Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Rhetoric

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

Persuasion, Teens, and Tattoos

ElliotandTWBerlin2014When our son, Elliot, was 17 he decided that he needed to get a Guinness logo tattooed on his ankle. I wasn’t adamantly opposed but I did think that he might tire of wearing a commercial logo before too long. (If he had wanted a Mom Forever tattoo, I might have felt differently).

So how to convince him? I wanted to change his mind, though not his values. Nor did I want to provoke a stormy response that would simply make the situation worse – and actually make him more likely to follow through on his plans.

Ultimately, we had a conversation that went something like this:

Elliot: So, Dad, I’m thinking I should get a Guinness tattoo. It’s a really cool logo. What do you think?

Me: I don’t know. Do you think you’ll like Guinness for the rest of your life?

Elliot: Sure. It’s great. Why wouldn’t I?

Me: Well, you know, tastes change. I mean I thought about getting a tattoo when I was your age… and, looking back on it… I’m kind of glad I didn’t.

Elliot (shocked look): Really? You were going to get a tattoo?! What were you going to get?

Me: I wanted to get a dotted line tattooed around my neck. Right above the line, I’d get the words, “Cut On Dotted Line” tattooed in.

Elliot: (more shock, disgust): Dad, that’s gross.

Me: Oh, come on. Don’t you think it would be cool if I had that tattoo. I could show it to your friends. I bet they’d like it.

Elliot: They always thought you were weird. Now they’d think your gross. It’s yuck factor 12.

Me: Really? So, you don’t want to go to the tattoo parlor together?

Our conversation seemed to help Elliot change his mind. As far as I know, he hasn’t gotten any tattoos, not even Mom Forever. Why? Here are some thoughts:

It’s about trust, not tattoos – I don’t think that Elliot cared that much about the tattoo itself. He was actually running a Mom/Dad test. He wanted to know if we trusted him to make the decision on his own. We did trust him and didn’t take the decision out of his hands. That’s a big deal when you’re 17. It can also be a big deal for people in your company. They want to know that you trust them. Sometimes they’ll put it to a test. As much as possible, let them make the choice. Just counsel them on how to make it wisely.

It’s about judo — we didn’t try to stop Elliot, we merely tried to change his direction. That’s a useful guideline in most organizations.

It’s about imagining the future – like most teens, Elliot was focused on the present and near future. He couldn’t imagine 30 years into the future – except by looking at me. If he thought I would look gross with a tattoo, he could imagine that he would, too. The same is true of many companies. We make decisions based on near-term projections. It’s hard to imagine the farther future. But there are ways to do it. Ask your team to imagine what the world will look like in 30 years. You could start by reminding them how much it’s changed since 1985.

It’s about sharing – did I really think about getting a Cut On Dotted Line tattoo? Of course, I did. But my father sat me down and talked a little wisdom into my head. I just passed it on.

What are you going to pass on?

The Mother Of All Fallacies

An old script, it is.

An old script, it is.

How are Fox News and Michael Moore alike?

They both use the same script.

Michael Moore comes at issues from the left. Fox News comes from the right. Though they come from different points on the political spectrum, they tell the same story.

In rhetoric, it’s called the Good versus Evil narrative. It’s very simple. On one side we have good people. On the other side, we have evil people. There’s nothing in between. The evil people are cheating or robbing or killing or screwing the good people. The world would be a better place if we could only eliminate or neuter or negate or kill the evil people.

We’ve been using the Good versus Evil narrative since we began telling stories. Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphics follow the script. So do many of the stories in the Bible. So do Republicans. So do Democrats. So do I, for that matter. It’s the mother of all fallacies.

The narrative inflames the passions and dulls the senses. It makes us angry. It makes us feel that outrage is righteous and proper. The narrative clouds our thinking. Indeed, it aims to stop us from thinking altogether. How can we think when evil is abroad? We need to act. We can think later.

I became sensitized to the Good versus Evil narrative when I lived in Latin America. I met more than a few people who are convinced that America is the embodiment of evil. They see it as a country filled with greedy, immoral thieves and murderers who are sucking the blood of the innocent and good people of Latin America. I had a difficult time squaring this with my own experiences. Perhaps the narrative is wrong.

