Posted on Wednesday 26 September 2012 by Ulster Business

David Meade

David Meade made me write this article.

Well, that's not strictly true. But I imagine he probably could have, if he'd wanted to.

The Banbridge-based 'mentalist' has an uncanny knack for knowing what you are thinking, for guessing what choices people will make and for influencing those choices in the most subtle of ways.

Meade has become a familiar face on our television screens after three series of The David Meade Project on BBC, delighting audiences by demonstrating his techniques for apparent mind-reading and thought control.

He's also become a regular speaker at business conferences and corporate events, where his blend of showmanship and hard science provides an entertaining alternative to more traditional public speakers.

Meade is in the process of filming the fourth David Meade Project, to air in October, when I catch up with him in Belfast.

While the show is about entertainment, he tells me that the methods he uses all stem from scientific research into human psychology and consumer behaviour.

"It is all inspired by research but once I'm up on stage I'll use any technique I can to get it to work," he says.

"I'm inspired by the idea that a small speed bump in the thought process can have a big impact in how someone thinks and behaves."

One simple example he uses is the cards left in hotel bathrooms asking you to re-use your towels because it helps the environment (and saves hotel operators money).
About 4%-6% of people took notice of the cards until a researcher changed the wording to say "most people" choose to help the environment. Making people feel part of a group boosted the hit rate to 25%. Further removing the hotel guest's anonymity they changed it again to say "most people who stayed in this room" – leading to a 50% adoption rate.

Meade says he draws inspiration from many sources and day to day observations, which means his act is always developing and progressing.

It was while working as a researcher and lecturer in international business that he developed the kernel of his act, the original plan being simply to make lectures on dry topics such as corporate governance more interesting and interactive in order to get more students to attend.

Now, he is a full time speaker with bookings in Europe and the US - including one at Harvard the week after we meet.


While his skills were honed at the University of Ulster, Meade's interest in popular psychology goes back much further.

His father passed away when he was still in his teens and to cope with the loss he started going to see psychics. For a year the so-called mediums convinced him they were able to communicate with his dad.

Then, as he was beginning to doubt their validity, he caught one of the psychics using an old magicians' trick. But instead of confronting the fortune teller, he made it his mission to meet more of them, to go to psychic "readings" and to work out the techniques they used to make people believe them.

It is an interest that the mentalist maintains to this day and one which continues to give him new insight into how people are influenced and what they are prepared to believe. He has even pretended to be a psychic himself, receiving a high approval rating from those who came to see him simply by reading out random newspaper horoscopes.

"I have been to about 140 to150 psychic readings to see how they do what they do. Every city I do a show in I try to go to a psychic reading. Some of the techniques they use are phenomenal," he explains.

"Some of the same techniques are used by the best salespeople to make you feel they know what you want already."

As an example he references "the yes pyramid", a technique phone sales people to put the person they've called in a positive state of mind. Research has shown that after replying yes to a person five times you are more predisposed to be open to their ideas because it makes you trust them more.


The persuasive techniques of sales people will be the theme of one show in Meade's new series.

There is a huge amount of psychological research relating to sales and the retail industry, focusing on everything from how scarcity increases customer aspiration to own a product, to why giving something small for free increases the chance of a bigger sale, and the idea that in supermarkets, eye level is "buy level".

Meade points to how advertising has changed from the 1950s when washing powder and toothpaste were sold on their benefits. Advertising agencies quickly tuned in to the fact that the constraints of other products made theirs seem more attractive – for example showing dirty clothes or bad teeth when a rival product is used.

"If you want to persuade anyone to buy anything, the biggest mistake you can make is to sell them the benefits. People immediately realise there's something not right, it immediately makes you want the other one more," says Meade. "That fascinates me, this idea that saying what you won't get by not buying a product is far more powerful than saying what you will get if you buy it."

The power of suggestion works in other ways too of course, and Meade is currently fascinated with 'ideomotion'.

That's the idea that dominant thoughts or feelings always express themselves in some muscular or physical form.

Interrogators are trained to pick up these signs, and the technique shows up regularly in television shows such as The Mentalist, House, Psych and their ilk. But there are also useful applications in business.

"Research has shown that people who are applying for a job or making a pitch, if they believe that they can do it, their chances of success increase. Internally if they have convinced themselves it is in the bag they behave like a winner. The reverse is also true," says Meade. "It is the same with car sales. If salesman convinces himself a person walking onto the forecourt will or won't buy a car it affects their demeanour with them."

In his own experiment Meade took 100 students and told them that if you held a key on a string over a silver coin it would move in a straight line and if you hang it over a copper coin it would move in a circular motion. He showed them six fake videos of this happening to back up the fake science and in almost every case the students did the same, believing it was happening naturally, not because they'd been conditioned to think it would.


Meade actually believes all individual decisions, no matter how rationally and objectively we think we are making them, are flawed.

"One person can only look at life from one perspective, no matter how hard they try. So, the best way to make a decision is to always start with your bias, your position on what is the right thing to do. Then state that honestly and let everyone else make their case," he says.

"Making an independent decision is virtually impossible so why not embrace your bias. Admitting a bias is a great way to start a conversation."

On the flipside of that conversation, when you are looking for a specific decision to go your way, there are proven ways of improving your chances. Say there two things you want investment for, do you ask for the big thing first or the small thing first?

"If you are dealing with someone above you in an organisation, believe it or not, they want to say yes. So, often it's a good idea to ask for a huge thing first that you know they definitely won't support or have the resources to do, and then follow up with what you really need. They will feel the pressure to say yes after that initial no," Meade explains.

"Conversely if you are dealing with someone junior to you, start with something small to get buy-in. If you're asking someone to stay late to do work ask them to stay for 15 minutes, and then when they see it can't be done during the normal work day, it is less of a surprise when that becomes an hour."

When pitching something you want a client to buy, the research is also clear. Where you might be tempted to bring out a big idea first, your favoured option should, in fact, come third in the running order.

He explains: "The first one is always a disappointment because you are never going to match their expectations. If someone is expecting you to come in with a big 3D model and you come in with a few notes on the back of a napkin, that's disappointing. And if you over deliver on their expectations, that can be as damaging."

By the time you present option two the person being pitched to is forming an opinion of whether or not they are likely to invest. By number three, there are three reasons you are eight times more likely to get a positive response.

"Firstly, it is difficult to hold more than three pieces of information in your mind while still considering things related to them. By the time number four comes you need to leave something out to consider all the pros and cons. By the time of number three people feel they have a full understanding of what you're presenting. They are starting to feel like they are the experts. Number four is used to confirm in their minds that number three is the right one," says Meade.

"If you have more options it is still number three. If you only have two then make something up so you have three. I think some people do it without knowing. The best sales people in the world probably have an instinct for how this stuff works."

And if a project has strengths and weaknesses then don't shy away from putting the weaknesses out there early, he adds.

"The majority of people in any room believe you should start with the benefits and finish with the weaknesses. That is wrong, wrong, wrong. If you start with the weaknesses then the benefits you dramatically increase the perception of your integrity, honesty and transparency."

Meade doesn't claim credit for the research he uses. But he is a man with a keen ability for demonstrating just how much our thought processes are anything but independent.

It's worth bearing in mind the next time you have a big decision to make!

Follow David on @davidmeadelive or at


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