2 Simple Ways to Become More Likable

If you want to positively impact the world, you’ll need people to say yes to your ideas.

Photo Credit:	WLADIMIR BULGAR/Getty Images
Photo Credit: WLADIMIR BULGAR/Getty Images

Believe it or not, you are a salesperson. Don’t think so? Nowadays there are more of us than you might think, though we go by different names—lawyers, consultants, marketers, and accountants as well as wedding photographers, Brazilian jiujitsu instructors, graphic designers, and chiropractors. And let’s not forget volunteerism, from leading your church group to helping in the classroom. You’re in sales too. If you want to positively impact the world, you’ll need people to say yes to your ideas. Yes, you are a salesperson.

Every day I teach people like you how to sell themselves—without selling their souls. The foundation? Likability.

This isn’t conjecture. Researchers have scientifically shown that we spend more money with people we like. And contrary to popular belief, we can learn likability. Here’s an excerpt from my book covering two of the five things you can do to increase your likability.

Commonality Creates Connections

When attempting to connect with someone, seek common ground. Shared experiences, hobbies, and beliefs form the foundation of a strong relationship.

A conversation at an event or conference is brief by necessity. There are only a few minutes before one of you has to rush off to another panel discussion or keynote. You need to make every second count until it’s time to swap business cards or emails.

The problem is that in our hurry to make a good impression quickly, we waste that time talking: about our company, our services, ourselves. If you take nothing else away, remember that listening is fundamental to positive influence. By paying close and careful attention to what the other person is saying, you will learn what they need, which is far more important than what you want to sell them. You will also discover invaluable commonalities that can fan the spark of connection between you.

In one classic study, researchers recorded certain basic attributes of both insurance salespeople and their prospects: height, age, income level, political party, and so on. They found that any strong similarities in these areas made customers significantly more likely to buy from that salesperson.

There’s no reason being as tall as a perfect stranger should make you any more likely to buy insurance from them. Yet it does. And although being a cigarette smoker might make life insurance a good investment, there’s no logical advantage to buying that policy from a fellow smoker. Clearly, this effect is something that occurs below the level of conscious awareness.

Burger and his colleagues at Santa Clara University took this line of exploration further. In one study they (falsely) told participants that another person shared similar fingerprints. Even this meaningless “similarity” made them more likely to say yes to a request from that person. Although one can argue that a shared religious or political belief might play a role in sound decision making, there is clearly no reason why the random whorls you’re always wiping off your iPhone screen should help build a personal connection.

Logical or not, we use commonalities as a heuristic, a rule of thumb for saving cognitive effort when making complicated decisions. When meeting someone new, there’s simply too much to take in: from age, gender, appearance, and dress to the way they introduce themselves and shake hands. We fall back on heuristics because we instinctively need a quick and easy—if not particularly meaningful—way to decide whether this is a friend or foe. The more we find in common, the safer we feel: Do I like this person? Do I want to continue this conversation?

The less common these commonalities, the better. “You like water too? I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” No. That’s why the fingerprint thing works as well as it does. Fingerprints are as unique as snowflakes, so the idea that someone else shares a similar set feels meaningful— even though it totally isn’t.

I promise it’s OK for you to talk too. This is where offering details pays off. One day, instead of emailing someone to simply say I couldn’t talk Thursday at 8 a.m., I specifically mentioned that I’d be at physical therapy thanks to a recent bicep muscle reconstruction. As it turned out, my prospect had had the same procedure performed a few years before. Bingo—connection. On another recent occasion I asked an Australian prospect if he liked the Aussie singer-songwriter Paul Kelly, one of my favorites. Turns out he’d seen him perform the weekend before. We immediately jumped into our favorite albums and songs, a harmonious beginning to our now-deep respect for each other.

Will these rare but powerful connections happen every time? No way. But the more often you’re specific instead of vague, the more real connections will be made and strengthened throughout your life. Let’s say this little technique only worked once a day for you. That’s 365 more connections a year! Being specific is a small switch that provides big bonuses.

So, remember: start with listening, look for similarities, and, when you do talk, offer specifics. Catch the commonality. Then play it back. “No way! You were at that same Depeche Mode show in ‘88!? They crushed their encore with Behind The Wheel!” or “It’s so great you want to increase the school’s donations. I’m really passionate about that and know we could make a big difference!”

Whether you’re at a business event or your kid’s school function, finding commonality is worth the effort. Common bonds create the structure for strong relationships.

