home and when I travel. As a friend to the earth, I will do my best to practice environmentally-friendly behavior [save water and energy by re-using my towels] during my stay.”  As a reminder of their commitment, they were given a small lapel pin.  As a result, there was a 40% increase in the total number of towels that were rehung by guests.

Remind people of their ‘small yes’:

Note: that these last two examples contain a very specific factor:

Reminders to the individuals of their commitment: such as the lapel pin or the second telephone call that restates the commitment made in the first one.

People want to look consistent with the commitments they give. 

So the first step is to elicit the commitment and the second is to remind them of it.  If you have it in writing, then you can include the email chain.

How to apply the technique in your life:

The value of the ‘small yes’ to the bigger one can be used in anything from team collaboration to fundraising.

Ask people if they’d consider working with you on something first, the small ‘yes’ because you’re only asking them for their consideration.  Later, ask them to join you in the actual task.  That’s the big ‘yes’.

What does this look like in a professional context?  Your small ‘yes’ could involve asking them to:

  1. something free before coming to a paid event;
  2. say ‘yes’ in response to a request, instead of you using a command or making a statement;
  3. sign up for something;
  4. share information
  5. help find a resource;
  6. introduce you to someone;
  7. state whether they’ve 5 minutes to spare or verifying information, ‘I see you were in Product Design for Shopify for 5 years. Is that right?’  Sales people often use this on cold calls.

Some of these may look like the ‘big yes’, such as the introduction.  Thus, your ‘small yes’ could be to accept a LinkedIn request.

Don’t look like a piss-taker:

Don’t be that pesky parasite. The hotel guests had already signed up to stay before signing their commitment, and the American Cancer Society was targeting their current supporters.

They already had a relationship in place.

On an individual level, trust needs to be in place first, otherwise you’ll just look like a leech.

The value of reciprocity between the ‘yeses’

The small ‘yes’ is more effective in certain situations if you reciprocate before asking for the bigger ‘yes’.  For instance, you’re asking someone – you already know – for an introduction.  You then offer to connect them with an individual they’d like.  Afterwards, you can follow that with the bigger ‘yes.

Your Action Step

  1. Pinpoint an action you need to achieve with the help of someone else.
  2. Request a smaller action before a larger one.


Don’t know what how to get a ‘small yes’ from someone, before you’re ultimate big ask?  Let me know in the comments and I’ll get cracking with an answer for you.


Want help in boosting how your teams make things happen?  Are you uncertain how to gain visibility and clout?

Book a free 15 minute Discovery session with me or explore your options.


Illustration by Iconriver at


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