Persuasion Myth Busters: The “Sullivan Nod”

Stop the sticks, there’s a new persuasion tactic that’s guarenteed to work 60% of the time on your unsuspecting customers, marks, and yokels. Named after its creator, Mr. Sullivan, the “Sullivan Nod” goes like this.

You offer a customer a list of options and provide a subtle smile and head nod with one of those options. This “Sullivan Nod” will increase the likelihood that the customer will select the option covered with this nonverbal gesture. Here’s how Mr. Sullivan himself puts it:

This great piece of body language can increase incremental sales as much as 60%. Salespeople should smile and slowly nod their head up and down as they suggest an item to a customer. You’ll be blown away by the fact that over 60% of the time the customer nods right back with you and takes your suggestion! For instance:

Customer: I’d like a vodka/tonic please.
Server: Would you like to try Stolichnaya (nod) or Absolut (nod) in that, sir?
Customer: (mesmerized) Sure. Put em both in there!

The Sullivan Nod even works over the phone for room service orders. It is a powerful tool. I always teach it in my seminars (and it’s featured in our popular MYOB Live! DVD for servers) and I’ve got a file folder of no fewer than 200 hundred letters from salespeople and their managers testifying to its effectiveness.

Wow. And it’s not just with Mr. Sullivan. There’s also a Wikipedia entry that describes this persuasion breakthrough. And it’s confirmed at,, and, among others (search on “Sullivan’s nod” for more links at your pleasure).

However, not everyone is falling for this one. Some commentors on these postings are deeply suspicious and see only a persuasion benefit for Mr. Sullivan . . . especially regarding that claim of effectiveness over the phone – how do you smile and nod, telepathically?

So, Steve, persuasion maven, dispenser of wisdom, truth, and the scientific method, what’s your take on the Sullivan Nod.

To quote the immortal Gene Wilder as Dr. Frankenstein, “IT . . . COULD . . . WORK!”`

It Could Work - Wilder and Boyle in Frankenstein


I have not read a good scientific study that tested the Sullivan Nod exactly as described here, but I’ve read enough good research on the variables in play here to know that this is not fool’s gold. For example, I believe that if you ran an experiment that compared the same waiter doing either the Sullivan Nod or a No Nod script identical in all other respects that customers would be more likely to pick the targeted option following the Sullivan Nod. I’d expect the effect size to be at least 10% and if you added another variable like distraction or cognitive load, the effect might increase 30%. To be even more explicit, if the No Nod group chose the target option 20% of the time, I’d predict the basic Sullivan Nod effect to be 30% (20% + 10% = 30%, right?). And, if we had that distraction or load variable, the Sullivan Nod would increase to 50% (20% + 30% = 50%).

The Sullivan Nod operates as an information cue or indicator or suggestion that would affect customers who don’t have or can’t form a strong preference. The smile and nod simply direct the customer to a path of least resistance and if you read the consumer research literature you know that most of the time customers in service situations when faced with a lot of choices often don’t care and can be easily directed with something as simple as a smile.

The Sullivan Nod also contains affective properties. Smiles and nods typically generate favorable affect in both the sender and the receiver, and again, under circumstances where the customer doesn’t have a strong preference, these mild affect moves can direct action.

It’s also possible that there are differences depending upon the gender of the senders and the receivers and the context of the service. Yada-yada, I could go on forever like this, so I’ll stop in the name of all that is good and merciful.

I’ll bet my money on the Sullivan Nod as a simple main effect. If you want to direct people to a particular item in a list of relatively equal options, consistent use of the Sullivan Nod should produce observable benefits to you. You just have to do it ALL THE TIME.

But, you can’t smile and nod over the phone, so Mr. Sullivan is cleverly working us on that one, encouraging us to get him to explain . . . which I’m sure he’ll be happy to do. Maybe won’t even charge a fee. Maybe.

Have to be vocalics.