Sometimes storytelling lessons come from the most unlikely of places. One of mine came from an IRS agent at a tax seminar. “Does anyone know why the government allows homeowners to write off their mortgage interest?” he asked,

Our collective blank stare answered his question.

“Because landless peasants tend to become revolutionary,” he said.

While the line made the audience laugh, it also made me think. People’s behaviors are influenced by incentives.

Great storytellers are incentives experts. They use them to influence both the actions of their characters and the perceptions of their listeners. But using incentives is tricky. Human behavior is only influenced when the proposed incentive aligns with the recipient’s desire.

Parents are incentive masters. If Suzy wants to go out and play, but her chores are incomplete, Dad may point to her messy bedroom. If Suzy’s desire to go outside is stronger than her need to procrastinate, she’ll likely start tidying up immediately.

Companies use incentives, too, but they frequently misalign the incentive with the desire. Consider the case of a utility company that wants to entice its customers to convert to electronic billing. Customers motivated by ecology will respond to stories about saving trees, but what about the skeptics who question the transparency of the company’s altruism? While paperless billing will certainly reduce tree-killing, skeptical customers also know that the company will also enjoy a windfall of expense savings in the form of ink, paper, and postage. Such customers will be easier to motivate by passing a percentage of the savings onto them in the form of a monthly discount.

People are complex beings that make choices based on their own self-interests. Therefore, if you want to motivate someone to do something, make sure that your incentives align with their desires.

Photo Credit: Library of Congress