Jonah Berger: Increasing Our Influence

Jonah Berger discusses how school leaders can increase their influence to the benefit of their schools and communities.

By SchoolCEO Last Updated: December 07, 2022


In this episode, bestselling author, researcher, and Wharton professor Jonah Berger discusses how school leaders can increase their influence to the benefit of their schools and communities. He explores mistakes we all make when we try to persuade others, how providing a menu of choices can encourage change, and what most people misunderstand about effective storytelling.

[Intro music]

Jonah Berger (guest): Yeah, I would say it's not just about telling a great story. Because you can tell a great story that doesn't lead to the take home point you care about. If we're script writers or we're television writers, or we're singers, we'll then, our business is telling great stories.

If we're schools, if we're leaders, if we're employees, We don't just care about great stories being told. We care about the take home of that story being the right take home.

Tyler Vawser (host): How can we become more effective at changing minds and increasing our influence? Dr. Jonah Berger has spent more than 15 years researching and answering this question.

He blends behavioral science with his own research to help leaders feel growth within their organizations while operating in our rapidly changing environment. Dr. Berger is a world round expert on change, influence consumer behavior. And how products, ideas, and behaviors catch on. He's a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and has published over 50 articles in top tier academic journals.

But what's more, he's also the international bestselling author of three books, Contagious, Invisible Influence, and The Catalyst, with more than a million copies of his books sold worldwide. Dr. Jonah Berger spoke at SchoolCEO conference both in May, 2022 and in October, 2022. This is a follow up conversation after October as we really sought to dive into more specific actionable steps that school leaders can take.

What follows is a conversation that really is a masterclass and influence for anyone that has tried to get support from their parents, from their community, and to really increase their influence across all their stakeholders in their school. We talk about the importance of choice, how to lead people with their own interests and concerns.

The best way to create ownership and commitment to change. How to make it easier for people to let go of the past and move forward. Helping older generations understand how school has changed since they were students, and how to use firsthand experience to reduce skepticism and increase trust in schools and so much more.

Let's join the conversation.

[Intro music]

Tyler Vawser: All right. Jonah Berger, I'm really excited to have you on the podcast. You've spoken at SchoolCEO conference a couple of times and really want to dig into what your sweet spot is, which is influence and persuasion. And so just to kick things off, I'd love to hear you talk about how do we build more effective influence.

Jonah Berger: It's interesting. I think anyone who wants to be influential, whether you are in a position of power or not, whether you're a boss or an employee, regardless of who you're trying to influence, we often wanna start. With influence, right? We often wanna start with the outcome we want to achieve and are very focused on that outcome, thinking about how can we get somebody else to where we want to get them?

But if you talk to folks that are great at influence, if you talk to individuals who are great catalysts or great change agents are highly influential. They often start with a different place. They often start very much with understanding. They start with the person or people they're trying to change and start by understanding those individuals and use that understanding to increase their own influence.

In writing The Catalyst, for example, I talked to some amazing folks, but some of the folks I talked to were actually hostage negotiators. And whoever's listening, I'm sure influence is very important in your job. It's probably not as important. None of us probably have as important a job when it comes to influence as host negotiators, right?

They're in these high stake situations. They're trying to get people to come out with their hands up. They're trying to get people who are thinking about committing suicide not to do it. It's these really fraught emotionally high wire situations that they're trying to influence others with.

And when talking to them they made this really interesting point. They said, when negotiators come in, first time, novice negotiators, they really try to jump to influence. Come out with your hands up, do what I want you to do. They think if they just tell that person or people that they want get to do something that they want them to do, those people will come around.

But what more seasoned negotiators, what people who really experts in this space realize is you've gotta start with the person you're trying to. If you don't understand, why is this person holding up in a bank, or why does this person have hostages? Or why does this person want to commit suicide?

If you don't understand them, it's gonna be really hard to get them to do what you want them to do in the first place. If you think about going into a doctor's office, a doctor doesn't start by saying, let me put a cast on your leg. They start by saying. “tell me about the problem” and once they understand the problem, do they begin to prescribe a solution? And hostage negotiators talk very much the same way. They say, the best way to influence someone is to start by understanding them, to build a bridge, to build that empathy and social connection and trust. And then, and only then use it to get to influence.

One: by building that understanding, people will trust you more and listen to you more. But two, it'll allow you to collect information that helps you get to the place you want to go. Because rather than pushing someone now, what you can do, if you truly understand them and the situation they're in and why they want to do or not do what you want them to do, you can figure out a way to show them that the best way for them to get what they want.

Is to do what you wanted them to do in the first place. By understanding them, you can show them how what you want helps them get to their own

Tyler Vawser: That makes a lot of sense. I think one of the challenges to influence, like you said, we all want to be more influential, but no one wants to have been influenced.

They don't want to be on the other side of that equation and feel like someone has pushed them, as you were saying. How do we bring people along and how do we get them to come along for the ride and see what's in their best interest? What are some tactics and strategies that you've uncovered through your research?

Jonah Berger: Yeah. I really love the way you framed that question, which is you said, we all want to influence others, but we don't wanna see ourselves as influenced, particularly in American culture. Thinking about one's selves as influence is almost like a four letter word.

