Learn from my failure to convince people of the benefit of behavioural economics

Learn from my failure to convince people of the benefit of behavioural economics

I wonder if this seems familiar to you? A subscriber recently wrote asking me for ideas on the following;

“I am hoping to convince my company that they should incorporate behavioural insights into our product and advice offers. They have asked me to organise my thoughts and share with them my plan. I would like to create a compelling pitch that captures how ‘applied behavioural science’ can drive business results.  My goal is to gain commitment to move forward with the introduction of a behavioural insights team into our organisation.”

This was exactly what I was faced with six years ago when I was still in the corporate sector. I knew about behavioural economics, I could see the opportunity for our business so my task was trying to convince the unconvinced to change their behaviour.

I failed.

Long story short, I ended up so frustrated by the reaction and so excited by the potential that I left and established People Patterns.

To save you taking such dramatic action I can tell you how I go about convincing the unconvinced, and would have had I known what I now do.


The preparation


As with all behavioural challenges, start by articulating the current and desired behaviours. This will help you focus on what the change task actually amounts to. In other words, what are they currently doing, and what do you want them to do?

Then it’s a matter of anticipating the behavioural reasons for resistance by analysing each of the three reasons for inertia, and identifying ways to overcome these barriers (greater detail about that here).

  • Disinterest/laziness (System 1) – what are the ingrained organisational habits around customer insights and why should they bother expending effort getting across yet another field?
  • Paralysis (Paradox of Choice) – is there any risk of overwhelming them? How many options will you present and in what sequence?
  • Anxiety (Loss Aversion) – why might they feel anxious about adopting behavioural insights? Why should they feel anxious about not adopting BI?


The presentation

Crafting a compelling presentation has three elements.


1. Tension

All effective websites, TV ads, sitcoms, books, movies and yes, presentations have tension built in to their narrative. Why? Because to shake the habitual System 1 Elephant out of its stupor and get it engaged we need to do something that is salient, surprising and/or scary.

  • Salient – why is this important? Contextualise the presentation in terms of what’s important to the business but not being taken care of. I often use the “where BE fits” model to show how behavioural economics fits a gap that no other form of insights currently does.
  • Surprising – what can you tell them they don’t already know? How can you usurp their assumptions? For instance in my presentations I start by talking about the flawed assumptions we’ve made about how people behave, and why this means we’ve been doing business (or changing habits) in the wrong way.
  • Scary – what are the ramifications of not doing what you are suggesting? By drawing attention to the gap between what is known by the business and what needs to be known in order to win in market, you will make your audience feel anxious. Perhaps the quickest way to make them sweat is to point out who in their market has already adopted behavioural economics – fear of being left behind is pretty compelling and once they feel uneasy they will be motivated to seek answers. At that point they will be raring for your solution.


2. What’s in it for me?

Everyone in your audience is thinking about themselves – how will this help me? How will this hurt me? While their questions might be phrased in corporate speak (“I’m just not convinced it aligns with our BAU or strategic priorities. We’re looking to leverage synergies between our blah blah blah…”), all they are really telling you is I DON’T GET WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME?

The worst approach is to bang on about yourself. “I’m from (Boring Co)…I’m here to (talk about myself) today…” Businesses do it on their websites and people do it in their pitches thinking it establishes credibility. NO. It bores people. It switches them off. It needs to be about them – what you’ve noticed about their situation, some home truths (which builds intrigue because you are pointing to a gap), and through that process you gain credibility. Always ask and answer “why is this important for them to know?”


3. Structure

I’ve alluded to it already, but crafting your presentation is like a three-act play. It needs a beginning, middle and end (more on that here);


  • Beginning – the gap, why this presentation is important for them
  • Middle – the guts of what it means, how your solution looks
  • End – the resolution, all it takes from here


There’s a lot more I could say about why behavioural economics is so important for businesses to get their heads around – for instance I could point to how it’s being used by Google, Barclays, The Red Cross, the US, UK, NSW and Victorian governments, Australia’s leading banks and superannuation providers, numerous ad agencies and utilities providers (and all of my clients, obviously) and I could point to it being the field of science that gives you results without costing you anything more, but for now I’ll leave you with an approach that I wish I had had all those years ago to convince the unconvinced.

Bri Williams runs People Patterns, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues.


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