The Power and Perils of Megativity

No, it’s not a typo. Megative is a word I’ve coined to describe the tendency some people have to puff everything up; everything is mega. Megative people use awesome and world-class to describe even the most average and mundane things. To them, everything is the greatest, or the absolute worst. There is very little middle ground or nuance, because moderation is for sissies. More familiar synonyms are hyperbole, puffery, immoderation and bullshit, and in this post-truth time we’re living in, it appears to be getting more and more common. But is it bad? Is megative negative?

If I were to be megative, I would stake out an extreme position and tell you it’s the worst thing in the world or the best. But the truth is, it depends.

First, it depends on why or how it’s used. There are four types of megativity which I can think of. (There may be more, but since I made up the word, I can claim to be the world’s greatest expert on it.) Starting from the most positive and heading downhill from there, they are:

  • Built-in megativity, which is a natural part of your personality. The best example I can think of is my friend John Spence, who looks at the brightest possible side of anything he encounters; even when you think he overdoes things, you don’t mind because his enthusiasm is infectious.
  • Marketing megativity, which is using it as an effective tool for influence, as in the examples I’ve described. People may discount it, but they see it as a legitimate form of expression, and in fact if you aren’t exaggerating a little, maybe you’re not trying hard enough.
  • Dunning-Kruger megativity, so named because of the psychological effect whereby those who are least competent in a topic are most self-confident. D-K megativity is ignorant self-delusion, where you actually think you are the world’s greatest. By coincidence, the initials match nicely what I call DK², which is when you don’t know what you don’t know.
  • Bald-faced lying. When Trump says such and such a policy will be terrific, it’s tough to tell whether it’s marketing or self-delusion. But when he says he won one of the greatest landslides in history, that’s outright lying. (Obviously, since he won the election, it worked for him. But you’re not him and you’re a serious business communicator, so don’t try it.)

Megative statements have the power to persuade, or they can backfire on you. Let’s look at the pros and cons:

The Pros

The first two types of megativity can make you a more persuasive communicator, for the following reasons:

It can grab the audience’s attention. In his new book, Thank You for Being Late, Thomas Friedman writes: “The moment that Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone turns out to have been a pivotal junction in the history of technology and the world.” You can’t get any more megative than that. Whether you agree or disagree with the statement, you’re compelled to keep reading, to find out why he says that or how he backs up such a brash statement.

Megative statements are especially useful to snap your audience into attention at the beginning of presentations. Once, I taught a class on presentations to senior executives, and I began by saying: “Welcome to possibly the most important class you will ever take.” When I said that, I had every eye in the room riveted on me, and I knew I had them. (However, note that a truly megative person would not have used the word possibly.)

Megative statements, even though they are by definition less likely to be true, can actually make you more credible because they exude confidence, and confidence sells. Being social animals, humans are exquisitely sensitive to verbal and nonverbal cues that indicate relative levels of status within groups. Those who act more assertively and confidently tend to be accorded higher status, and in general are perceived to be more competent than they actually are.[1]

Megative talk sells, because it shows passion and enthusiasm. As the world’s master of megative talk says: “People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.”

Megative talk may also harness the power of anchoring. While they may discount your initial evaluation, it’s possible that they won’t adjust enough, so you end up closer to where you wanted to be. It’s similar to what Robert Cialdini calls the “Door In The Face” (DITF) influence technique, where you ask for something outlandish and get refused, and then your next request seems much more reasonable.

The Cons

The last two forms of megativity can easily backfire on you.

Others will automatically discount what you say. Megative statements can be like swearing in that they have shock value at first which quickly wears off the more you use them. You also run the risk that the audience will quickly adjust to your statements and automatically discount what you say. Like a drug, you’ll have to use stronger and stronger language just to achieve the same effect.

Megativity is less effective with certain audiences. For example, I work a lot with engineers and scientists who place a huge premium on data to back up what you say. So, if you are going to use it, be prepared to back it up.

At some point, you may be called upon to put your money or your performance where your mouth is. Dunning-Kruger megativity can get you in a ton of trouble, because your claims will inflate expectations that you will then have to meet—and that’s not likely to end well.

Please spread the word—literally! With your help, megative will be the biggest word of 2017, maybe even 2016 if you act now!!!!!

[1] Cameron Anderson, Sebastien Brion, Don A. Moore, and Jessica A. Kennedy, A Status-Enhancement Account of Overconfidence, 2012.

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