The Presidential primary races this election season have been interesting, entertaining, and hugely confounding, as persuasion experts like myself have been proven wrong time after time. I thought for sure that Donald Trump would be undone by his extremist and outlandish statements, but instead he has continued to rise in their polls and show remarkable staying power. And it’s not just Trump: his brand of rhetoric seems to have infected others who feel they have to ratchet up their remarks either in response or just to be noticed.
My hope in writing this post is that I can prevent the spread of that infection to your persuasive efforts, by explaining that what works for them will not work for you.
First, let’s look at what’s working for the candidates:
Appeal to fear and loss: We know from Kahneman’s Prospect Theory that fear appeals work, because people are more likely to take risks to avoid costs or pain than to move towards gain. That’s why there’s so much talk of what’s broken in America, how we’re under unprecedented threat that threaten our existence, and how we are losing our greatness.
Extreme opinions and expression: Political correctness has done a lot of good things for the tone and content of our discourse over the past 50 or so years, but it has also gone too far and created a climate where people can be so easily offended—or at least pretend to be, to further their own goals. So, there is an understandable pleasure that people get when they hear others say publicly what they might be thinking but would not dare say.
Ad hominem attacks: Reagan’s 11th Commandment, “Thou shalt not speak ill of fellow Republicans”, seems a quaint relic of more genteel days. Debates have turned into cage matches, with politicians attacking each other’s personality, motives, backgrounds, and even their looks. While this can actually liven up the race, it unfortunately crowds out criticism of their actual positions and prevents substantive discussion. Why take the time to patiently explain your position when it’s easier and faster to trash the competition?
Whether this brand of persuasion will continue to be effective in the coming weeks when voters actually go to the polls and make a choice is still an open question, but I’m not going to bet against it. It seems to be working really well, so why wouldn’t it work for you, in your sales or internal persuasive efforts? There are at least three good reasons:
First, others expect different things from you. In business there is still a strong expectation of professionalism and civil behavior, and violations are usually swiftly punished. Speak ill of the competition and you may not be invited back; overstate the fear appeal and you risk a backlash.
Second, you usually have to live and work closely with the people you’re trying to persuade, and scorched earth tactics that may work once will carry long term consequences. Trump can get away with saying shocking things because it’s part of his ethos; it’s what people expect from him. It’s highly unlikely that you could pull it off, and the unemployment lines are full of people whose career was undone by one careless remark. While a guy like Trump can’t lose from his tactics (he either wins the election or goes back to TV as an even bigger draw), you can.
Third and most important is the fact that the people you are trying to persuade in business are on average better educated, more intelligent, and usually have a strong stake in the decision you’re trying to influence. They are turned off by strong one-sided appeals and respond more favorably to two-sided appeals, in which you at least make an effort to understand the other side.
All this doesn’t mean that you can’t use some version—albeit much more moderate and toned down—of a couple of the candidates’ effective tactics. Here are a few suggestions.
Appeal to fear and loss: Don’t dump this as a useful persuasion tool. For example, SPIN selling approaches are powerful precisely because they bring in the Implication of inaction. But for that to work, the Implication has to be something the other person legitimately accepts, and that’s why questions rather than direct statements are the best way to bring them out.
Extreme opinions: That does not mean you should not have strong opinions or be candid when the situation calls for it. When something needs to be said, you should say it, but don’t confuse candor and directness. Candor is about having a responsibility to speak up when necessary, but directness is a choice about how to say it, and you can sometimes be more persuasive by mitigating your speech enough to make it palatable to your listener.
Ad hominem attacks: This is one tactic that I recommend you leave out of your repertoire entirely. Never do this, even when it’s being used against you. This includes trashing the competition, if you are a salesperson.
In summary, the rulebook for political persuasion may have changed, but it is still firmly in place for business and most personal persuasion, so don’t try to become a better persuader by closely following politics—spend that time reading this blog instead.
As I wrote last week, lean communication is an enormously useful tool for ensuring that your communication with others adds value, briefly and clearly. But human nature is too complex to be reduced to ironclad rules.
Think of this article as the disclaimer to that one. In persuasive communication, there are always exceptions. There are definitely times when you might want or need to violate some of the rules. Let’s go through each:
The rule here is to add value to the recipient, which means framing your message in a way that is good for the other person. There are times when this rule does not apply…
- If the situation demands instant compliance, brevity and clarity should trump added value.
- Some pies can’t be made bigger—you want a slice that will just make theirs smaller. When you want something from the other person and there is no clear benefit to them, trying too hard to make it seem like it’s in their best interests can expose your insincerity; it’s better to be up-front about the fact that’s it’s not win-win.
The rule is to eliminate unnecessary verbiage that does not add value to the communication. But you still have to be smart about it…
- Anyone who has a teenager knows the frustrations of dealing with excessive brevity. Keep the relationship in mind when deciding how brief to be. When EQ is more important than IQ, sometimes you have to take more time to make the other person feel heard or valued. It’s easy to cross the line from brisk to brusque, especially because it’s the other person who decides where that line is. You have to use your common sense and judgment and most of all pay attention to the other person.
- Never forget that brevity which derives from deep thought is a totally different concept than sound-bite brevity, which is a product of shallow thinking, closed-mindedness, and snap judgments.
In general, you want to transfer what’s in your head with as little chance for misunderstanding as possible, except in these cases…
- There are benefits to ambiguity, imprecision and wiggle room in communication. When the idea you’re proposing is likely to be opposed by the other person, it’s not a good idea to begin with the bottom line up front, because of the risk that they might immediately stop listening or listen only to poke holes in your argument. In such cases, the shortest distance between two persuasive points may be a loop that starts from where they are and gradually circles back to your point of view.
