Bruce Winner: Three Powerful “Nudges” You Can Use to Drive Training Results

31 Oct 2016 5:00 AM | Anonymous

Nudging at its simplest is defined as the science of getting people to take action. Nudges are a means to influence your trainees to take positive action.  Nudging is a flexible way to increase the chances of your training resulting in behavioral change or that as your training participants return to the workplace, they apply their newly learned skills. I’ve been amazed by the power of a nudge to align supervisors and trainees before training, move participants to a commitment to action during a training program, and how a nudge can build collaboration and accountability in the post-training period. 

Nudging before training even starts

Before your training begins, consider using “priming”.  Priming is exposing someone to a stimulus that will ultimately make them more receptive to your following effort(s) to persuade them. Robert Cialdini, one of the most frequently cited behavioral scientists in this field, refers to priming as “pre-suasion”. In his recent book Presuasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade, he describes the flexibility and utility of this powerful behavioral science technique. Cialdini refers to this time before our persuasive efforts as a “privileged moment for change”, where we can prepare people to be receptive to a message before they experience it.

In the lab, but also in the real world

There are many examples of priming that have been proven effective in laboratory settings. Priming has been used in tests to increase individuals’ honesty in response to questions, to boost their attention, and even make them act as if they were years older or younger than their natural age. (See references) 

Though these lab examples are interesting, my favorite examples of priming are those that take place in the real world. For example, the following priming experiment was conducted in a supermarket, where people made actual decisions and paid real money for their choices. In the test, a display of French and German wines were side by side in a supermarket display.  For several hours of the day French music would play and at other times German music would be piped to the consumers. When French music was playing, 70% of the sales were of French wines. When German music was playing, 70% of the sales were of German wines.  When randomly selected guests were asked if the music playing influenced their selection of wines, the overwhelming majority of the shoppers responded, “What music?”  Priming works in the lab and the real world, but it is generally invisible to those who are influenced by the priming. 

Pre-suade with your promotional materials or collateral

Now that you have a good sense of what priming or pre-suasion is, let’s translate this to your training practice. If you want participants in an upcoming program to come in with a good attitude, be eager to learn, and ready to practice what they have learned after the training program, then consider priming or pre-suading them.  You can do this via your pre-program promotional materials. But instead of priming participants with features and details of the program, there is a better way.   

Consider a focus on the positive results or the outcomes that trainees can expect to gain from your program. Tell them a story about the usefulness of the program. Describe how someone used the training to get a promotion, boost their unit’s production, or became an organizational hero.  Appeal to what Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning behavioral scientist, refers to as their System I or emotional brain, as opposed to their System II or rational brain. An appeal to the emotional brain is much more likely to resonate with an individual.  Leave a message that will not only be memorable, but will pre-suade the participant to be excited about the program and what it can do for them. 

An orientation session that is really much more

An even more effective means of priming can be created by speaking directly to participants and their supervisors in an hour set aside before your training session.  Here you can efficiently prime both groups, participants and supervisors of the participants. An effective way to do this is to briefly describe program details, but then ask them (participants) to consider or “hold” the following question, “What would successfully completing this program do for me?”  (Note: We generally expand the question with some specific examples of potential results from the program.) 

When we use this technique in my training practice, we use a modified coaching technique borrowed from Nick LeForce, NLP master-coach. The method asks participants to cup their hands, as if they were physically holding the previous question. This priming technique appeals to their emotional brain, by allowing participants to craft an internal priming message for themselves.  We ask them to listen to the entire session while determining what is in it for them.  (Trainers often refer to this as the WIIFM, or the acronym for What’s In It For Me.) For some participants the WIIFM may be a promotion, for others a raise, and some may imagine the training resulting in improved career skills. 

Then we ask the supervisors to hold a similar question. The goal is to get the same level of support from supervisors as from the participants.  As trainers, we know that the supervisor’s endorsement is often the key to the participant’s application of training back on the job. Supervisors are more likely to view the training as a means to help themselves after they ask themselves this priming question. For some supervisors their goal may be a more productive employee, for others a more engaged one, and for some it could be an employee who makes fewer mistakes and thus takes less of their valuable time.  In both cases (participants and supervisors) we have primed the participants or supervisors using the most effective arguments available to pre-suade them. We have used their own arguments, their own vested interests, their emotional brains, their WIIFM. 

