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The Knife Through Butter approach to behavioural influence

Category: Blog & News

Let's be clear. To influence some else's behaviour means you are going to have to put some effort in. 

The smart approach is to be as effort-less as possible, and that means getting clear on your behavioural objective and anticipating the likely resistance you will encounter.

That's what I explain in this 5 minute video using, what else? Butter.


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I'm sure you've heard the expression “Like a knife through butter”.

You know, it's meant to signify that something is super easy, couldn't have gone any better, it was a dream. The knife just cut through that butter, there were no problems.

But that saying is a little bit misleading as far as I'm concerned because it can be

frustratingly difficult to actually scape butter with a knife if the butter is cold.

The trick is to think ahead, put the butter on the counter and warm it to room temperature.

Then the knife will cut through butter like a dream.

And this reminds me of influencing customer behaviour.

If they are cold you will feel enormously frustrated.

Just like trying to scrape cold butter. It's bitsy, you can’t get any momentum, they are resisting you, it's annoying. It takes a lot of time.

Clearly the answer lies in warming up the butter and warming up your customers, first.

But before I tell you how, let’s talk about why you don’t do that already.

As the Behaviour Explainer I talk a lot about behavioural economics. How we are wired.

Well, part of how we are wired is...

  • We focus on the short-term, not on the future. 
  • We are overoptimistic about our talents and chances for success. 
  • We fall for the Planning Fallacy, where we underestimate how long and difficult something might be, and completely ignore the roadblocks we are likely to encounter.

All this means we are not wired to put the butter out on the counter UNLESS we deliberately

plan for it and make it a habit.

With our customers, we tend to jump in and make it up as we go along.

We falsely believe that we are being more efficient because we starting sooner.

Here’s the rub though.

I talk about things being effort-less. Effort-less influence.

I do not talk about them being effort-none.

There is always going to be effort required in any behavioural exchange. Whenever you are trying to get someone to do something you are going to require effort.

Your choice is where to expend that effort

The typical pattern is something like this.

What people do is get really keen to jump straight in. With limited preparation, I'm going to ask the customer to take action, and what happens? The customer isn't sure about that so they have to think about it, they might backtrack, and they might go around in circles, and then ultimately it's like, well, we've lost control of that circumstance. We don't actually know what our behavioural objective was. We've had "the ask" but we haven't done any of the preparation so we end with an unsatisfactory experience from the customer's perspective as well as ours.

The simpler, cleaner and more efficient use of our effort is to, before we ask the customer,

we do some preparation in terms of, "what are we going to ask them (to do?)". This is

where you might be thinking about what's my behavioural objective? If I need to get them

from A to B, how am I going to do that? What resistance am I likely to encounter?

Then once you "ask" them it's going to be a fairly straightforward path to resolution.

So unlike the first scenario, where effort was wasted, here we are expending our effort (at the start) but getting a satisfactory return on doing that.

Next time you hear “like a knife through butter” think about the effort it takes

for something to be effort-less. Thinking upfront means a clearer, less frustrating, more rewarding interaction.