Author Archives: Jack Malcolm

Expression - Persuasive communication

How to Flatter Others Without Being a Complete Suck-Up

In the last post, we saw that flattery works, even when it is patently obvious to the receiver that you have an ulterior motive for saying nice things about them. That said, I admit that there are three things wrong with following my advice to be a suck-up. First, you may feel a bit slimy doing it, even when you know it’s the smart thing to do. Second, your peers or any outside observers may think less of you. Finally, while the research shows that there’s a low risk of having it backfire on you, there are more skillful and less awkward ways of ingratiating yourself. As Mark Twain said,

The happy phrasing of a compliment is one of the rarest of human gifts, and the happy delivery of it another.

In case you don’t have the “gift”, here are some suggested techniques to improve your complimenting skills:

Probably the most important rule of all is to keep it real by complimenting them for something that you genuinely admire. When you believe it, you are much more likely to say it authentically, and the recipient is much more likely to accept it gladly without question.

Find something different to compliment them on. If it’s something less obvious than what they hear all the time from others, it’s more likely to get their attention, and it also signals that you cared enough to research them carefully before meeting them.

Be specific in your praise. I confess that once or twice, when I’ve had someone compliment me about one of my books, I’ve asked them what they specifically liked about it, and it became obvious that they had not read it.

Of course, these first three suggestions require If it’s someone you’re meeting for the first time, research them as much as you can—the deeper the better. It shows you care, and it’s so easy nowadays that not doing it can be seen as insulting.

Ask them for advice. Everyone loves to be considered important and/or knowledgeable, and asking them for advice is an indirect way of expressing your admiration while potentially getting something valuable in return.

Go behind their backs. In other words, don’t praise them directly. If you praise them to others, you can be sure it will get back to them and seem even more heartfelt for being said to someone else.

Separate the praise from the need. Praise followed by an immediate request is too transparent, so invest into the bank of goodwill early with your compliments before you need anything.

Soft-pedal your praise. Just like a backhanded compliment can offend, you can a faux insult can please: “Wow, that’s actually not such a dumb idea!” Be careful with this one, but it works really well with some personalities, especially people who are a little uncomfortable with suck-ups.

Listen to the other person. I believe that the sincerest form of flattery is not imitation but actually listening—paying the other person the compliment of believing that what they have to say matters.

Finally, adjust your attitude toward complimenting others. If you consider flattery beneath you, ask yourself how making another other person feel important can be a bad thing.

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Flattery Will Get You Everywhere

I was initially appalled when I watched the recent cringeworthy video of Donald Trump’s cabinet meeting, where hugely powerful and successful men and women competed to see who could offer the highest (or lowest, depending on your point of view) form of flattery for their boss.

That was my personal reaction, but my professional reaction was totally different. As distasteful as it may have appeared, it was actually a brilliant display of persuasive communication skill. Think about it this way: if your goal is to advance the interests of the department you head, you need the support of the President. If you’re the only one in the room not competing to outdo the others in compliments, what do you suppose are your chances? (And don’t forget that each of these people is quite accustomed to being on the receiving end of flattery from their subordinates—they know it works.)

Trump’s apparent craving for flattery is probably extreme, but research has shown that flattery works with just about everyone. Stanford professor Jeffery Pfeffer says that “The surest way to keep your position and to build a power base is to help those with more power enhance their positive feelings about themselves.”[1] Jennifer Chatman of UC Berkeley says, “People who bring positive information, that stroke the boss, that make the boss feel good about the decisions he or she has made, that build up the boss’ confidence, those people are going to do better.”[2]

The reason it works is that a person hearing something nice about themselves can either a) believe that the other person is only saying it to curry favor, or b) believe it’s true. The problem with accepting A is that it requires you to think less well not only of the person saying it, but of yourself. Through the magic of motivated reasoning you are much more likely to choose B. And besides, as this recent article indicates, the really powerful may actually be incapable of reading your true intentions (not that you would tell them)!

It also works because it makes the recipient like you better. Robert Cialdini cites a study in which men received comments about themselves (some only praise, some negative comments, and others a mixture) from a person who needed a favor. Those who received only praise reported liking the commenter better, even when they knew they needed a favor and the praise was untrue.[3]

That last statement shows that there’s not much risk of a backlash if your flattery is over the top. In her research, Chatman looked for the point at which flattery becomes less effective, and was not able to find it. Flattery is that powerful, which is why Machiavelli explicitly warned leaders against its power over five hundred years ago.