It's a negative thing. I wasn't influenced. It suggests that you don't have your own independent thought or you're not your own individual. You're just shaped by the environment. And so no one wants to see themselves as influenced. And so what that means though, is that rather than really trying to persuade people, you have to figure out a way to get them to persuade themselves.

You have to make them feel the impetus for change, the impetus for doing really what you wanted them to do in the first place came at least somewhere from within them. In The Catalyst I have a framework for reducing barriers to change and one of the key barriers is reactance.

And the idea behind reactance is that people wanna see themselves in the driver's seat of their lives. Right? Why did I make a certain choice? Why did I buy a certain product, use a certain service, make a certain decision, I did it cuz I wanted to, right? We all wanna see ourselves. As autonomous individuals who have free choice and are in control of our lives.

But as soon as we, whether we are a colleague, whether we are a boss, whether we're an employee, whether a market or whoever we are, as soon as we come in and try to influence someone, in some sense we're unseating them. We're pushing them out of the driver's seat and putting ourselves in it. And not surprisingly, people don't like that, right?

Because now they feel like we are making the choice for them rather than they're making the choice for themselves. And so really what we need to do is we need to figure out a way to allow for autonomy, right? In a way: yes.

We're not just letting people do whatever they want, but we're encouraging them. We're guiding them. We're in Jordan nudging them lightly to go down a particular direction. Let me give you an example: so one of the strategies I talk about in the book, The Catalyst, for changing minds is providing a menu. And essentially intuition there is, rather than giving people one option and telling them, “Hey, you should do this,” and listing all the reasons why we think it's great, instead we should give them a choice.

We should say, Hey, here's two options, A and B, or a few options A, B, and C. Which one do you like better? And the reason why is it puts them back in the driver. Because when we share one option and we say, “Hey, I think you should do this,” and we talk about why they sit there and they counter argue.

They think about all the reasons why what we're suggesting is wrong. But when we give them a choice, when we say, “which one do you like better?” Now they sit there and they go, “oh, interesting.” Which of these do I like better? I am getting a choice. And they focus on the choice they have. Or the autonomy they have, rather than all the other choices or all the other directions that they could go in and Sure, yeah It's possible that they'll still say, no, I don't like any of these options. I wanna do something else. But it's much more likely that they'll pick one of those options. because you've given them back that sense of control. You've given them that freedom to, to choose, right? And it's providing a menu cuz you're not giving them not saying, we'll do whatever you want.

Whatever you want is fine. When you walk into a Japanese restaurant, you can't say “gimme some Italian food” cuz that's not what they do. But they give you a limited set of options and allow you to choose from within that choice set. They guide your journey, they shape your journey, but by giving you choice, they make it feel like it's your journey.

Because it's yours, you're much more happy to go down that path.

Tyler Vawser: So within K-12 education, right there is school choice and that has become a bigger movement. It's something that we're often talking to public educators about, saying you have to start marketing your district. You have to start talking about your strengths because there is very real competition in a way that there wasn't 30 or 40 years ago.

But I think what you're describing here is more than that, right? Choice can be you have an objective and help me out on this if you want a certain outcome, right? So you want your community and your city to vote for a millage or a bond to support your school district. That's the objective.

But you can still provide a menu right on how you get there. Can you go into that a little bit more if you know that you want them to pick this option, is there still a way of delivering a menu? Along the way,

Jonah Berger: Think about this, rather than saying, “Hey, you should support this bond for schools.” You could imagine asking people, “Hey, which of these three or four things. Do you think is most important for schools? Which of these three or four things would you like to see improved? What aspect of the school district would you like to be different?” And you have to be careful, right? Because if you give people too much leeway, they may pick something that the bond is not going to support.

But if you're asking them, do you support this bond or not, they're sitting there going, okay, this is gonna cost me some money and yeah, it's gonna be some benefit, but do I like my money? Do I like the benefit? If on the other hand, you ask them which aspect of the school would you like to be better?

And you focus them on something, the bond or whatever it may be is gonna support, then they still have choice, right? They're sitting there going, “oh man, I wish there was more time for arts.” Or, “oh, I wish there was more money to support STEM.” Or, “oh, I wish the field could be whatever it needs to get done to it.”

And they're focused on what they care about and they've gotten to choose. They're like, “you know what? I think this is the most important thing.” And you say, “awesome. Doing, supporting this, you told me that you care about this thing, right? And this bond supporting this bond will allow this thing you said you care to happen.”

And so rather than starting off by saying, “Hey, you didn't tell me you cared about schools. Do you wanna support schools or not?” Right now, what I've gotten you to do is I've gotten you to commit to supporting whatever part of schools you like, and now I've shown you that the best way to get what you already said you want supporting schools is to support this bond initiative.

I talk about another which is to ask questions rather than statements. And just like we talked about with giving people a menu, when we make statements, people push back, schools are important. We need more funding for schools. Someone could say, “oh, of course you would say you need more funding for schools.”

You're a school district. How do I know you actually need more funding? Couldn't the money be better spent? But when you ask them a question it highlights, or in some sense, shines a spotlight on some aspect of what they could think. They could think about many things, right? They could think about where the money could be better spent than schools, or they could think about within schools, where could that money be best spent?

And so by asking the right question, you focus on the comparison you want them to make. Rather than the comparison, you don't. But you also very cleverly encourage commitment to the conclusion. because now rather than sitting there and thinking about, okay, it was your idea to support schools and I don't care about it now they've told you that they care about this school thing and it's a lot harder for them to go back later and say I don't think schools deserve money because they were the ones that said this thing needs to be changed in the first place.

