Regardless of whether your candidate won or lost, the 2016 political season in the US has seriously undermined two key beliefs that I have long had about persuasive communications. The first is that the truth matters, and the second is that moderation of thought and expression is a virtue. Maybe I’ve taken them for granted because I’ve thought that both of these ideas are obvious, but it’s clear that someone needs to speak out in their defense.
Two of those defenders—whose opinions and approach I greatly respect—are Josh Bernoff, author of Writing Without Bullshit, and Peter Wehner, a columnist for the New York Times. Since they can say it much better than I can, I simply give you these two links, and strongly recommend you read them:
Bernoff: The Truth Foundation
Wehner: Moderate Is Not a Dirty Word (This is the title of the print edition of the opinion in the NYT; different than the online edition for some reason.)
Your time is more valuable than mine, so I’ll get right to the point: I recommend that you read Writing Without Bullshit, by Josh Bernoff.
Because so much of your business communication consists of words on screen or paper, you have to be able to write lean if you want to be a complete lean communicator. That’s because even though lean thinking applies equally to spoken or written communication, writing poses its own challenges that require specialized approaches.
How is writing different?
The principal difference between writing and speaking is that written communication is asynchronous, which is a fancy way of saying that production and delivery of the message don’t happen at the same time. That can help or hurt your communication.
It can help because usually the first time you say something, you don’t say it as well as you could. Writing is like a ballistic missile: you can choose your target and take pains to aim properly. You can take time to think carefully about what you want to say and choose your words, and you can edit and polish as much as you want. On the receiving end, the reader can absorb your message at their own pace, re-reading if they have trouble understanding or skimming over parts that they already know.
It can hurt because if you’re off target, you don’t have the feedback loop of real-time dialogue which allows you to adjust, clarify and take in the listener’s viewpoint to improve your original message. Plus, if you write the way you were taught in school, you’re almost guaranteed to produce crappy writing. That’s because the sole purpose of writing in school is to make yourself look smart, not to help the reader improve their outcomes.
That presents a great opportunity for a good writer. Since most business writing is bland, boring or baffling, you can easily stand out and make a reputation for yourself by just being a little better than everyone else. Unfortunately most people throw away the advantages of writing by not taking the time to carefully craft and edit their message, so the bulk of business writing is full of waste, or to use the more colorful term: bullshit.
Fortunately, Writing Without Bullshit supplies the antidote. If I were to write a book on Lean Communication as applied to writing (and if I were a better writer), this is the book I would have tried to write.
So much of what Bernoff writes aligns closely with LC principles. That’s no coincidence, because a lot of my LC ideas have come from studying and trying to apply ideas from books on writing. Lean keys such as outside-in thinking, Bottom Line Up Front, and Transparent Structure all apply as well to writing as they do to speaking. But this book brings a writer’s perspective to the principles.
Let’s just focus on one his Iron Imperative, which you see reflected in the picture above this post:
Treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own.
That’s Outside-In Thinking, applied to writing. It’s powerful because it focuses your mind on adding value to the reader without wasting their time. If you stick a post-it note with it on the top of your computer screen, it will remind you to take the time and make the effort so that your reader won’t have to, and it will hugely improve your writing.
Actually, that’s not exactly true. You will throw away the advantage you have as a writer if you don’t take the time and make the effort to carefully craft your message and choose your words. That’s why the second half of the book is so valuable. It’s about the project management aspect of writing, and it will teach you how to be productively paranoid, find your flow, and edit your own and others’ work effectively.
The nice thing about becoming a better writer is that it will make you a better speaker as well. So if you truly want to add value with less waste no matter what medium you use, you must learn to get rid of the bullshit. You—and the rest of the world—will be better off.
 I would be guilty of peddling bullshit myself if I didn’t disclose some disagreements I have with Bernoff. While I agree with his Iron Imperative, I don’t believe it says enough about understanding the reader’s perspective and their needs. If the purpose of business writing is to change the reader, as he says, then one should think more deeply about the WIFM when writing.
Gauging from what’s happening in politics this season, fact-based persuasion has gone woefully out of style. And it’s not just politics—one of the most common themes in the sales and persuasion blogosphere is that emotion rules persuasion. You don’t need to have a detailed grasp of the facts to make your case, because anyone can look up the details. Impressions and emotions sway decisions, numbers and details simply bore people.
But when you tear yourself away from a computer screen and pay attention to what’s happening in the real world, it’s clear that having a deep command of the facts—and being able to speak them at the rate of normal conversation without having to use your slides as a crutch—still has tremendous persuasive power. In fact, when everyone else is relying on vague, unsupported emotional appeals, those who state their case calmly, but with airtight confidence based on a tenacious grasp of the evidence, can stand out because hardly anyone does it anymore.
I’ve seen this phenomenon repeatedly over the past several months, as I’ve been involved with a group that has been fighting a battle against overdevelopment in my city. Our little band of dissidents lacks the money or influence that the developers and politicians have, and we’ve learned the hard way that emotional appeals at City Commission meetings are simply ignored. But we’ve also figured out that we can get attention by carefully researching the issues and backing up everything we say.