Flattery isn’t just for managing upward within your organization. It can be useful in sales calls or presentations, especially to get the audience more favorably disposed to your message right at the beginning.  Keep in mind that a sales pitch can be ego-threatening to the buyer, because in effect you’re telling them that they’re doing something wrong and they need to change. Soften the blow by stroking their ego at the beginning, to get them more favorably disposed toward your idea and to you personally.

So, go ahead and be a suck-up. If you read this article, you are clearly too smart to let flattery work on you, but you are also too smart to pass up the use of this extremely powerful tool, even if you find it distasteful. But just in case, my next post will address how to do it without being a complete suck-up.

[1] Jeffrey Pfeffer, Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t, p. 31.

[2] Workers’ “Sucking Up” Bad for Business: Experts

[3] Robert, Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, p. 176.

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3 Credibility Lessons from Comey’s Testimony

I have to admit to taking off three hours from real work today to watch former FBI Director James Comey answer questions from fifteen senators of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Putting aside the fact that he was under oath and therefore subject to severe penalties if he is later found to have lied, I found his testimony to be very credible, for three reasons.

Together, they comprise what I call 3-Ds of credibility: Directness, Detail, and Demeanor.

Directness: First off, Comey answered every question he was asked, except those he felt that he could not comment on in an open session. There was no dancing around or playing cute by giving evasive answers. He also answered each question directly, without any “context-setting” or preemptive excuses for what he was about to say. In general, every answer was a classic example of BLUF, or Bottom Line Up Front.

Detail: He supplied enough concrete details when he described incidents or conversations to give the immediate impression that he was telling the truth, even at one point trying to mimic the facial expressions he saw when he asked AG Sessions not to leave him alone with the President. People who make up stuff don’t tend to supply a lot of detail which can be verified, as for example when he described receiving one phone call at noon as he was getting ready to board a helicopter with the head of the DEA.

Demeanor: Throughout three hours of questioning Comey was calm, thoughtful, and sincere. There was no sense of evasiveness or nerves, nor did he appear to lose his composure or temper when any questioner appeared snarky or hostile. One commentator afterwards said that Comey had told one of his friends that truth makes you calm.

These three factors: directness, detail and demeanor– all contributed to a powerful sense of credibility from Comey’s testimony. Do they prove he was telling the truth? Of course not. He is an experienced lawyer and former prosecutor who knows full well that these three factors could work in his favor, so it’s possible that he faked the whole thing. It’s like the old joke that “sincerity is important, and once you can fake it you’ve got it made”. I don’t think he faked it, but if he did, that by itself does prove how important these three factors are.

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Pain or Gain: Your Sales Approach Matters

As we saw in our last post, people differ in their approach to motivation: some are more focused on prevention goals and strategies (moving away from pain), and others on promotion goals and strategies (moving towards gain). When you adapt your sales approach to fit theirs, they will be more engaged, understand your message easier, and feel better about their decision. And the best part is that once you learn how to do it, it’s not that difficult to do.

First step: Figure out their dominant mode

Since it’s so important to properly align your sales approach to the other person’s prevention or promotion focus, you have to be able to quickly size them up and figure out which approach to use. Fortunately, there are numerous clues you can glean from what they talk about, the words they use, and even their nonverbal behavior.

What are their goals? Ask them what they want to accomplish and what success will look like when they make this decision. Promoters are going to talk about taking advantage of opportunities, of their aspirations and hopes for the future, and what they want to achieve.  Preventers will talk about known problems and risks, about what they’re concerned about, about what they must avoid or prevent. You can also accomplish the same thing by asking them how they made similar decisions in the past.

What alternatives are they considering? Promoters like to look at a lot of alternatives, and are open to new and different ways of doing things. Preventers are more limited, and more conventional. Also, promoters want the best, preventers want “good enough”.

What is their time horizon? Promoters move quickly and eagerly. Preventers prefer to take their time and don’t like quick deadlines.

“I” vs. “We” goals. Promoters are more concerned with individual achievement and looking good. Preventers focus on group achievement.

How prepared and organized are they? Promoters say “let’s do it”, preventers say “let’s plan it”.

Attention to detail. Promoters are more big picture and abstract. Preventers pay attention to detail and like to consider concrete features and benefits.

Promoters move quickly and get excited when they consider success. Preventers are slower and more guarded.

Just one more caveat before proceeding: Don’t forget to assess yourself, because you are probably relying on one approach regardless of who you’re selling to. You probably know yourself well enough, but just in case, here’s a questionnaire you can use.

Second step: Tailor your approach

There are three general ways you can apply prevention-promotion focus in your sales approach: you can adapt to their mode, prime them to adapt to yours, or hedge your bets by using both approaches.