And so by encouraging them to participate in the process, by giving them more ownership of the outcome, by using questions to highlight the right things, we can encourage them to see how this is something that they wanted in the first place, not something that we wanted and are foisting it on

Tyler Vawser: That makes a lot of sense. In your book, you use this example of an anti-smoking campaign, and I wonder if you could just tell the audience that story because I think it gets to the point that you're making right? Which is sometimes people's knowledge of what's right or what's good differs from their actions or what they publicly do.

Jonah Berger: Yeah. I think you're talking about the Thai Health Promotion Foundation. So I'll talk about that one. If you have another one in mind, let me know. But there's an organization called the Thai Health Promotion Foundation. They're basically an anti-smoking group and they want to get people to quit smoking in Thailand and, not surprisingly, people aren't that interested.

And I know that most of the listeners to this aren't trying to get people to quit smoking, but you actually have the same problem that the Health Promotion Foundation did, which is if you want people to do something and you keep telling them to do that thing, eventually they stop listening to you.

Eventually they know what you're going to say, and so they just tune out. They either delete your email, they tune out in the meeting or they do something else, right? They ignore you and which makes it really difficult for you to get them to change. And so how can you avoid being ignored?

And so the Health Promotion Foundation realized, look, if we tell people about the dangers of smoking, they're gonna ignore us, and sometimes they already have the information, they already know what the dangers are. So they did something really clever. They did this campaign where they walked. Or they had some people walk around, I should say some streets of major cities and they asked smokers they found on the street, and they asked smokers for a light. Said, “Hey, can you give me, can you give me a light?” And this is something that happens, if one is a smoker or one knows smokers, you see this happen all the time, right outside of a bar or restaurant or whatever it is, a smoker will ask another smoker for a light.

And smokers almost always say yes, right? It's part of the fellowship of smoking or whatever it is, right? Sure. You don't have a lighter or a match. I'll give you a light, but this time all the smokers, every single one who was asked, says, and the reason they say no is the person who asked is like a nine or 10 year old.

It's a little boy with a shirt with a monkey on it, or a girl with pigtails that are asking for a light. And so the smokers say, “no, of course not.” I'm not gonna give you a light. Smoking is bad. You shouldn't smoke. It's bad for your health. They're gonna have lung cancer, emphysema. Don't you want to go run and play? You're a little kid. I'm not going to help you smoke.

And so after this interaction the little kids listen to the smokers. They say, okay, and then they hand them a little slip of paper, and on that slip of paper it says, you worry about me, but not yourself. Call this number if you want to quit.

And so this campaign is hugely successful, it leads to a 40% increase in calls to the quitline. Videos of the campaign go viral around the web, getting millions of views, but beyond its effectiveness, what I think is equally interesting, is why. It was so effective why this campaign worked. And so if you look at it, it plays on an old idea in psychology called cognitive dissonance.

People like their attitudes and their actions to line up. If I say I care about the environment, I better recycle. If I say I care about a certain sports team, I better watch their game. I want my attitudes, what I say, and my actions, what I do to line up. And if they don't, this negative emotional reaction called cognitive dissonance happens and we do work to resolve it.

We either gotta change our attitudes or change our actions and this is exactly the situation that the Health Promotion Foundation put smokers in. They said, “look, you just told this little kid not to smoke. But you are smoking yourself. What do you want to do? What do you want to do about it?” And smokers were stuck, right?

They had a choice. They could tell the kid to smoke, which they're not going to do, or they could quit smoking themselves, which is what 40% of them did. Because this campaign, in a sense, highlighted a gap. It pointed out a gap between attitudes and actions and this relates a lot to the aspect of questions we were talking about before, right?

People don't think about everything going on in their lives at once. We may be inconsistent. One day we, I don't smoke, but, you might, one day you might smoke if you're a smoker and another day you might tell a kid not to smoke. But if you never see those things next to one, you don't realize you're being inconsistent, but by highlighting a gap, by putting them next to one another, you can encourage people to realize, wait, my attitudes and actions don't line up. And by doing that can encourage them to change their actions.

Not by you telling them, “Hey, you should change, you should stop doing this.” But encouraging them to realize that, “wait, I said I cared about this, now I better live that,” that caring and in some sense, that's exactly the example we talked about a few minutes ago. With the bond for schools, right?

You're not telling people to support this, cuz if you do that, they'll push back. Instead what you're doing is, you're asking them to talk about their favorite thing about schools or things that schools need. Then you're next to that, “You just told me you care about this,” right next to that. Reminding them that an action to achieve that is supporting this thing that you wanted them to do in the first place. And so getting them to convince themselves rather than you doing the pushing.

Tyler Vawser: That’s exactly the story I was hoping you would share. So I think it's really important to understand that, and I think it goes beyond just politics or bond initiatives, but even parental involvement in schools, right? This can be sometimes very difficult to get parents involved, but if you can point out, you say your child is the most important thing in your life and it's very important for you to see them educated and be a well-rounded person, but you're not willing to come into the school and, I don't know, do face painting or whatever that may be. There's that dissonance.

