The small BIG

Summary Written by Jill Donahue
"The purpose of this book is to demonstrate, with scientific evidence, how making small changes in your approach can lead to big differences in how successful an influencer and persuader you are."

- The small BIG, page 164

The Big Idea

Context not cognition

"Successful influence is increasingly governed by context rather than cognition."- The small BIG, page xvii

In the past, it was the person who had the most information that had the power but today, information is everywhere. The latest persuasion science research reveals that attempts to just ‘tell’ are highly likely to fail.

What most people fail to realize is that it is not just providing information or ‘telling’ that leads to change. Rather, it is the context in which it is presented. A small change in the setting, framing, timing or context of how information is conveyed can dramatically affect the impact or change that results.

Behavioral scientists who study the theory and practice of influence and persuasion show us how breathtakingly small the changes need to be to result in enormous effects. Furthermore, these small changes rarely require extra time, effort or money!

This is good news for us. Anyone can significantly increase their impact on others by making small shifts in their approach so that they link their message to deeply felt human motivations.

Insight #1

Quick fix for your next meeting

"Meetings are where minutes are taken and hours are wasted."- The small BIG, page 93

To give you an example of the types of insights offered in The small BIG, let me take a real-life influence challenge and apply a few of those insights.


You are running a meeting and you have been tasked with:

  1. increasing the attendance of the meeting and
  2. improving the productivity

As usual you are swamped and don’t have much time to spend on this.

Here are the small changes you could make that have been proven to spark a big difference. Of course you don’t have to use all of them but, just like parties, the more the merrier!

a) Increase attendance with the following ideas:

#1 – first invite the people most likely to come, then share their positive response with others

#2 – choose a deadline for RSVP that looms closer rather than further away

#3 – point out what could be lost if the meeting is not held

#4 – ask for a verbal commitment to attending

#5 – to help them create a concrete plan to make sure they don’t miss the meeting, ask those people who are planning to attend what they will be doing immediately before the meeting

b) Now that you have great attendance, you might as well think about improving the productivity of meeting. What little changes could you make?

#1 – to increase the speaker’s influence, advise him/her to dress in a similar style as the audience but at a higher level

#2 – to encourage co-operation, take time to focus attention on the things the members of the group share

#3 – to uncover new opportunities when the attendees know each other well, invite someone who knows them less well

#4 – to motivate the group, share stories up front about how the product or service they are working on has served others

#5 – to encourage action, rather than asking people to commit to a change right away, ask them to agree to a change that would be implemented down the road

#6 – to reduce wasted time, ask those attending to submit information before the meeting

#7 – to encourage all to participate take a few minutes to ask everyone to quietly reflect and then write down their ideas and submit them. Be sure to have the person leading the meeting speak last

#8 – to create collaboration, seat people in circular format; if your goal is to focus attention on individuals taking responsibilities then choose angular seating (like a square or rectangle)

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Insight #2

One ingredient and just five minutes

"…research from the behavioral science suggests that adding a single ingredient to the productivity recipe can improve the result and will do so at no cost."- The small BIG, page 50

Leaders searching for the recipe for productivity have tried all sorts of incentive systems. But there has been one missing ingredient. Until now. And to top it off, this ingredient is free and takes under five minutes!

What is it?

Connect your people to the difference they/their products or services make to others.

The authors reference Adam Grant’s research in which he tests his theory that if employees are connected to the purpose of their work, they will be more motivated and more productive. He believed (and proved it to be true) that workers fail to reach their potential when they lose track of significance and meaning in their jobs. You can read more about it here.

I heard a presentation at a recent conference in which the pharma company leader shared a couple of excellent applications of this idea.

1. She asked her associates “If you know someone who benefitted from our medication, tell us their story.” To encourage people to submit and read them, they held a contest online in which people could vote for the stories that most inspired them.

2. She challenged her people to answer the question “Why do you work for this company?” They conducted a global story contest and created videos of the top 20 stories. The authors were also rewarded by presenting their stories to other countries.

Bottom line, help your people learn, firsthand, about the difference they make to people’s lives. Change the mindset. Everything you think, say and do should be thinking about that difference you make.

Influencing others is how we can make change in our world. Instead of banging your head against the wall, it makes sense to look to the research. The small BIG offers 50 shortcuts that have been proven to get you to your destination faster with less effort. I’ve shared a few here. Why wouldn’t you check out the rest?

Read the book

Get The small BIG on Amazon.

Noah J. Goldstein

Dr Noah J. Goldstein is a faculty member at Anderson School of Management at UCLA, California. His scholarly research and writing have been published in many of the premier psychology and business journals, and he has been awarded research fellowships and grants from several US government institutions, including the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. He has also consulted for a number of corporate and government organisations.

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