  1. Adapt your approach to suit their dominant focus.

Frame their benefits appropriately. Sales is basically about one thing: you address gaps to improve outcomes. So, the frame choice is quite simple: do you talk more about eliminating or preventing a gap, or about the outcome produced by doing so? The exact same benefit can be expressed in different ways. For example, a client of mine sells sentiment analysis software that can be used to monitor morale, which either cuts turnover or improves retention. Another example: are you lowering fuel costs, or improving fuel efficiency?

Choose which benefits to stress. Most products and services deliver multiple benefits, so you can prioritize some over others. For example, toothpaste can either give you a brighter smile or prevent tooth decay.

Emphasize some questions over others. Challenge and cost questions bring out consequences of not fixing their current situation. You can ask more of those during your sales call with a preventer; ask more resolution questions of a promoter.

Tell different stories. Inspirational tales and testimonials about your other customers who received benefit from your solutions work well with promoters, but cautionary tales about those who did not solve their problems will resonate more with preventers.

Options. Give more options to promoters; limit them for preventers.

New vs. same. When you’re summarizing your offer, emphasize what’s new and different for promoters, but stress what’s tried and true—what’s not different—for preventers.

Abstract v. concrete. For promoters, emphasize the abstract feel-good outcomes, and paint a visionary picture of what success looks like; for preventers, emphasize concrete, measurable features and outcomes. You can also vary how you present competing alternatives. Promoters like to hear all about one offer, then the next. Preventers prefer to see their specific features and benefits rated side by side.

Nonverbal behavior. Without going overboard, it helps to match the general tenor of the other person’s body language. Use more expansive and animated gestures and vocal variety with promoters; tone them down for preventers.

  1. Prime their focus temporarily

Some products or services can only be framed in one way; they are either promotion or prevention focused by their nature. You don’t sell a Porsche by stressing safety and fuel economy, nor do you sell a Volvo by touting its sexy lines. If what you sell only makes sense to be sold one way, the good news is that you can actually “prime” the other person to adopt a prevention or promotion focus, at least for a short time by bringing to mind the appropriate examples.

One of the best ways is through asking the right kind of situation questions. If you ask about what’s important to them personally, you can either ask about their ambitions and aspirations, or you can ask about their duties and obligations. When you ask about what they want to accomplish, you can either ask about what they’re trying to achieve or improve, or you can ask about what problems and risks they’re concerned about. The old “magic wand” question works great to prime a promotion focus: “If you had  magic wand and could design the perfect solution, what would it look like?” To get them into a prevention frame of mind, ask them, “On a scale of 1-10, how well is the current system working for you?”

  1. Use both approaches – the “persuasive scissors” approach

If you’re speaking to a roomful of people, chances are good that you will have a mixture. Make sure your presentation or conversation covers both approaches. I call this the persuasive scissors approach, because both blades work together towards the same end. Many persuasive presentation structures are well designed for this. For example, the problem/solution structure begins by describing the problem and quantifying its consequences, and ends with a description of the benefits to be gained by solving it. Even Martin Luther King’s Dream speech was structured this way.


I believe that motivating sales reps is a lot like selling: you analyze the situation, ask a lot of questions, uncover gaps, and then get buy-in for a plan to fill them.  So, much of what you’ve read in this article can help you with your reps as  well.

The importance of regulatory fit means that you shouldn’t coach all your subordinates the same way.[1] If you doubt the hold that one’s pre-pro focus can have, consider the results of an experiment involving professional soccer players in Germany. After being tested to determine their focus, they were given the opportunity to shoot five penalty shots during one of their practices. Some were told their task aspiration was to score at least three times. Others were told their obligation was not to miss more than twice. Even these professionals saw a 30% difference in their performance, depending on whether their instructions fit with their prevention or promotion orientation. It was especially marked for prevention-focused players, who saw almost a 100% difference[2]. As a sales manager, it should not take too much imagination to figure out how to apply this to coaching your reps.

When you give performance reviews, or conduct after-action reviews promoters respond better to hearing what’s going well, but preventers do better upon hearing what they’re falling short on. By the same token, pep talks work well for promoters but leave preventers cold.[3]


[1] It reminds me of what John Wooden said: “Fairness is giving all people the treatment they earn and deserve. It doesn’t mean treating everyone alike.”

[2] This statistic was reported in Focus: Using Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence, by Heidi Grant Halvorson, which is the best book for a general audience. I highly recommend it, especially since it contains a lot of other useful ways to apply focus to your own goals and motivations.

[3] There is some good stuff in this article by Halvorsen and Higgins in Harvard Business Review: Do You Play to Win—Or Not to Lose?

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