How Screwing Up Can Boost Your Influence

The surprising power of the pratfall effect

Posted Dec 04, 2017

 Dmitry Ratushny/UnSplash
Source: Photo by: Dmitry Ratushny/UnSplash

As an author and speaker on the topic of science-based influence strategies, I know that influence techniques can sometimes get rather complicated. There are a lot of moving parts when you consider the importance of your body language, your vocal prosody, your presentation slides, multi-cultural considerations, your personal appearance, your language patterns, your timing, and even how your proposal smells. (Yup, “aroma marketing” is a thing.) That’s a lot* to think about.

(*This document explains over 60 different science-based sales techniques.)

It’s no wonder so many salespeople toss and turn the night before a big pitch.

Well, I have good news…

You don’t have to be perfect.

In fact, it might be better if you’re not.

I attended a seminar once where a keynote speaker discussed his success and then offered a “how to” course on how to replicate it. His presentation was full of blunders, grammatical errors, and at one point, he found himself stumbling. Literally. He nearly fell off the stage.

He didn’t appear polished or professional in any way. His results spoke for themselves, but his delivery was borderline embarrassing.

When it was all over, more than half of the room rushed to the back table to buy his course. He was the top speaker at the event in terms of product sales and audience ratings.

What!?

This seems almost unjust. Doesn’t proper grammar count for anything these days? What about factual accuracy? And don’t people value a good sense of equilibrium like they used to? So much for competency giving you an edge.

Why does this happen? How can an idiot pitchman win the day? Since when did ineptitude become an advantage?

Simple.

When it makes you relatable.

Far from being turn-offs, the grammatical (and physical) missteps served to humanize the speaker and make him more likable. His mistakes led the audience to believe, “If THIS fool can do it, then surely I can.” If, on the other hand, he was more “put together,” then there would be a sentiment of, “Of course he got those amazing results. Just LOOK at him! He’s got it all going on. I could never do that.” When an audience believes the secret sauce is in the person and not the product, they don’t buy. Worse, when an audience believes a speaker is “too perfect,” he is un-relatable, unlikable, and thoroughly un-compelling.

If mistakes make you likable, then why isn’t this article full of typos? Why will I hire a line editor and a proofreader to grammar-Nazi my next manuscript? What’s with the team of professional designers, typesetters, and photographers all doing their best to make my upcoming book (and by extension, its author) look good?

Because since 1966, scientists have been researching what Elliot Aronson first dubbed, “The Pratfall Effect” and they have it down to an…um…science.

“The Pratfall Effect” is the positive feeling someone has about you when you make a mistake. However, as it turns out, not all mistakes and blunders are created equal. There are some specific conditions that must be met if mishaps are going to have their mysterious positive effect. Here’s what the science recommends…

First, don’t overdo it. When it comes to incompetence, there’s a fine line between endearing and infuriating. If your gross incompetence adversely affects others significantly enough, it will make you wildly unpopular. Also, if you are always messing up, then you can’t be trusted or relied upon. Mistakes are like a spice. If you try to make them the main dish, they leave a bad taste in people’s mouths. Salt is delicious, but you probably wouldn’t want to pop a spoonful of it into your mouth.

Second, learn from your mistakes and don’t repeat them. At the end of A Christmas Carol, we cheer for Ebenezer Scrooge when he throws open the windows and shouts “Merry Christmas!” He made mistakes of heartlessness and cruelty, but then he learned from them. Had he unapologetically bah-humbugged until the bitter end, I doubt very much that the story would have been as popular. There’s power in admitting a mistake, apologizing for it, and making an effort to right your wrong.

Third, and perhaps most interesting, is to get the timing right. First impressions matter very much. If you are judged as being incompetent, then subsequent mistakes work against you. However, if you are perceived as able, then blunders will only serve to boost your likability. Remember the speaker? He had results that spoke for themselves and his reputation as a competent individual preceded him. You should work hard to create a positive first impression before intentionally dropping that pen.

There are some other minor factors outside your control, such as the self-esteem of the other person or how busy their brain happens to be at that moment, but by mitigating the quantity and severity of your mistakes, by learning from your mistakes, and by delivering a confident, competent first impression, you’ll create a protective bubble where your future mistakes can’t hurt you. In fact, they’ll probably help.

This article was excerpted and adapted from the brand-new book, TRUE Influence: The Magic of Human Connection