Interview: Steve Martin, Influence at Work

Influence at Work director Steve Martin may already be known to business travellers for his regular column in British Airways’ in-flight magazine, but he’s at Business Travel Show this year with a session exploring how the psychology of persuasion can influence your travellers to stay within policy, book travel in advance and travel efficiently. BBT caught up with Martin to find out more about the fundamental rules regarding how people are influenced

For those who may not be aware of your background or your role within Influence at Work, what areas do you cover there?
I should probably answer, if I may, a question that even comes before that, which is, where does this research come from? We are essentially a team of persuasion scientists but when you talk about persuasion science to people, they often look at you quizzically and say: ‘Persuasion isn’t a science. Persuasion is a gift that a lucky few people are born with.’ They think if you have it, you’re probably a little bit more successful in life, and if you don’t have it, you just have to learn to live without it. That’s fundamentally wrong.

There are now seven decades of social/behavioural science research that shows there are fundamental rules to how people are influenced and persuaded. In exactly the same way that you might learn economics or engineering, it’s entirely possible to learn about persuasion. And that’s where Influence at Work sits. Our origins are in the psychology department of a major US state university and we are a team of persuasion scientists who apply this often fascinating, sometimes counter-intuitive persuasion research to business and public policy.

A lot of businesses and governments are interested in influencing people to take certain actions, make certain decisions and behave in certain ways and we show how you can do that in an entirely ethical, sustainable and effective way by using these insights. We work across a variety of different organisations around the world and we’ve written a few books about it as well.

Are there benefits to becoming skilled at persuasion that are particularly useful to execs working in the travel sector?
So when we talk about these universal principles of effective persuasion, the word ‘universal’ is important here. They work in every context, in every interaction, across cultures and across industries. It’s not that there’s a set of principles unique to business travel; the key is to understand how the universal principles apply to your industry. That’s primarily what the focus of the presentation at the show is going to be.

Has the way people engage with experts like yourself changed? Are the potential benefits of getting to grips with persuasion principals on more business’s radars than ever before?
Even now it’s in its early stages, but it’s definitely in the ascendancy. In order to navigate our way through an information-overloaded world, we need to align our proposals in a way which goes with the grain of how people fundamentally behave, not how an economist or a lawyer would expect them to behave. That is the shift.

Here’s an example. A few years ago, we ran some experiments with the Intercontinental hotel chain in America. We looked at what would be the best words to put on those little cards that ask you to re-use your towels that would actually encourage people to re-use their towels. If we know that, we can help in two important ways. Firstly, we can make an admittedly small but important contribution to environmental sustainability. The other thing we can do is help that hotel chain save a considerable amount of money as they no longer need to wash unused towels.

The initial message said: “Please be an environmentally friendly guest. Do the right thing.” That’s a reasonably successful message; about 35% of business travellers who stay in the hotels reuse their towels when they see that message. We changed the message to simply say: “Most people who have stayed in this room before you have at some point reused their towels.” There’s no incentive being used there. We’re simply tapping into a fundamental desire to want to be like other people. Instead of getting a 35% compliance rate, we got a 53% compliance rate. If you scale that up across a huge hotel chain, suddenly there’s millions and millions of dollars being saved there and a contribution being made to the environment.

Do you have any practical steps that travel managers could take to integrate some of these fundamentals of persuasion?
Yes, there are lots. I’m actually involved in five studies at the moment regarding public transportation. What are the messages that most encourage people on public transport to be honest and buy a ticket? Fare evasion is a massive problem to the public transport industry. There are cities in the world where a single percentage movement in fare evasion can mean as much as $5 million lost. We’re also tapping into Predictx’s insights in data science to specifically target types of behaviour.

Anything where there’s a decision or a behaviour that you or your staff is going to make, there’s an insight that we can influence that tackles a challenge identified by Predictx’s data. There will be a number of these kinds of approaches that will benefit travel managers.

Will firms get the most out of these techniques if they are backing them up and using them in collaboration with their own data?
That is the next logical direction for this work to go in. We’ve learned a lot about persuasion science and the last couple of decades have been a golden age for research. And the same is true for data scientists and that community. The convergence of those two skillsets is an exciting place to go now. At this moment in time, we get pretty broad requests, like how do we get more people to do X?

Bringing in that focusing quality that data science has, which can tell you something like ‘here’s where the largest amount of resources are being wasted’, and converge the two skillsets, that’s where it’s going to go.

What is the one thing you want visitors to take away from your session at this year’s Business Travel Show?
I’d like people to leave and think “there’s something I can do tomorrow that I never thought about before, that I can immediately, quickly and cost-effectively put into practice”. If everyone walked away with just one of those, and thought ‘that was worth coming to London for that’, then that’d be great.

Steve Martin will be speaking at the Business Travel Show, which takes place on 21-22 February at Olympia London. To register to attend, visit

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