Jonah Berger: Yeah, but what but even the way you just talked about it, right? Imagine we talk about it as the following, rather than saying, “Hey, you say you care about this, but you don't do that.” Which may encourage people to push back a little bit. Sure. You have a parent-teacher conference and you say, “tell me what you love most about your kids or, are your kid's an important part of your life.” And then after they've said all that, say, “oh, that's so fantastic that you love your kids. We could really use a parent one day a week to come into recess and get a chance to spend time with the children.”

And given that you say you love your children, maybe skip that part. But, would you be interested in coming in? And what you've done is you've highlighted, you've encouraged them to say that they care about this and then made it really hard for them to say, no, not because you forced.

To say yes, but because you encourage them to realize that saying yes is consistent with who they think they are.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's really important. Thank you.

[Break Music Intro]

Tyler Vawser:I wanna take a quick break to tell you about the next SchoolCEO Conference happening on March 6th & 7th, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee. This is a great opportunity to take some of what you're hearing right now and begin experiencing it with others. We love the content that we put out in the magazine and in our podcast, but it's nothing compared to experiencing great speakers firsthand and hearing them cover concepts like brand and culture and influence in an environment that's really dedicated to help you do your best learning. With no vendor booths, no crowds, no breakout sessions. You get the opportunity here directly from keynote speakers for over an entire day, and to do that with other school leaders that care deeply about shaping a culture within their schools that help their teachers and staff do their best work, that want to see their brand as a school district, improve and change the experience of their community members and their parents. And, ultimately, what we want to do is help you do all of that so that you can reach the goals and the outcomes that you have for your students.

We'd love to have you join. You can visit to learn more, and if you have questions, reach out. You can email me at and we'd love to see you in Memphis in March.

[Break Music Outro]

Tyler Vawser: When we are thinking about influence and persuasion, it's because we want to change something, right? Either to change someone's mind or change an outcome somewhere else. And I think both in professional work and in personal life, that is ultimately the goal of most every conversation that we're having with someone.

There's something that we need or they need, and we're having those conversations. But change is really hard, and I think that's largely because we're comfortable with the status quo, what we know to be true tomorrow. Puts us at ease, right? Especially if there's an outside force coming in and telling us, “Hey, things need to be different, and if there's not trust there, that's even more difficult.”

So I'd love to talk a little bit more just about how do we use influence and persuasion when we know people have a bias against change and against the status quo?

Jonah Berger: Yeah, so I think influence is one thing. You're trying to get people to do something. But often when we talk about change we're not just trying to get people to do something.We're trying to get them to stop doing an old thing and move towards a new thing. This is really challenging, right? As you've talked about already a little bit in your question, as you alluded to there's a villain anytime we're trying to change people's minds. And that villain is called the status quo bias.

What does the status quo bias mean? You may hear that phrase and think about inertia. You may think about, we've always done it this way. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. A body at rest stays at rest. A body in motion stays at motion whatever it might be.

Anytime people are making a choice, they're often choosing between an old thing and a new thing. An old thing to spend tax dollars on, a new thing to spend tax dollars on. An old thing to spend time; on a new thing. An old product or a new product. Anytime we're making that choice, we often tend to go with the status quo, the thing we've done in the past, the product, the service, the idea, the approach that we've done previously, and that by itself wouldn't necessarily be a bias, but the reason it's called the status quo bias is that even when new things are better, in fact, even when new things are up to 2.6 times better, people still tend to do the old ones.

They still tend to stick with what they've done in the past. And there are three key reasons that underlie that status quo bias. The first is we've talked a little bit about already, it's just ease. It's. easier to do the things we've done before, right? It's easier to buy old products, use old services, and stick with old ways of doing things.

If you think about the grocery store and you think about what you buy every week, you probably don't buy exactly the same thing every week. But if you buy something from a certain category, if you buy eggs, for example, you probably buy the same number of eggs from the same brand. You buy the same milk from the same brand in the same size. Why? Cuz it's just easier, you know where it is on the shelf, you like the brand, it's not too much or too little. There's an ease there. Whereas doing new things is difficult, but it's not just that old things are easy, we're also attached to old things.

An idea, an initiative, a program isn't just an idea, initiative, a program. It's someone's idea, someone's initiative, someone's program. And they're often very unwilling to let it go. There's nice research in the context of selling homes that shows that the longer someone's lived in a home, the more they tend to value that home above and beyond market price.

Sure, home values go up over time. Oh, that's true. But even controlling for that, the longer someone's lived somewhere, controlling for how much it's actually worth, the more they value it above and beyond what it's worth. Why? Because it’s no longer just a home. It's their home and they become really attached to it, right?

It's hard to imagine doing anything else and it's hard to be willing to let it go. And the same thing pervades. All sorts of decisions, right? Internally, if we're asking to switch a program, someone's unwilling to give that program up cuz it's theirs. They're attached to it.

They don't want to let it go. And the last sort of horseman of inertia, if you will, of the three, is the fact that old things feel safe. And new things feel risky, right? Even if old things aren't perfect, we know why they're not perfect. Sure, yeah. This old way of teaching something or this old disciplinary program we have may not be perfect, but we know why it's not perfect.

Whereas this new approach, I don't know if it's gonna work. And so old things feel safe. And so we tend to stick with them cuz we wanna avoid the risk of the new. And so the challenge really of change is overcoming the status quo bias, getting people to let go of the past. And move forward to new things.