Priming, like all nudges, are designed to overcome our biases.  Priming is a proven method of overcoming the “status quo bias” or more colloquially, our adversity to change. Most people (employees or supervisors) are content to accept things the way they are. Unless nudged, your trainees may be reluctant to learn new ways of doing things and their supervisors may be reluctant to let them try new tools or techniques.  Priming will prepare your students to be more receptive to your message in the classroom and with the supervisor’s support, boost post-training application.  

During Training

In the classroom, consider using “commitment” nudges.  People have an unconscious tendency to keep the commitments they make, whether the commitments are written/formal or oral/informal.  Like priming, our tendency to keep commitments is an unconscious bias, but this knowledge can also be used to nudge participants toward positive behavior. 

After Training

After the class, consider using “social proofing” or “the herd effect” to nudge trainees.  We are social animals and we like to do what we think or see others doing.  There are many ways of achieving the accountability that comes with social proofing and it is a scientifically proven means to boost the application of training. 

This short blog doesn’t offer enough space to fully explain the last two nudges (commitment and social proofing, or those to be used during or after training), but you can find out more about these nudges and how to use them to boost your training results at an upcoming ATD Sacramento workshop on Monday, November 14 from 11:00 AM to 1:30 PM. 

Upcoming Nudging Workshop – November 14, 2016

If you are interested in a two-hour deep-dive into nudging for trainers, consider attending ATD Sacramento’s upcoming workshop on Monday, November 14.  This expanded hands-on workshop, “Nudging: The Behavior Changing Superpower that Talent Developers Can’t Afford to Ignore”, will be held from 11:00 to 1:30 and is offered at the same low price as any regular ATD monthly meeting.  The workshop is led by Bruce Winner, Custom Training Manager of the Government Training Academy, Los Rios CCD.  

Can’t attend?  No worries!

If you can’t attend this workshop, don’t worry.  I’ll be following this blog in the next few weeks (before and after the workshop) with one or two additional blogs.  In these blogs I’ll explain the science behind commitments and social proofing and how they can be used to craft nudges to overcome unconscious biases that get in the way of trainees applying learned skills on the job.  Bruce Winner 


PreSuasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade, Robert Cialdini Ph.D., Simon & Schuster; September 6, 2016

Cialdini is a giant in the field of behavioral science and applied research. He is often referred to as the “Godfather of Influence” for his long involvement in the field and impact on how businesses and public organizations seek to influence others. In this book, Cialdini focuses on priming or the opportunity to influence, even before we begin our efforts at persuasion. He is also the author of a groundbreaking book in the field of influence that was originally published in 1984, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. (See next reference.)

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini Ph.D., Harper Business; Influence was first published in 1984 but has been revised and republished many times.

Cialdini has sold over three million copies of this book, which has been on the New York Times bestseller list many times and won numerous awards. Cialdini’s book preceded the works of Kahneman, Thaler, Sunstein, and Ariely (major authors and researchers in the field of behavioral economics or nudging) by 20 years.  His six principles of persuasion are reciprocity, commitment or consistency, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity. In his new book Presuasion, he introduces a new principle or “unity”, the idea that the more we perceive people as part of “us,” the more likely we are to be influenced by them. 

Psyching Us Out: The Promises of ‘Priming’, The New York Times, Gary Cutting, Oct. 31, 2013

This is a good general read on priming. It explains what it is, some experiments in the lab, and provides references to some of the many researchers who have advanced the field of behavioral economics.

What Is Priming? A Psychological Look at Priming Consumer Behavior; Posted by Madeline Ford, July 1, 2013  This is a concise blog from MotiveMetrics, a site devoted to translating findings from the behavioral sciences for business (primarily marketers). The blog provides a review of priming research in a non-academic manner and describes how priming can be used in in a business setting. I included this blog, in part, because it contains a fuller description of the French/German wine example I used in my blog posting.

Bruce Winner, Government Training Academy,, 916.563.3232,

© ATD Sacramento Chapter

Thanks to the generosity of QuestionPro and its Survey Software we are able to track new and exciting data for our stakeholders. QuestionPro's advanced features allow us to collect responses and distribute vital information to participants.

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software