We’ve also learned that nothing is drier than too many numbers in a presentation, right? Actually, I’ve seen that if done correctly, rattling off a series of numbers from memory can have an enormous impact on the minds of your listeners. Paul, a member of our group, is a master at this. When we met with the editorial board of our local paper to make our case, Paul began explaining the public safety impact that the project would have, citing numbers such as response times, traffic delays, number of incidents, etc. Halfway through his spiel the paper’s editor interrupted and said: “You have an amazing grasp of the numbers!” That’s when I knew we had made our point.
In another public meeting, Paul’s detailed analysis of the weaknesses in the developer’s traffic study was so devastating that when the traffic expert tried to rebut his testimony, every time she mentioned a number, she looked at him as if she needed approval.
These examples point out another benefit of fact-based persuasion. When people are already emotionally invested in their own opinion on a matter, it’s extremely difficult to change their minds with an emotional appeal; they will simply dig an and defend their point of view even harder. Even if they agree with you, conceding your point may make them lose face. But if confronted with irrefutable facts, this “new information” gives them an honorable way out of their position, and they can show themselves to be reasonable people by changing their minds. This is especially important if you’re challenging those who are more powerful; a torrent of facts can be your best protection and surest way to succeed.
There is one key to keep in mind if you want to use details to impress and not to simply bore people. State the bottom line up front and then support it with numbers. As John Medina says in his book, Brain Rules: “Meaning before detail.” People will lose interest if they don’t know what your point is right away. When they grasp the meaning, they can much more easily pay attention to and absorb the necessary detail.
I can think of several good reasons you should not read this post. Of all my ideas for helping you be more persuasive, this may be the craziest one yet. Plus, it takes a lot of skill and confidence to even try to pull it off, and if you screw it up, it will definitely backfire on you.
I’ve actually thought this for a long time, because I’ve seen how it works in my own sales efforts, but I’ve held off on writing a post about this because of the very real concerns I listed above. But Adam Grant wrote about it in his book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, and his evidence for the effectiveness of the tactic is what gives me the confidence to finally roll it out to the world.
I call it unselling, and Grant calls it the Sarick Effect. It’s an approach that involves telling people right up front all the reasons they should not accept your idea—getting all the negatives out on the table right away. When it’s done right, it can be an extremely powerful way to a) get agreement and b) sustain that agreement. In his book, Grant relates the story of Rufus Griscom of Babble, who began his 2009 pitch to potential investors with a slide telling them five reasons not to invest. He walked away with $3.3 million. Two years later, he pitched Disney and told them why buying his company was a bad idea. They bought it for $40 million.
I’ve had the same experience myself many times in my selling career. I’ve used unselling in several different ways, one of which I will share here. When a company approaches me about sales training, I sometimes push back on the premise that sales training is truly what they need. I question whether they might not need to look at their compensation structure or their sales strategies or even hiring practices before investing in training their sales force. Invariably, they start telling me all the reasons they’re convinced that sales training is exactly what they need.
Why does it work? Here are seven reasons. The first four are Grant’s reasons. While I agree with his reasons, I’ve added three more reasons of my own.
- Leading off with your negatives disarms the audience, which naturally has its defensive shields up expecting to be sold. If people are initially opposed to your idea, your first task is to get them to at least listen.
- It makes you look smart. Research by Theresa Amabile demonstrated that negative reviewers are seen as more intelligent than positive reviewers, for example.
- It makes you trustworthy. Not only does it make you seem more honest, it actually does your listeners a favor. Griscom says, “The job of the investor is to figure out what’s wrong with the company. By telling them what’s wrong with the business model, I’m doing some of the work for them.”
- By doing the work for them, it makes it harder for them to think of additional weaknesses, which makes it intuitively more reasonable that there are no other weaknesses. It’s what Daniel Kahneman calls WYSIATI: “What you see is all there is.”
- It accords with the preferences of an educated and intelligent audience, who prefer two-sided arguments. If you notice, almost all of the opinion pieces in The Economist are written this way. They first cite the reasons against their position before making what they consider to be the stronger case. (You’ll notice that’s not the approach politicians take during debates—which speaks loud and clear what they think about the intelligence of the average voter.)
- It harnesses the power of reactance. When people feel you are trying to impose your reasoning on them, it’s an attack against their freedom of choice, and they respond just like a two-year-old. So, they will start coming up with reasons to refute your reasoning, and that’s a good thing.
- It takes away ownership of the negative reasons. If you’re listening to a pitch and you think of a good reason not to buy, that reason is your own because you thought of it, and you are much more likely to defend it against all argument. If someone else thinks of it, you may be less likely to cling to it.
So, there are very good reasons to unsell. But the reasons against it that I cited in the opening paragraph are also true, so if you decide to try it, there are some important points to keep in mind. First, the reasons you give against your idea have to be reasonable. If they’re just transparently strawman arguments, a smart audience will see right through them and the tactic will backfire. Second, they should be reasons the audience would reasonably have thought of on their own; no need to give them free ammunition. Finally, of course, be absolutely certain your positives outweigh your negatives.
Does unselling work? You’ve made it this far, so what do you think?
 You will have to read his book to find out why.