That Time I Rescued a Pigeon

Bill Hennessy
Bill Hennessey
Business Technology Solutions Director, Maritz

Editor's Note: You know how much we admire Professor Robert Cialdini’s work regarding the science of persuasion. We even interviewed him about it one, two, three times. This story is a very specific example of how his theories can be put into action.
It’s also now my second* favorite story about a pigeon in San Francisco.

I got a standing ovation for saving a pigeon. That might have been the highlight of my career.

There was a video of the bizarre happening. But it got erased before we did anything with it. Take my word. But with a little DIY Persuasion, we were able to get almost perfect strangers to make a testimonial video. 


In 2014, Loyalty Marketing expert Barry Kirk and I conducted a Persuasive Design Lab® at GSummit. GSummit was a fantastic gamification conference held annually at the Concourse Exhibition Hall in San Francisco. (If you watch the HBO series Silicon Valley, you might remember the TechCrunch Disrupt episode. It took place in the Concourse.)

Persuasive Design Lab® is a Maritz Motivation Solutions product that Barry helped me create in 2010. (Editor’s Note: Full disclosure, PeopleScience’s and Maritz Motivation Solutions are part of the same company.) The lab helps companies apply neuroscience and behavioral economics to their loyalty and incentive programs. It works great, and some of the biggest companies in the world have improved their bottom lines through our labs.

But this article isn't about those labs. It's about birds. It's also about DIY Persuasion. How you can gain huge influence simply by handling problems yourself.

This article is about DIY Persuasion. How you can gain huge influence simply by handling problems yourself. 

The Bird

We were about to wrap a six-hour workshop. I was reviewing the great work the 30 or so business people had done. I became aware of shouts and shrieks and nervous giggling. No one was paying attention.

I knew what they were laughing at. A pigeon had flown in through the open front doors of the Concourse. Our workshop was set up in the beautiful atrium, just inside those main doors. Because two walls were all glass, the bird had no idea where outside was. It kept flying into the glass wall and falling to the ground about two feet from the outer row of tables where these people were sitting.

Once I acknowledged the bird's plight, I had to act.

DIY Persuasion

Persuasion genius Robert Cialdini has written the two most influential books on persuasion: Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and Pre-Suasion. He also identified the six principles of persuasion. One of those six is "authority." And authority, according to Cialdini, begins with trust.

There are several ways to build trust. One way involves acknowledging your own weakness before promoting your strength. Cialdini's studies show that people trust you more when you let them know you're not perfect.

Another trust-builder is reputation. When a third party, even a paid third party, tells people of your skill, integrity, or experience, people immediately feel more trust in you. They are more likely to follow your suggestions.

But the kind of trust building we're considering today is different. It's DIY Persuasion, and it works like this:

You are more likely to follow someone whom you've seen solve a problem on their own. We all admire people who master a craft, people who run toward danger, people who make our problems disappear.

When we see someone take action, we are more likely to follow his or her lead in the future. It's more than just setting an example. It's saying "follow me."

When we see someone take action, we are more likely to follow his or her lead in the future. 

The Peak-End Rule for Bird Invasions

I had a problem. As long as that bird was flopping around, nobody was listening to me. And, since this was our big close, the bird's shenanigans threatened to violate the Peak-End Rule.

The Peak-End Rule comes from Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman. It says that experience is only as good as our memory of that experience. And our memory of an experience is dominated by the last emotional event in the experience.

For example, suppose you go to Cabo for a week. Every day, every event is fantastic. But on the last day, you get Montezuma's Revenge. The flight home for you is horrible. Chances are, your memory of that vacation will be a bad one even though 90 percent of the trip was great. You remember how it ended.

(Editor’s note: Read our Know Your Nugget on the Peak End Rule here.)

Someone had to rescue our event at GSummit. I gave it a shot.

I tried to look calm. I walked toward the wall the bird was trying to break through. I waited until the bird's next attempt at escape. Boom! Crash. The bird fell at my feet, dazed.

I bent over, wrapped my trembling hands around the bird's fuselage and wings, turned, and walked quickly toward the door. A woman's voice said, "I hope it's not hurt."

I stepped outside and opened my hands a bit. The pigeon just sat there for a moment, cradled in my hands.

Then it took off. With a loud flapping noise that scared the bejeezus out of me, the bird flew away.

I could hear the clapping and shouts through the class of the Concourse.

How to Practice DIY Persuasion

When something needs to get done, just do it. Even if it's not your job, even if you don't really want to, do it. Not everything has to be delegated. At some point, people have to see you do it yourself.

When something needs to get done, just do it.

While everyone else is busy admiring the problem, get up, walk across the room and make the problem disappear. Like a bird flying off into the sunset. Make their problem go away, and they'll follow you.

When the ovation died down, a woman said, "You need to go wash your hands. Birds are dirty."

I raised my hands and spread my fingers. "If you knew where these hands have been, you'd be more worried about the bird."

At the conclusion, we asked the participants if they would sign releases to appear in a video testimonial about the experience. No one said "no." And several agreed to be interviewed for the video.

Thanks, in part, to DIY Persuasion.


* Editor’s note: My favorite such story is from my friend, comedian Joe Klocek. I can’t find the specific clip online, but it’s about a homeless man punching a pigeon out of the air.  You’re welcome.

Bill Hennessy
Bill Hennessey
Business Technology Solutions Director, Maritz


Get the latest behavioral
science insights.