Tyler Vawser: One of the really interesting things about schools is that everyone has had an experience with schools, right? Even someone that is in retirement age, at some point they experienced schools and they went through that and they graduated, they moved on, they had their career. But, I've talked to school leaders about this and, one of the challenges that they have is, a 65 year old in their community that's trying to decide on a bond or has an opinion about how the school board should be run, but doesn't necessarily have any direct ties to it, has an image in their mind about what school is like for them, and that is their understanding.

And so one of the things school leaders today in 2022 are trying: their communities understand is that things have changed, right? By and large, the objectives are the same, but the way schools look and feel with technology, with the way kids are raised slightly different today, that has all changed. And so what I'm curious about in my question here is how do we help someone that has an image of something that they've experienced firsthand and still exists out there in the world, but has shifted fairly dramatically? How do we help them understand what those changes are so that they don. Just assume blindly that things have not changed.

Jonah Berger: Yeah, I think you phrased this challenge very nicely in the context of schools, but this is really a challenge with anything, right? Any situation of change, if someone's experienced something before, they think it's the way it is or the way it was for them.

And if you come in and say, “thank you for your thoughts, but this is how it actually is.” They're gonna say, “who? Who are you to tell me how it actually is?” I had my own experiences, “how do I know what you're saying is right?” Particularly if the way you're the outcome you want would benefit from it being the way that you say, right?

People often see communicators as self-interested and that makes 'em less interested in listening to them. We don't trust ads cuz we know they're trying to sell something. And same with people trying to be persuasive. If someone comes in and tries to tell a 65 year old, “this is how schools are today because we’re funding,” 65 [year old] says, “you're gonna say it this way cuz you want funding, but that doesn't mean it actually is the way that it is.” And so I think the challenge there is similar to the example we talked about with the Thai anti-smoking campaign, giving people information or telling them how it is won't solve the underlying issue.

Because they're unlikely to trust that information. They will think that information is biased and it may not fit with the way they see the world. And so one question is, can you give people some sort of experience, right? Can you enable them to experience what you're saying themselves?

So that rather than coming from you, it's coming from their own personal experience. And so sure they have an idea what schools were like, I don't know, 30, 40, 45, I guess even 50 years ago whatever it might be. Maybe you have a school open house one weekend a month where you invite community members in, maybe you encourage, you know, you need the senior vote. Maybe you say, “look, we're gonna have bingo twice a month in the evenings,” or “we're gonna have cars, we're gonna do something that's gonna get an older population in our schools.” That's the start. But then also you have to figure out what experience do you want them to have?

But is it just walking around the schools and realizing that this school is different than the school they went to? Is it seeing technology? What is that thing you want them to recognize? Because there are many experiences you could have them have, but the goal is by having them have that experience.

Again, they in some sense convince themselves. So let me give you an example in a very different industry in case it's useful. There's this company that wants people to wear life vests when they're out on the water. So imagine, you're in a boat or you're on a sailboat, you're in the, I don't know, you're in the ocean or a lake, whatever it might be. Not enough people wear life vest.

And so this organization wants to get people to wear a life vest. And so if they tell people, “Hey, wear a life vest,” everyone will be like, “yeah, sure, thanks.” I know I'm supposed to wear a life vest and we'll continue doing whatever they're doing. So they're trying to figure out how do we enable people to experience why they would need a life vest, right? Everyone thinks I'm not gonna fall in and everyone thinks even if I fall in, someone will get me out quickly and they think even if someone doesn't get me out quickly, I can tread water. And so it's not a problem. And so they're trying to figure out how do we overcome this incorrect perception, not through telling people, but through showing people through, having them experience it. And obviously, unlike a school, you can't bring everybody out into a body of water, kick them off a boat and tell them to tread water. That's not gonna work.

So what could they do? So they end up coming up with this online simulator, which is not perfect, but it's basically a first person game where you're on a boat, you see yourself, it's from your vantage point. You're on a boat. It's a beautiful day on the ocean. You're having a nice time with a friend.

They're not really good at sailing, something about sailing the weather then takes a turn for the worst. You ask your friend to hold the wheel of the boat while you fix something. Whatever. I'm not a sailor, so I don't know, but like the boom or whatever it is, the piece attached to the sail knocks you overboard suddenly and so you're in there in the water and your friend is trying to help you, trying to steer the boat to pick you up, but they don't know how to, and the wind ends up carrying you off in the other direction.

And so you're sitting there in the water and to keep your head above water all you have to, Is scroll your mouse so you know if any of you are sitting in front of a keyboard, look at your little mouse. Often it has a scroll button which allows you to scroll up or down. All you have to do is roll.

Roll that button to keep your head above water. Now what's interesting is that it sounds really easy. But if you're listening in front of a computer, put your hand on that little ball thing and roll it just for a minute, right? A few seconds, a couple more seconds. A couple, still pretty easy.

But imagine doing that for 20 seconds. Imagine doing that for 30 seconds. Imagine doing that for a minute or two. It starts to get really difficult, right? And if you stop doing it as you're watching on the screen, you watch your character's head go underwater. . And they don't tell you that you're dead, but essentially, right, if you stick under water long enough you're dying. And so it's not easy to do that with your finger on your scroll.

It's clearly much more difficult to actually keep your head above water. And so this isn't a perfect piece of experience, but it certainly gives that audience member, that listener, that observer a better sense of what you're saying, “don't trust me. That you should wear a life vest, experience it yourself.”

