Strategy. Innovation. Brand.


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

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.

Fundraising: From Observer To Participant

What's your opinion?

What’s your opinion?

Let’s say that you run a non-profit organization that wants to build stronger relationships in the community. You want to reach out to existing clients and to people that you haven’t served before. You want to build long-term relationships and a strong base of support.

You’ll probably want to start by enriching and expanding your communication programs. You might invest more in community outreach and in public service announcements. You could launch a newsletter. Volunteering to speak at various events and civic clubs is also a good idea.

Many communication programs, however, are rather passive. People in the community can see what you’re doing but they’re not interacting with you. They’re observers rather than participants.

It’s good to be seen. To build a strong web of relationships, however, you need to do more. You need to entice people to interact with your message and your program. Interaction leads to involvement. Involvement leads to commitment. Commitment leads to lifelong passion and support.

Building passionate support takes time and persistence. You can stimulate temporary interest with a catchy campaign. But deep, rich, long-term support requires a different level of commitment. You should start long before you need the community to passionately support you.

Think of a community engagement campaign as a wedge. Too often, we aim at the wrong end of the wedge – the thick end. We want to “move the needle”, “shake things up”, and “put our organization on the map.” We hope that a moving message and a clever campaign will quickly create the support we need.

Too often, such campaigns fail because we forget about the difference between observers and participants. Even a brilliant campaign with a well-crafted message allows our clients and potential clients to remain observers. People may remember a catchy slogan, but they haven’t interacted in any meaningful way. Like a pop song, a catchy slogan is quickly replaced by a brighter, fresher campaign.

The trick to building commitment is to start at the thin end of the wedge. Start by asking for small commitments, not big ones. Create activities that entice people to interact, not merely observe. Build stepwise programs that start small and gradually grow larger. Take your time.

Here are two ways to start small. They’re not clever or slick. In fact, they’re rather mundane. But they both ask community members to interact with your program, not simply observe it.

1) Telephone survey – your organization probably impacts the community in several ways. You construct a phone survey that itemizes your impacts and asks for feedback. The survey is simplicity itself: “Our organization impacts the community in three ways: A, B, and C. Which one of these is most important to you and your family?” You’re not asking for money or time; you’re simply asking for an opinion. Respondents hear your message and give an opinion. They’re no longer observers. They’re now participants. They’ve taken the critical first step. They’re on the wedge.

2) 25 words or less – your next step might be to sponsor a write-in contest with an interesting prize. Ask community members to write an essay of 25 words or less (or maybe 50 or 100) with the topic, “Why NPO X is important to me”. The best essay wins the prize. You’ll get some great ideas. More importantly, you’ll entice hundreds of people to nudge themselves into deeper and broader support. They’re moving up the wedge.

(By the way, don’t make the prize for the essay contest too big. You want participants to think, “I’m writing this essay because it’s important to me” rather than, “I’m writing this essay because of the prize.”)

What next? I’ll have some thoughts on that in future articles. In the meantime, start getting your clients to participate rather than observe.

Rhetorical Jujitsu

Lovely place Brixham

Lovely place Brixham

The United Kingdom is deeply embroiled in the Brexit debate. It’s the classic question: should we stay or should we go? Polls suggest that the electorate is almost evenly split. What can this teach us about persuasion?

Let’s take an example from a man with an opinion. Michael Sharp is a fisherman from the lovely little port of Brixham on the south coast of England who favors leaving the EU. The New York Times quotes him as saying,

“I definitely want out. … All those wars we’ve had with France, Germany — all the rest of them since God knows when, since Jesus was a lad — we’re never going to get on with them, are we?”

Now imagine that you support the opposite side – you think the UK should stay in the EU. How might you persuade Mr. Sharp to agree with you? Here are four different rhetorical approaches you might try:

A) “What a silly thing to say. We’re friends with France and Germany now. You’re 70 years out of date.”

B) “What a parochial and small-minded attitude you have. You should broaden your horizons.”

C) “All the experts say we should stay in. The top bankers and managers say it will wreck the economy to leave.”

D) “I know what you’re saying. But I’ll tell you what I’m worried about. The Russians. If we’re squabbling with the French and Germans, the Russians will divide and conquer. That’s what they’re good at. It’ll be worse for all of us.”

Which alternative is best? As always, it depends on what you want to accomplish. Let’s look at the choices.

Alternatives A & B – in both cases, you strongly suggest to Mr. Sharp that he’s wrong, stubborn, and not very smart. If your goal is to feel superior to Mr. Sharp, this is a good strategy. On the other hand, if wish to persuade Mr. Sharp to your way of thinking, you’ve just shot yourself in the foot.

Alternative C – an appeal to authority can work in some situations. But not here. Many Brexit supporters think the authorities – better known as the elites – can’t be trusted. “They don’t care about us. They’ve sold us out. If they say we should stay, all the more reason to leave.” In this case, quoting the elites is self-defeating. (It’s probably a poor tactic in arguing with a Donald Trump supporter as well).

Alternative D – this is a rhetorical technique known as concession-and-shift. You begin by agreeing with the other person. In this case, you concede that Mr. Sharp is right. This makes you seem open-minded and reasonable (even if you’re not). Then you shift to new ground and bring in a different perspective. Since you’re open-minded, Mr. Sharp is more likely to be open-minded in return. He’s more likely to listen to your thoughts and understand your position. That’s the first step in persuading him to your point of view.

Concession-and-shift is a form of rhetorical jujitsu. You don’t push back. You don’t deny the other person’s position. You don’t try to humiliate the other side. Rather, you accept their position and move on. In its simplest form, you say, “You have a good point. But have you considered …”

Concession-and-shift can work in many different situations. It’s a useful tool to master and remember. And it helps us achieve the ultimate goal of rhetoric – to argue without anger.

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