This post is adapted from my new book, Can You Hear Me? How to Connect with People in a Virtual World, which is to be published by Harvard next week.  Please order your copy here. 

The first step in any human relationship is to establish trust.  Face to face, trust can be quickly built if the non-verbal signals are satisfactory and ultimately create the mutual connections that trust demands.  Online, the process is much more fraught, uncertain, and fragile.  If you’re attempting to begin the work of an online team, one that will last for a while, then try to anticipate all the possible issues that might come up in terms of the ways in which you are going to work together.  Skill levels, working schedules, time differences, candor levels, trust levels, communication styles, work demands, speed of decision making, leadership styles, gender issues—anticipate as many of these as you can.  Then deal with them openly and via group discussion.  If you don’t, they will come back to bite you later on.

The goal is to get people to commit to one another without being able to use their normal means of assessing and deciding favorably on the prospects for that commitment.  Which brings up the question: are there other ways to build commitment from the face-to-face world that still work well online?  I’ve borrowed a few ideas from Robert Cialdini’s classic Influence.

Bring social pressure to bear.  People look to their peers, both in the real world and virtually, to figure out what they should commit to. Online ratings and reviews are a powerful way to influence behavior. On teams, talking openly about group norms can fill the same function.

Use reciprocity.  The best kind of social ju-jitsu ever invented is reciprocity.  If you want to promote commitment, begin by giving something freely, without expectation of return.  It’s the surest way to start a healthy relationship.

We want more of what we can’t get.  A phrase you see on Amazon all the time is “only XX left in stock.”  If we believe that numbers may be limited, that increases the allure of an item, an offering, or an experience. The adrenaline surge we get from wanting something that’s scarce is powerful both face to face and online.

But online you must be consistent.  Find a story and stick to it, my grandfather used to say, with a twinkle in his eye.  He was unwittingly anticipating the online world.  If you offer differing explanations for your actions, you will lose your online audience, no matter how authentic and honest your volte faces may be.

Think of ways to appear similar to your audience.  We trust people who appear similar to us more easily than people who are different. Similarity builds rapport. If we feel people are similar to us in background or values, we tend to like them more. So you want to get very clear about your target audience, and find ways to highlight your similarities with them.  Or, if you’re undertaking team building, find the common elements amongst your teammates.

Use fear of loss to precipitate decision making.  Humans are more motivated by a threatened loss than an anticipated gain.  Especially, if we believe we already have the rights to something.  So build in your audience or your team a sense of ownership, and they won’t want that taken away.

Tell powerful stories.  Stories are the ultimate glue that hold us together.  Stories give our lives meaning and help explain why we undertake certain actions and why we believe one explanation over another.  A good story will bind your team or your audience to you more powerfully than almost anything else.

Winning people’s trust to get a commitment is an extremely sensitive activity; we humans are always checking in on the strength of that commitment. We care about intent; trust for us is all about knowing what their—the other person’s or group’s—intentions are.  Use these means to create trust through clarity of intent and in that way build commitment.



  1. Thanks! Sharing. And I’m ordering your book today.

    If you’re interested in a NW tour, Elliott Bay Books, University Books, Third Place Books in Seattle and Powell’s has seven or eight stores in Seattle.

    I’m available if you want to connect on who to talk with at a few of these stores.

    I’d think about a talk at Kaen Hall with the communications department @ UW.

    1. Tim, thanks for the good vibes and the interesting comments. I’d love to connect with you on those stores, and perhaps UW communications. Do you know Kaen Hall?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.