And so whether we're talking about, getting 65 year olds to realize that schools are different or really whatever it might be, give people an experience that shows them that, help them see what you're saying by experiencing it, themselves.

Tyler Vawser: That's really good. That's a good transition into your book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On. And this is something that you've talked to SchoolCEO before about at our conferences. And so I'd love to start digging into this, which is how do we get ideas to spread? How do we get people to not just hear information, but to really engage and have an experience with it?

And I think when we look at how schools communicate, so often it's just information, right? Schools close because of inclement weather, sign up by this date, there are just things that are happening in events and they're basic details and so on and so forth. But what schools really I think are struggling with is how do they talk about who they are?

How do they bring people into an experience that's not just informational, but focuses on their strength, their cultures, their value, and is more tangible and more real than just a set of data and facts about who they are.

Jonah Berger: Yeah. And so I would say a couple things. I would say first, just from a logistics standpoint, cuz I am at the moment a consumer of school information, we have a five year old who's in kindergarten and we certainly get some emails from the school. And one challenge is that there's so much information that it's often hard and not always well organized, that it's often hard to see the most important. And I think this is a big take home for any communicator, as we've talked about already today, is think about your audience, right?

Who is that audience? What do they want? And does everyone want the same thing? As a school, you may have multiple groups of audiences or segments, right? You may have a set of people that are really interested in the culture of the school and really interested in what the school is doing about diversity or equity and inclusion, or caring about the environment.

You may have someone else though that the only thing they care about is knowing whether school is closed or not, or what the upcoming holidays are. And so you have different people that want different things. And in some sense, you either need to segment your audience and communicate differently to different audiences or create communications that are organized enough that allow people to know where to go.

This is the immediate news section, this is the school culture, whatever section, and this is the something else section. Because sometimes things can get lost if the things aren't organized. I think what I would say more generally though, consistent with that idea of thinking about your audience, is we often, as we've talked a little bit about already, we know a lot about what we want, but people don't share word of mouth because of what we want, right?

Companies think about a traditional brand. A traditional brand might say, look, I want consumers, let's say Apple. I want consumers to talk about Apple, the technology company. I want consumers to talk about my phone, and I want them to say X, Y, Z. I'm a Dell computer, I want them to say X, Y, Z about my computers. That may be what you want them to say, but why would they wanna say that? What's in that for them? Why? I think this is a really interesting exercise that I often walk organizations through, but they're sitting there going word of mouth is just another way for us to dump information that we wanna get out there.

And really, word of mouth requires, again, thinking about that audience, what's gonna make someone wanna share something? Why would someone want to talk about their school, for example, what's going on at their school? They're not talking about it because the school told them to. There's gotta be a reason that they care about it.

Its word of mouth is really about people, not about organizations. People don't share things because they necessarily wanna make an organization look good, right? They share things cuz they care about how they look to other people. How would sharing this may make me look, does it make you look like a good parent or a bad parent?

Does it make me look like, wow, my school is doing really well? Or do I want to feel like I don't wanna make this person I'm talking to feel bad, am I giving them useful information? And as I talk about in Contagious, they're six key drivers to word of mouth. I put them in a framework called the STEPPS Framework that stands for Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value, and Story. Stepps is an acronym with the letters S.T.E.P.P.S.

And so each of those drivers drive sharing. I mentioned social currency a little bit already. The better something makes people look, the more likely they are to share it. Practical values, all about useful information. We also share things cuz we wanna make others better off. But the more we understand why people share things, the more we can engineer our stuff to make it more likely to be passed on.

Tyler Vawser: At SchoolCEO, we've done our own research into recruitment and even into school district brands, and what often comes back from that is how much word of mouth really matters in recruitment. Both discovery of jobs, but especially researching jobs. We know that teachers talk to other teachers.

What is it really like to work there? What's your experience been? Do you regret it? Are you thrilled? What should I know before I take these steps? And then also just with the school brand, right? Of course, think of communicators like a communications director or a superintendent as that spokesperson, and they are, but we also know that teachers are the ones that are actually having the majority of conversations.

Partially because there's just many of them, right? There's a hundred teachers to one superintendent. Yes. But they are the ones that actually have more influence. And I think you go into this in quite a bit of details. They have trust because word of mouth is coming from someone that is at their level or not at the top at least.

And there's no incentive necessarily for a teacher to promote the district a certain way unless they actually have that experience firsthand.

Jonah Berger: Yeah, as you were talking about the recruiting example, here's the challenge. There's no organization where someone comes in for a job interview, is offered a job that says, “yeah, you know what? I don't think you're gonna like it here cuz the people are nasty. Like we promise a lot, but we don't actually deliver. Or, most people are pretty nice, but this particular person that you're gonna work with is difficult. And so people don't like to work with them, right?”

No, no organization says that. Every organization says, “oh, man, we were rated by the whatever magazine is one of the 19 best places to work in the area. Teachers love it here. Staff people love it here. People are always getting whatever they want.” Cuz that's in some sense what their job is at that stage, right?

When you want to get someone to do something, you focus on the positives that will encourage that person to do the thing. But because of that, right? What those people are saying, particularly at that point in time, isn't very diagnostic. It doesn't provide a lot of actual information. It's just like an ad, right?