Rhetoric teaches us to be suspicious when we hear Good versus Evil stories. The word is a messy, chaotic, and random place. Actions are nuanced and ambiguous. People do good things for bad reasons and bad things for good reasons. A simple narrative can’t possibly capture all the nuances and uncertainties of the real world. Indeed, the Good versus Evil doesn’t even try. It aims to tell us what to think and ensure that we never, ever think for ourselves.

When Jimmy Carter was elected president, John Wayne attended his inaugural even though he had supported Carter’s opponent. Wayne gave a gracious speech. “Mr. President”, he said, “you know that I’m a member of the loyal opposition. But let’s remember that the accent is on ‘loyal’”. How I would love to hear anyone say that today. It’s the antithesis of Good versus Evil.

Voltaire wrote that, “Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices.” The Good versus Evil narrative is absurd. It doesn’t explain the world; it inflames the world. Ultimately, it can make injustices seem acceptable.

The next time you hear a Good versus Evil story, grab your thinking cap. You’re going to need it.

(By the way, Tyler Cowen has a terrific TED talk on this topic that helped crystallize my thinking. You can find it here.)

Chris Christie: The I Guy

Me, myself, and I

Me, myself, and I

In my video, Five Tips for the Job Interview, my first tip is to be careful how often you say “I” as opposed to “we”. If the company you’re interviewing with is looking for team players — and many companies say they are — then saying “I” too often can hurt your chances. You can come across as self-centered and egocentric. Someone, in other words, who doesn’t play well with others.

I thought about this tip the other day when I watched Chris Chrstie’s press conference addressing the bridge closure scandal. (If you haven’t heard about it, you can get a good summary here). As the Republican governor of a very Democratic New Jersey, Chritsie is widely regarded as an appealing candidate for the Republican nomination for president in 2016. In a way, he’s interviewing for the biggest job of all. Perhaps he should have watched my video.

In the press conference, Christie needed to address a scandal that appears to be about naked political payback. The Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey didn’t endorse Christie for governor in the recent campaign. As a result (it appears), Christie’s minions shut down traffic in Fort Lee for four days. Christie needed to apologize and distance himself from such nasty political deeds.

Dana Milbank, a columnist for the Washington Post, paid close attention to the press conference. In fact, he went through the transcript and analyzed Christie’s language. The press conference lasted 108 minutes; Christie said some form of “I” or “me” (I, I’m, I’ve, me, myself) 692 times. That’s 6.4 times per minute or a little more than once every ten seconds.

The net result is that Christie comes across as an egomaniac. That may be the case but, generally, you don’t want to come across that way in an important interview. There’s a lot that I like about Governor Christie — he seems to be one of the few politicians in America who can actually pronounce the word “bipartisan”. I hope he can learn to pronounce “we” and “you” as well.

 

 

I Still Speak Southern

Do I sound like Rhett?

Do I sound like Rhett?

When people ask me where I’m from, I often respond by saying, “I’m from the Air Force”. As a military brat, I bounced around a lot and mainly grew up on or around Air Force bases. I didn’t develop a strong attachment to any one place. I didn’t feel like I was “from” Nebraska – where I was born at Offutt Air Force Base. Nor did I feel like I was from any of the other bases we stopped at along the way.

People sometimes ask me where I’m from because they can’t place my accent. It’s an Air Force accent and, as such, it’s fairly neutral. Since the early 19th century, however, my family has lived in Texas, which certainly has a unique accent and a number of Spanish/Indian/Anglo/Texas regionalisms. You’re probably from Texas if you know who’s in the hoosegow. Or who the original Travis was. Or what a Comanche moon is.

I’ve lived in Colorado since the mid-seventies and I’ve always assumed that my Texan-ness was thoroughly washed away. After all, I never lived in Texas so I must have inherited any Texanisms in my vocabulary from my parents and grandparents. Since they’re long gone, I assumed my Texansims were, too. I thought I spoke more like a Coloradan than a Texan.

