Strategy. Innovation. Brand.


The Greeks invented the science of persuasion – they called it rhetoric. The posts in this category give a brief overview.

Too Much Rhetoric? Or Not Enough?

When will we learn to argue without anger?

In the Western world, the art of persuasion (aka rhetoric), appeared first in ancient Athens. We might well ask, why did it emerge there and then, as opposed to another place and another time?

In his book, Words Like Loaded Pistols, Sam Leith argues that rhetoric blossomed first in Greece because that’s where democracy emerged. Prior to that, we didn’t need to argue or persuade or create ideas — at least not in the public sphere. We just accepted as true whatever the monarch said was true. There was no point in arguing. The monarch wasn’t going to budge.

Because Greeks allowed citizens from different walks of life to speak in the public forum, they were the first people who needed to manage ideas and arguments. In response, they developed the key concepts of rhetoric. They also established the idea that rhetoric was an essential element of good leadership. A leader needed to manage the passions of the moment by speaking logically, clearly, and persuasively.

Through the 19th century, well-educated people were thoroughly schooled in rhetoric as well as the related disciplines of logic and grammar. These were known as the trivium and they helped us manage public ideas. Debates, governed by the rules of rhetoric, helped us create new ideas. Thesis led to antithesis led to synthesis. We considered the trivium to be an essential foundation for good leadership. Leaders have to create ideas, explain ideas, and defend ideas. The trivium provided the tools.

Then in the 20th century, we decided that we didn’t need to teach these skills anymore. Leith argues that we came to see history as an impersonal, overwhelming, uncontrollable force in its own right. Why argue about it if we can’t control it? Courses in rhetoric — and leadership — withered away.

It’s interesting to look at rhetoric as an essential part of democracy. It’s not something to be scorned. It’s something to be promoted. I wonder if some of our partisan anger and divisiveness doesn’t result from the lack of rhetoric in our society. We don’t have too much rhetoric. Rather, we have too little. We have forgotten how to argue without anger.

I’m happy to see that rhetoric and persuasion classes are making a comeback in academia today.  Similarly, courses in leadership seem to be flowering again. Perhaps we can look forward to using disagreements to create new ideas rather than an anvil to destroy them.

Pre-Suasion: Influence Before Influence

Trust me.

Trust me.

In Tin Men, Richard Dreyfus and Danny De Vito play two salesmen locked in bitter competition as they sell aluminum siding to householders in Baltimore. The movie is somewhat forgettable, but it offers a master class in sales techniques.

In one scene, Dreyfus knocks on a prospective customer’s door while also dropping a five-dollar bill on the doormat. When the customer opens the door, Dreyfus picks up the bill and says, “Wow. I just found this on your doormat. It’s not mine. It must be yours.” Somewhat confused, the homeowner accepts the bill and invites Dreyfus inside where he makes a big sale.

Robert Cialdini would call Dreyfus’ maneuver a good example of pre-suasion. Before Dreyfus even introduces himself, he has already done something to show that he’s a stand-up guy. He has earned some trust.

Cialdini himself gained our trust in his first book, Influence, which details six “weapons of influence”: reciprocity, consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity. In his new book, Pre-Suasion, he invites us to look at what happens before we deploy our weapons.

Pre-suasion is not a new idea. It’s at least as old as the traditional advice: Do a favor before asking for a favor. Like Dreyfus, however, Cialdini seems like a stand-up guy so we go along for the read. It’s a good idea because the book is chock full of practical advice on how to set the stage for persuasion.

A key idea is the “attention chute”. When we focus our attention on something, we don’t see anything else. The opportunity cost of paying attention is inattentional blindness. Thus, we don’t consider other alternatives. If our attention is focused on globalization, we may not notice how many jobs are eliminated by automation.

As Cialdini points out, the attention chute makes us suckers for palm readers. A palm reader says, “Your palm suggests that you’re a very stubborn person. Is that true?” We focus on the idea of stubbornness and search our memory banks for examples. We don’t think about the opposite of stubbornness and we don’t search for examples of it. It’s almost certain that we can find some examples of stubbornness in our memories. How could the palm reader have possibly known?

The attention chute is also known as the focusing illusion. We believe that what we focus on is important, but it may just be an illusion. If we’re focused on it, it must be important, right? It’s a cognitive bias that a palm reader or aluminum siding salesman can easily manipulate.

What’s the best defense? It’s a good idea to keep Daniel Kahneman’s advice in mind: “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it.” If the media is filled with horror stories about the Ebola virus, you’ll probably think it’s important. But really, it’s not nearly as important as you think it is while you’re thinking about it.

Cialdini takes the attention chute one step further with the idea that “what’s focal is causal.” We assume that what we focus on is not just important; it’s also the cause of whatever we’re focused on. As Cialdini notes, economists think that the exchange of money is the cause of many transactions. But maybe not. Maybe there’s another reason for the transaction. Maybe the money is just a side benefit, not the motivating cause.