When you watch an ad on television, an ad's trying to convince you of something, right? Because that's it. Shampoo ads always make people's hair look beautiful. And they use the shampoo and they get an attractive spouse after they're done. Why? Because if you use the shampoo and you got an ugly spouse, no one would buy that shampoo, right?

Companies always say they have great customer service and great technology, and so the challenge really is how do we know the truth? And talking about people who are willing to be more diagnostic in a sense, word of mouth. Give us that truth, right? You go online, and sure there are a bunch of people that say whatever restaurant you're looking at is great.

But there's another sweep of people that say, “Hey, it's pretty good, but the service is not great. Even though the food is good.” Where other people say that they hate the place and because they're both positive and negative opinions, it's much more diagnostic. And because it's more diagnostic, people are more willing to listen.

Tyler Vawser: That's really interesting. So one of the questions I have for you about word of mouth is, word of mouth is happening, right? But there is a way to make it easier. That's what Contagious digs into. And I think going back to recruitment and hiring companies and schools that are doing a great job with recruiting, they're having an easier time getting people on board.

They typically have more of a defined culture. And I think part of the reason for that is, They have given words for their employees to put into those conversations, right? They're building out a narrative for them. Now the experience needs to line up, right? They can't just say, go say these things or it won't work.

But they're giving them more detailed words to use. And so an example I might use is, yeah, instead of saying, “oh, everybody's really nice to work with here,” which most people would say they say, “everybody here is really thoughtful,” or “they’re fill in company value” and it's a little bit different and more sticky because it's not nice or kind, right?

It's something that people can actually think of and it's consistent with the company or the school's culture, but it's different and distinctive from what other people are saying about another company.

Jonah Berger: Yeah, so I think that's a great point. And I I would say a few things there. First, we've done some work on what's called Concrete Language versus Abstract Language.

You can talk about something in a very abstract way, “people here are nice. Food is good.” Or you can say, for a restaurant you could say “the flavor's really nuanced.” Or for people being nice, you could say, “oh, they're very thoughtful and considerate.” And we find a cross a variety of different domains that concrete language tends to be more beneficial.

It gives people a more specific sense of what's being said. And in conversations it also makes people feel like someone else is listening. Not just that they're spouting generalities but really understood what is said and heard what is said. And so I think one thing I heard you say is it's important not just to say positive things, but really concrete, specific positive things that a listener can understand and know are not just generalities but are specific.

I think a second thing you nicely pointed out is the importance of really giving employees a language to talk about something. This is true of experience in general. You talk to someone who has a drink of wine once in a while and they'll say, “oh, this was good or bad.”

You talk to someone who's a wine expert and goes, “oh, this was really rich and had hints of this, but the nose was off or the, this,” they have a language to describe that thing. And experience really gives them that language. And so I think it's important not just, for a couple people within the organization to have that language, but really make sure that everyone has it.

And again as you said, if it's not real, it won’t work. And so I'm not suggesting make up something that isn't true but take the things as you nicely said, that are true and give people the right language to talk about them. Remind people of stories that illustrate something in particular.

Give them a language to describe what's going on. And this is often what really good counselors do, right? Whether it's a grief counselor, a family counselor, whatever it is, they give patients a language to describe what's going on, and the right language can really help frame and organize and give depth to an experience in a way that the wrong language just can't.

Tyler Vawser: The last step of STEPPS in Contagious is stories. And I think what you're alluding to just a second ago is exactly that, right? Stories give us a language not just the words, but a way of delivering those words to someone else. We remember stories more than we remember facts, and so I'd love for you to dig into that and talk more about how we can use stories to bring an idea along and to bring people along with that idea.

In a way, going back to the beginning of this conversation really helps influence them and gets them to participate in going the direction that we're hoping they set off on.

Jonah Berger: Yeah. So stories have a number of benefits, right? They make things concrete and they're often more engaging than just information.

But really good stories do something else, which is that they carry information along for the ride. And so let me give you just a simple example of this. Imagine one weekend you're at a party and someone walks up to you and says, “did you know my newfound friend?”

Cuz you've never met them before that the sunglasses company, Maui Jim, has great customer service. Okay, so imagine someone came up to you to party and said, “did you know that Maui Jim has great customer service?” You'd probably say, “that's fascinating. I had no idea.” But it would be awkward, right?

You'd probably say something, “oh, that, that's really neat.” And if you didn't know the person, you might say, “oh I left my drink in the other room. I'll be back in just a second.” And then that person would never see you again because no one wants to be friends with someone. No one wants to talk to someone that sounds like a walking advertisement.

As much as something is true and real and right, it has to be communicated the right way. And I actually was giving a seminar, or a workshop, a number of years ago on storytelling. And someone told me this great story about Maui Jim, the sunglasses company.

They said, “look, I had these Maui Jim glasses, I love them. They're my favorite pair, but my dog got a hold of them and tore them to shreds.” So the dog was teething or doing whatever the dog was doing, tore these sunglasses to shreds. They came home. They're like 15, 20 pieces. Of the sunglasses strewn around on the floor of their home.

So they collect all the pieces and put them in a box. They couldn't even figure out what SKU number was to order a new pair. So they end up putting 'em all in a box, send them back to the company with a small note, says, “look, I'm happy to pay for a new pair cuz I love these glasses, but I don't know which ones they are. Just let me know which ones they are and I'll send you the money for a new pair.”