Following up with Frequency

If you were a fan of the show Seinfeld, you might remember George Costanza’s advertising-inspired dating strategy:

George: I’m going out with her tomorrow. She said she had some errands to run.

Jerry: That’s a date?

George: What’s the difference? You know the way I work. I’m like a commercial jingle. First, it’s a little irritating, then you hear it a few times, you hum it in the shower, by the third date it’s “By Mennen!”

Brands have long understood that small but frequent impressions are an effective way to make an impression. Tell me if this scenario sounds familiar: You meet someone interesting at an event. It turns out that you have a lot in common. The two of you enjoy a good conversation in the limited time available. Then, a week later, you have a short follow-up email exchange. So far, so good.

Then life gets in the way. Months later it occurs to you that your company has a new service that might be of interest to that person. Or perhaps you think of a promising idea for a collaboration. You send them a quick email, expecting a quick and warm response. Instead, a week or two later you receive a tepid one-liner: “Nice to hear from you. Really busy right now, I’ll respond later.” Then, silence.

We fall into this trap all the time, investing effort in getting a potentially valuable relationship started only to become distracted by work. Sometimes it’s possible to get things back on track, but more often it was over before it began.

Although the quality of your interactions with a person is important, just as important is the frequency of those interactions. A series of small, value-adding interactions is substantially more effective in building a relationship than one or two spread far apart. Relationships need steady nurturing, especially at first. Behavioral scientists call this the mere exposure effect, which has endured in scientific literature since 1876. (You know research is powerful if it’s seen three different centuries.) It turns out that “mere exposure” to something—a concept, a product, a person—has a strong correlation with liking it. The more exposures, the stronger the effect: “By Mennen!”

Admittedly, a series of relatively pointless emails won’t magically build a strong connection. Interactions must be frequent, but they must also provide value to the other person to count—quality and quantity.

One simple way to handle this is to break up your communications into smaller pieces. Have seven things to follow up on after an introductory meeting? Break them up and spread them out over a week or so. It’s easier for the recipient to reply to smaller chunks, and you’ll get quality and quantity points.

This approach might be harder—you have to plan and implement. For your most important relationships, it’s worth it. Figure out your cadence of communication, schedule it, and execute over time. Vary your communications mediums: emails, calls, in-person, texts, snail mail, social media and so on. You can always modify as you go, but the initial plan is paramount. Above all, keep everything authentic, always aligned with where you want to steer the relationship.

Super Powers of Relationship Success

These techniques will get you going, and they are just two of the five I’ve devised. Theory is great, but now it’s time to start, to get practical. Let’s use the techniques. Here’s a little challenge.

Who’s the last person you met who could positively impact your life or career? What do you have in common with them? Write it down. You can send them articles, videos, introductions, or other assets that aligns with your commonality. Now look for more. Share with them what you did last weekend or plan to do this weekend – maybe they did something similar or can relate in an important way.

These soft skills lead to hard results. Find the commonality, then follow up. Remember that encore Depeche Mode song back in ’88 – Behind The Wheel. You’re behind the wheel. You’re in control. You can steer your most important relationships where you want them to go.

Mo Bunnell is the Founder and CEO of Bunnell Idea Group, who has taught sales skills to over 12,000 people. You can learn Mo’s other techniques for driving likability and fostering authentic influence in his new book, THE SNOWBALL SYSTEM: How to Win More Business and Turn Clients into Raving Fans, at snowballsystem.com and get a gratis, 8-part video training on creating demand at createdemandcourse.com.


The classic study on insurance sales was completed in 1963: Evans, F. B. “Selling as a Dyadic Relationship – A New Approach.” American Behavioral Scientist 6.9 (1963): 76-79.

Here is my favorite paper of Burger’s work on commonality: “Burger, J. M., Messian, N., Patel, S., del Prado, A., & Anderson, C. (2004). What a coincidence! The effects of incidental similarity on compliance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 35-43

For more on the mere exposure effect, see the Wikipedia page on the concept here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mere-exposure_effect

If you’d like to dig into more recent research in the mere exposure effect that aligns with this article, see this: Bornstein, R. F., Leone, D. R., & Galley, D. J. (1987). The generalizability of subliminal mere exposure effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 1070-1079.

Or this: Xiang, Fang ; Singh, Surendra ; Ahluwalia, Rohini. / An examination of different explanations for the mere exposure effect. In: Journal of Consumer Research. 2007 ; Vol. 34, No. 1. pp. 97-103

Adapted excerpt from The Snowball System: How to win More Business and Turn Clients into Raving Fans by Mo Bunnell. Copyright © 2018. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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