- If your listeners are already on your side but your logic is less than airtight, being too clear may expose your weaknesses. Am I advocating fudging? What do you think? You may find this distasteful, but it’s the foundation of marketing and advertising; let your conscience be your guide.
- When clarity crosses the line to being “brutally honest”, it has definitely gone too far.
- When it’s not worth your time: My friend Gary told me a story about being at a conference with a colleague who had an inflated opinion of his own speaking ability. After he spoke, he asked Gary what he thought of his presentation. Gary replied, “Of all the presentations I’ve seen today, yours was definitely the most recent.” The fellow beamed and strutted away.
In another context, George Orwell wrote six rules for writers that align with brevity and clarity, but probably the most important is his last: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” In that spirit, strive to add value, briefly and clearly—except when it contradicts your more important goals, common sense, or good taste.
I’ve written before about applying lean manufacturing principles to business communication. Although manufacturing and communication are two totally different activities, both share the goal of producing maximum value with minimum waste. In this post, I’ve tried to simplify it even further, and I’ve come up with the ABCs of lean communication.
I define lean communication as giving the other person the information they need to make a good decision, with a minimum of time and effort. Ideally, a conversation, presentation or a written communication will meet three tests:
- It must add value, leaving the recipient better off in some way.
- It must be brief, because attention spans are short and working memory is limited.
- It must be clear, so that they can glean useful ideas that they can put into practice immediately.
What does it mean to add value in communication? It’s communicating useful information that produces improved outcomes for both parties while preferably preserving the relationship. This implies three important ideas:
Lean defines value simply as anything the customer will pay for. By analogy, value in lean communication is defined as any information the listener finds useful, usually to take action or make a decision.
Second, while it’s certainly possible to communicate so that only one party improves their outcomes—such as a boss giving clear commands—it’s not sustainable in the long run. The word “both” recognizes that you have your own purposes for the communication, as you should, but you will be more effective and influential in the long run if you develop the habit of focusing on the needs, desires, and perspectives of the other person.
Third, I say “preferably” because sometimes the demands of the business or the situation will necessarily harm the relationship.
Adding value ensures that your communication is effective, but it’s also important that it be efficient, because everyone has limited time and mental resources. It has to be brief and clear.
Adding value begins with outside-in thinking, which the psychologists call perspective taking or cognitive empathy. The usefulness of your communication will be directly correlated to your understanding of the other person’s needs, wants, and existing knowledge. As Stephen Covey says, “Seek first to understand, and then be understood.”
Regardless how useful your message is, if your explanation is too long-winded it won’t add value because it won’t get heard. Being brief is your best chance at ensuring that your message will get through, because time is pressing and attention spans have withered away to almost nothing. But brevity is not just about efficiency—it also improves the quality of your message because it takes deep thinking to be able to distill your ideas into concentrated form. That’s why the paradox is that brevity takes time; you have to do the hard work so your listener does not have to. So, even though brevity is mostly about reducing waste, it’s actually another form of added value. Being brief also makes you sound much more confident and credible, which supports your purpose.
There are two approaches to cultivate the habit and discipline of brevity: BLUF and SO WHAT?
BLUF stand for “bottom line up front.” Give them the main point first, and then back it up with your logic and evidence as needed. It works for two reasons. For you, it forces you a clear conception of your own core message, which you often don’t know until you try to summarize it. For the listener, hearing the point you want them to accept helps them organize the incoming information, and it often creates its own brevity because they will stop you when they’ve hear enough.
In any communication, there is so much that could say, but only a small bit that you should say. Your mind is full of knowledge, some of which is integral to your key message, some important, and much that is interesting but irrelevant. SO WHAT? is your mental filter that ensures the first comes out, the second is available if necessary, and the last two stay in your brain.
While brevity focuses on shaving time from your message, clarity focuses on removing mental effort to understand it. Brevity and clarity can clash or cooperate. It’s possible to be too brief, because of the curse of knowledge. You don’t remember what it was like not to know what you know now, so you might leave out information that the other person needs to fully understand the situation. Besides leading to misunderstanding, the main cost to you is that when the other person does not understand your logic or your explanation, the default answer is likely to be NO, because they won’t make the mental effort to understand and they won’t admit it’s unclear to them.
But brevity and clarity can also cooperate, because stripping out unnecessary detail can make the structure of your thinking easy to follow. But just to make sure, it’s a good idea to surface your logic, which is making your logical argument explicit and providing signposts in your conversation. Tell them the structure of what you’re going to say, such as there are three reasons we need to do this. “The first is, the second reason is, etc.”
The second tool for clarity is the language you use. Speak plainly and directly, and don’t try to sound smart by using terms others won’t understand. It helps to make abstract concepts clearer by using concrete examples, but be careful you don’t insult the intelligence of your audience—which brings us full circle to the idea that knowing your audience is key.
Want to be known as a great communicator? It’s as simple as ABC: Add value, Briefly and Clearly.
 A wonderful phrase I learned from Bruce Gabrielle in his excellent book, Speaking PowerPoint.
Since reading The Elements of Eloquence, I am seeing tropes everywhere. Unfortunately, most people seem to go for the low-hanging fruit (Boo, badly overused metaphor!), especially in the titles of blog posts.
Numbered lists are probably the most common, for three reasons:
- Someone did some research once and found that they lead to more click-throughs, so there’s at least a pseudo-scientific basis for this one.
- They give the impression of completeness.
- They promise a quick and easy read.
Alliteration is a cheap way to win one’s attention. It’s easy, and personally pleasing to peoples’ ears, even when it results in rotten writing.
Why do rhetorical questions get our attention? Is it because they spark curiosity? Do they exploit our continuous search for meaning in a chaotic world? Who knows?