And two days later they get a box back in the mail. And in that box are two things. First is a free pair of sunglasses, and second is a dog bone. And what I love about this story is in, I don't know, 30 seconds, however long it took me to tell it all the information about Maui Jim, having great customer service. You came along for the ride, not because I said Maui Jim has great customer service cuz as we talked about, any organization can say anything, but because the story shows it, it's almost proof by sharing this story, which shows great service. You walk away from it, even though no one ever said it going, “wow, Maui Jim has great customer service” and so this is what I would call a Trojan Horse story, right?

We've all heard of that story. The Trojan Horse. The Greeks, the Trojans. No one wars going on forever. They build a big wooden horse. They hide their men inside. Good stories are vessels or carriers of information that bring things along with them, right?

If you think about that old story of the Boy who Cried Wolf, sure. It's a great engaging story. It's fun, it's interesting, but it also teaches kids something. It teaches them not to lie. And yeah, you could tell your kids don't lie and they might listen. At least in our household though, the kids sometimes listen. They often don't. But if you tell them a story, they stay tuned to the end.

Cause they wanna figure out what happens to the boy. And on the way they learn that lying is a bad idea. The story taught them that. Through what it showed. And so the question really is what do you want people to believe? What do you want people to understand and how can you build a story that shows that carries it along for the ride that brings that information with it?

Not because you told it to people, but because the story showed it to people.

Tyler Vawser: I wanna be sensitive to time here, but how do we create a culture, or how do we capture those stories more regularly? Because I think once the stories happen or there's a serendipitous moment, like the Maui Jim story, that makes a lot of sense.

But for a school leader or a school communicator, their job is to share information all the time, but also to try to capture those stories. And so I'm curious, in your consulting, in your workshops, in your research, what best practices do we use.

Jonah Berger: That's a great question that I get a lot. I think the challenge is there may be great stories within the organization, but how can we capture them not only because good stories are worth their weight in gold, but also because then everyone doesn't have to figure out their own good story.

They can. Many of them can tell one of a few good stories that really get the point across. And so I talked about this as sort of story surfacing, not you as a leader, generating these stories yourself, but making it easy for other people to bring up these stories and capture them, right? So maybe you have a certain brand at your school or a certain value or cultural dimension that you say, this is us, this is who we are.

Then every so often, why not ask people to submit examples of peers really doing something that showcases that attribute or that idea. Similarly, you can ask parents saying, “Hey, tell us about teachers that did this specific,” or ask the students, “Hey, tell us when another student or one of your teachers,” because maybe teachers don't know if other teachers are doing it, but ask to submit these stories.

Now, some people aren't gonna submit them and some of them, they're gonna submit them, but aren't gonna be great. But if you get enough stories, there will be clear, better ones and worse ones, and then you can take those better ones. And push them back out to the broader community as examples that showcase what you're doing, right?

If you think about great stories, they're not by chance, they're a great story, right? Either people heard a bunch of stories and only pass along the good ones or the bad ones never get told in the first place. And so it's fine not to just tell any story, but tell the best ones.

But you gotta figure it out. Figure out what those best ones are, and then push them out to your community. So the next time someone says, “oh you guys say you care about X, but what does that really mean?” That person can say, “oh man, I've got this perfect example. This is what Maui Jim did in the sunglasses case, or, this is what one of my colleagues did, or, this is one of the students did at lunch that shows this value that we preach in the classroom.”

And so they've got a handy example that proves their point.

Tyler Vawser: Storytelling has been a popular topic for quite some time, and I think it's sometimes overused and it is hard to go to a conference where there's not a talk about storytelling. So from your perspective, especially from your research, what do most people misunderstand about storytelling?

Jonah Berger: Yeah. I would say it's not just about telling a great story because you can tell a great story that doesn't lead to the take home point. If we're script writers or we're television writers or we're singers, then, our business is telling great stories.

If we're schools, if we're leaders, if we're employees, we don't just care about great stories being told. We care about the take home of that being the right take home. And often I do workshops around storytelling. Someone will come up to me with the most amazing story. It's a really engaging, exciting, powerful story.

And then at the end I say, okay, what's the takeaway of that story? And they go oh, “it's, X” or something. And I'll say, “okay, is X the takeaway? You want people to know about you or your business, your organization?” And they'll often go, “not exactly, we really want people to take away this.”

And then I'm like “okay, X might be the story you just told me, it might be a great story that shows X.” But in some sense it doesn't matter, right? Because you're not just looking for great stories that show anything. You're looking for a great story. The great Trojan Horse story that the takeaway, the take home, the moral right is the exact thing you want people to take away.

And so I actually would suggest don't start with the story. Start with the take. Start by figuring out what you want people to learn from the story and then figure out what stories do a good job of showing that. Of making that the moral, rather than just saying tell me some great stories, cuz you'll get some great stories, but many of them will have nothing to do with the take home you might care about.

Tyler Vawser: Jonah, this has been a great conversation. Thank you so much. Really enjoyed it.

Jonah Berger: No problem. Thanks so much for having me.

Tyler Vawser: SchoolCEO Magazine publishes original research interviews and more in our quarterly magazine that's read by more than 15,000 school leaders. If you work in K-12 leadership, administration, or in communications, we'd love to start mailing the magazine to you.

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