It turns out that I was wrong. It’s not my accent that gives me away as a son of the south. Rather, it’s my word choice. Even after all these years, I still use regional words to describe people, things, and activities.

I discovered this by taking a quiz on regional dialects in the New York Times. (You can find it here). The quiz asks 25 questions about the words you use and how you pronounce them. For instance, one question is “What do you call a sweetened carbonated beverage?” Is it a coke, a pop, a soda, etc.? A question on pronunciation is: “How do you pronounce cot and caught?” Do you pronounce them the same way or differently?

I took the quiz and – much to my surprise – found out that I speak more like a person from east Texas or west Louisiana than like a person from Colorado. I was struck by the result and so I passed the quiz along to my online students, who are scattered all over the country. The students who took the quiz said it was spot on and could easily distinguish a Utahn from an Indianan from a Mississippian.

Regional accents may have evolved to help us identify who is like us and who is not. Who’s a friend and who’s a stranger? Who can be trusted and who needs to prove themselves? We’re so mobile in the United States (and we watch so much TV) that I thought most regionalisms had disappeared. It’s interesting to find that they haven’t. I wonder how that affects our politics, communication, and commerce.

It’s a topic worth studying and I hope you’ll take the quiz and let me know the results. In the meantime, I’ll just say that it’s been a pleasure visiting for a spell and I hope I’ll see y’all again in the by and by.

We’re Doomed!

Republican or Democrat?

Republican or Democrat?

As I survey the American political scene, I’m encouraged to find one topic that both the left and the right agree on: We’re doomed!

The right seems to think we’re doomed because of a looming debtpocalypse. We’re guilty of living high on the hog and now it’s payback time. We’re in over our heads, the economy is about to crash, inflation is about to skyrocket, and oh by the way, our foreign policy provides clear signs that the end times are nigh. All the more reason not to strengthen our gun laws; we’re going to need all the guns we can get to fight off moochers and looters.

The solution (apparently) is to vote for Republicans to balance the budget and avert catastrophe. However, the last Republican president to balance the budget was Dwight Eisenhower so I’m not sure how much expertise the GOP can claim in the matter.

The left seems to think that the world will end (soon apparently) in an ecotastrophe. We’ve eaten all the low-hanging fruit, lived off the fat of the land, and now we’re going to have to pay the piper. We’re guilty of living high on the hog and now it’s payback time. And, oh by the way, the growing inequality in wealth is a sure sign that the end times are nigh.

The solution seems to be to vote for Democrats who will make us healthier, happier, and more equal. However, Democrats have dominated the federal government for much of my life and, though we’ve gotten much richer, we’ve also gotten fatter and less equal. So I’m not sure that Democrats can claim much expertise either.

I suspect that all this doomsaying is the reason that zombie books and movies are so popular recently. Clearly the world is ending, so let’s imagine how it might happen. We also love being scared. The Russians are coming! No, the Chinese are coming! No, the secular humanists are coming! No, the zombies are coming! Annie, get your gun!

Traditionally, churches were the primary producers of guilt. We were sinners in the hands of an angry God. Recently, our political parties have stepped into the breach as the leading guilt creators. You eat too much! You spend too much! You pollute too much! You whine too much!

Frankly, I’m not buying it. Here’s why:

The purpose of political parties is to make people angryanger is the one emotion that promotes action. Action creates votes and votes create power. Just as bad news sells newspapers, it also creates votes. Political parties have always predicted doom and gloom. It’s how they win elections. Both parties are doing a very good job of making people angry now. So what? That’s what they do.

Things have gotten better – since 1960 per capita wealth in the United States has tripled. Sexism and racism – though still evident – have abated dramatically. Our rivers no longer catch fire. Our air is breathable. Violent crime has dropped significantly, especially since 1990. Even those things that threaten us have gotten less awful. The Soviet Union could have wiped us out. Terrorists can’t.

Do we have problems? Of course, we do. We always have and we always will. So let’s calm down a bit. The way forward requires thinking, not screaming. If you want to be scared, don’t listen to politicians. Just go to a zombie movie.

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