The idea that focal-is-causal has many complications. For example, the first lots identified in the famous Tylenol cyanide attacks were numbers 2880 and 1910. The media broadcast the numbers far and wide and many of us used them to play the lottery. They must be important, right?

Focal-is-causal can also lead to false confessions. The police focus on a person of interest and convince themselves that she caused the crime. (This is also known as satisficing or temporizing). They then use all the tricks in the book to convince her of the same thing.

Cialdini is a good writer and has plenty of interesting stories to tell. If you like Daniel Kahneman or Dan Ariely or Jordan Ellenberg or the brothers Heath, you’ll like his book as well. And who knows? It may even help you beat the rap when the police are trying to get a confession out of you.

Politics — Lying Versus Bullshitting

You talkin' to me?

You talkin’ to me?

The presidential campaign is about to lurch into high gear and the lying is flying. Or is it? Are the candidates lying or are they bullshitting us? The two concepts are related but not the same.

Let’s take an example from Donald Trump. Trump says that he will build a wall along our southern border and make Mexico pay for it. Many neutral observers claim that it would be prohibitively expensive to build a useful (that is, impenetrable) wall along the entire border. They also suggest that it’s ludicrous to believe that Mexico would pay for it. So is Trump lying or is he bullshitting?

To answer the question, I dug out an essay by the Princeton philosopher, Harry Frankfurt. Originally published in 1986, the essay is aptly tilted, On Bullshit. * Frankfurt lays out the essential differences between lying and bullshit (with a side trip through humbug).

Frankfurt argues that both bullshit and lying are deceptive – but they’re deceptive in different ways. The liar aims to deceive us about reality and “the way things are.” A liar might say that he has a million dollars when he’s actually flat broke. A bullshitter, on the other hand, aims to deceive us about his purpose. Frankfurt writes, “His eye is not on the facts at all…. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”

Further, a liar knows the truth and seeks to conceal it. He opposes the truth. By contrast, a bullshitter may or may not know what the truth is – and certainly doesn’t care. Indeed, he may even be telling the truth. Making a true statement or a false statement is beside the point. As Frankfurt notes, “…the truth … of his statements is of no central interest to him.”

A liar is under numerous constraints. He knows the truth and, “…to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth.” A bullshitter has no such constraints. He can make everything up, including the context and the backstory. Instead of making a statement about reality, he invents his own reality.

Indeed, the bullshitter avoids the “authority of the truth” altogether. Frankfurt writes that, “He pays no attention to [the truth] at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”

So is Trump lying or bullshitting about the wall? I’m guessing that he’s bullshitting. He doesn’t seem to care whether his statement is true or false. That’s beside the point. He just makes stuff up to suit his purpose.

So, if making a true statement (or a false one, for that matter), is beside the point, what is his hidden agenda? I think there are two:

  • To maximize attention and press coverage – every time Trump makes an outrageous statement, journalists write about it. Often times, they point out that the statement is not true. But that’s beside the point. Trump doesn’t care – nor do his followers, apparently. The point is to get elected and that requires attention and saturation coverage.
  • To soak up his opponents’ time – Trump’s opponents often make detailed rebuttals of his claims. They want to set the record straight. But as long as they’re doing that, they’re on Trump’s turf. He’s the center of attention. It’s political rope-a-dope. I’ve noticed that Trump rarely defends his points in any logical way. He simply repeats them, thus causing his opponents to redouble their efforts to prove him wrong. He gets their goat because they think he’s lying when, in fact, he’s bullshitting. Setting the record straight is useless if truth and falsity are beside the point.

So how can Trump’s opponents – Johnson and Clinton – best deal with his bullshitting? To the maximum extent possible, they should ignore him. Don’t get caught up in the trap of making him the center of attention. When a journalist asks about an outrageous Trump statement, don’t take the bait. Just say something along the lines of, “Well, we all know that he’s a world-class bullshitter. Let’s talk about something more useful.”

* Frankfurts’ essay was originally published in The Raritan Quarterly Review in 1986. It was then republished in 2005 as a small book. I’ve depended on the version that’s found here.

The Best Way To Disagree

I disagree.

I disagree.

I find that I often disagree with people. It’s not that I’m a bad person or that I have evil intentions. I just have a specific and somewhat idiosyncratic way of looking at the world that doesn’t always fit with other people’s views. There’s certainly nothing wrong with being out of step with the world. There are, however, good reasons to consider how to deal with it.

When I was younger and snarkier, I dealt with it by being competitive. I focused on winning. I’m pretty good with words and I could often come up with a snappy comeback or putdown. I could be sarcastic and snide. I could put the other person in his place. If I left the other person speechless, so much the better. That just proved that I had won the encounter. I felt superior.

