little bits of cardboard

business cards

In our richly socially-networked world today, something seems a little incongruous if you observe behaviour at most networking events. The perpetual exchange of little bits of printed cardboard.

Why do we still use business cards when we could be sharing Twitter ID or LinkedIn invites over the air? My hunch is that it comes down to a quite basic psychology.

A few years ago I was a management trainer. I spend my days working with people from various organisations across the country, helping them to become better managers and leaders. It was there that I learned the value of reciprocity and of symbolic gestures.

One of the things that I was taught very early on was the correct way to distribute workbooks, branded pens and so on over the duration of a course. The logical approach would be, before a session started, to lay out the materials on the desks that participants would be sitting. Save wasting time handing them out later, eh?

But my boss was adamant that books should only be distributed, one by one, by the person running the course once everyone was sat down. Why? Well, because the value they would subconsciously attribute to something handed to them would be much greater than something merely left on their desk. It taps into the psychological concept of reciprocity, which is the very powerful urge that we all have to repay favours. In his wonderful book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini talks in detail about how we are pre-programmed to pay perceived debts. Those little morsels of food on a deli counter at a farmers’ market? Take one at your peril, because you’ll feel duty bound to buy if you do.

The second lesson I learned in that time was that told to me by my father, who himself had been involved in the management training world. “I shouldn’t really tell you this, but here’s a secret” he said just before I started in the role. “If you want to bump up your scores on the evaluation questionnaires (“happy sheets”, as they are known in the game) make sure you get there before any of the participants, and then greet them all individually by shaking their hand at the beginning. It’ll add 20% to your rating.”

Occasionally I’d not take this advice – sometimes everyone would arrive at the same time and I dreaded everything looking like a wedding line. On those courses, the scores dropped. Physical contact improves the trust that we have in each other (certainly in Western Cultures, and only certain amounts of physical contact I should stress).

So, business cards are a token gift so begin a relationship of reciprocity. And they also are an excuse to touch. Which is another great way to start building a business relationship.

Something that I’ve now found is that they can also form a prop to tell a story, if your company is based on an interesting tale. My business, stamp, is – you can read it here. The reverse of my business cards (you can see them above) is the opening line of the story behind my brand. You don’t get any of that from sharing a twitter ID.

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