Now that I’m a bit older, I realize that it’s more important to win over than to win. When I sarcastically put someone down, I doubt that I won many hearts and minds. Instead of winning people over, I pushed them away. Humiliating another person may feel good but it doesn’t do good.

I’ve learned that the best way to disagree is to begin by agreeing. You start by finding some point of agreement with the other person’s position. It may be small or large, but it allows you to start by validating what the other person has said. You say – metaphorically or literally – “Yes, I’ve heard you. I understand your position.” The other person feels affirmed and recognized.

Then you change the frame, shift the focus, or alter the timeline. Here are some general-purpose ways to do just that:

  • Alter the timeline – “I agree that your suggestion would be helpful in the short run. But I worry that the long-term effects would be very detrimental. Here’s why…” (Of course, you can flip long-term and short-term if that suits your argument).
  • Agree conceptually then shift to the literal or practical aspects of the issue – “I think you’re right. A successful businessman should make a good president. I would just feel better if we had an example of that actually happening.”
  • Agree with your interlocutor’s frame of reference and then change the frame. Often, you’ll want to broaden the frame, like this: “I certainly agree that this would help first graders. But I’m concerned about all primary school students. How can we determine if this will help all students, not just beginners?” On other occasions, you may want to narrow the frame, like this: “I agree that this tax change will be good for most companies in our industry. But our company is an exception because of the way we account for our overseas profits.”

The general technique is known as concession-and-shift. It’s been in use at least since the days of Aristotle and his rhetorical colleagues. The idea is simple: start on a positive note rather than a negative note. Agree before disagreeing. If your interlocutor senses that you’re agreeable and reasonable, she’ll be much more likely to listen to your side of the argument. That’s exactly what you want.

Context Effects: PayPal and Brexit

Whom do you trust?

Whom do you trust?

PayPal was recently skewered on social media because it sponsored a panel discussion on gender equality and inclusion in the workplace. The problem was that the panel consisted solely of men. Women quickly tore into the company on Twitter and Tumblr for being tone deaf and sexist.

In fairness to PayPal, the panel discussion was supposed to have been titled: “Gender Equality and Inclusion In the Workplace: A Conversation With Our Male Allies”. Somehow, the organizers omitted the last part of the title from the official program.

I suspect that PayPal’s panel was a well-intentioned effort to bridge the gender gap. But the organizers made a simple mistake – they focused on strategy and forgot about context.

In persuasion, we typically start by developing the message strategy. What is the key message that we need to communicate? How can we best encapsulate that message in a memorable campaign?

While message strategy is certainly critical, it’s not the only concern. We also need to consider the context the message is delivered in. It’s a fairly simple question: does the context create an opportunity to deliver our message effectively? Sometimes, contextual factors facilitate the message delivery. At other times, the context constrains our ability to communicate clearly. Creating an all-male panel on gender equality does not provide a favorable context.

From a timing perspective, Greek rhetoricians called this kairos. Translated literally, it means the “supreme moment”. In our context, kairos means finding the opportune moment to deliver a persuasive message. As Jay Heinrichs points out, it’s analogous to a teachable moment. A teacher finds the right moment to teach a memorable lesson. Similarly, a persuader finds the right moment to deliver a persuasive message.

Kairos refers to timing and timeliness. But we need to consider other contextual factors as well. Who delivers the message? In what forum? What is the audience ready to receive? Whom does the audience trust? What media and channel provide the best opportunity to deliver the message successfully?

In this context, I wonder about the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom. One side – the Remain campaign — argues that Britain will be stronger by staying in Europe. The other side – the Leave campaign — argues that leaving will make Britain great again. Both sides have worked out their message strategies.

Polls suggest that the two sides are very evenly divided. Both sides have strong messages. Neither has a clear advantage. Given this, which side will be more persuasive? In my humble opinion, it will be the side that makes best use of contextual factors. In this regard, the Leave campaign has a clear advantage.

While the Remain campaign has a solid message, it’s misreading the context. More specifically, it’s using the wrong messengers (again, in my humble opinion).

Here’s the context. Voters who support the Leave campaign perceive that their economic situation has deteriorated since Britain joined the European Union. They also perceive that joining the Union was a project conceived and championed by the “elite”. It’s easy to conclude that the elite classes have “sold us out”.

And who is speaking for the Remain campaign? By and large, it’s the elite. We hear from top managers, bankers, executives, rich people, and assorted toffs. We even hear from the head of the IMF, who happens to be French. Now, we even hear from the president of the United Sates.

Who are these people? They’re the elites – exactly the people whom the Leavers don’t trust. The easy response from the Leave campaign: “Well, you remember what happened the last time we trusted them.”

If the Remain campaign continues to pursue an elite strategy, I suspect the Leave campaign will win – and by a wide margin. What’s the lesson in all this? Whether you’re PayPal or the British Prime Minister, consider the context.

My Social Media

YouTube Twitter Facebook LinkedIn

Newsletter Signup