Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Rhetoric

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

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.

Illogical Excuses (That Work)

May I cut in line because ... well, just because.

May I cut in line because … well, just because.

I’ve read Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion at least three times over the years. Every now and then I go back and re-read a chapter at random. Each time I do, I learn (or re-learn) something useful. Here’s an interesting study that I re-discovered on my last excursion.

The study goes back to the days when students stood in long lines at college libraries to use photocopy machines. (Yes, we actually copied physical pages rather than saving electronic pages to our hard drives). On particularly busy days — just before the end of a term, say — you might stand in line for well over an hour.

Some researchers decided to study a fairly basic question — under what conditions would students allow another student to cut into the line? Using the terminology of communication, persuasion, and compliance, the research question might be phrased: What communication techniques are most effective in persuading students to comply with a request to cut into the line?

The researchers sent students to the head of the line to test out three different messages. The students randomly asked:

A)  May I please cut in line ahead of you?

B)  May I please cut in line ahead of you because I have a doctor’s appointment and I’m really in a hurry.

C)  May I please cut in line ahead of you because I really need to cut in line.

Being good researchers, you might create three hypotheses:

1)  Message A will generate the lowest compliance rate — the message contains no reason for cutting in.

2)  Message B will generate the highest compliance rate — the message contains a compelling reason to cut in.

3)  Message C’s compliance rate will fall somewhere between A and B — the message contains a reason but it’s illogical.

As it happens, you would be right on Hypothesis 1. Students in the line were much less likely to comply with the request when the would-be cutter offered no reason.

On Hypothesis 2, you would be partially right. A compelling reason — the need to visit a doctor — does generate much higher compliance rates.

But does Message B generate the highest compliance rate? Well, … no… and here’s the surprise: the compliance rate for Message C was just as high as that for Message B. It appears that the logic behind the reason is not so important. The mere fact that you give a reason seems to be the important point.

Look a bit more closely at the three messages. Messages B and C contain the word because. Message A doesn’t. It seems that the students in the line responded to that specific word. If they heard because, they knew that a reason would follow. The nature of the reason didn’t seem to matter much. Just stating a reason — no matter how illogical — was sufficient to gain greater compliance. With Message A, students didn’t hear the word that introduces a reason and, therefore, were less compliant.

So the word because can be an important persuader in and of itself. If the person you’re speaking with hears the key word, they expect that a reason will follow … and they may not inspect it very closely. It’s sufficient that a reason is stated.

Of course, this doesn’t work on all occasions. If you come home with lipstick on your collar and reeking of whiskey, you better have a much better reason. In more mundane situations, however, remember the power of because. Why should you remember it? Well, just because.

Little Life Lessons from Lincoln

My speech is under my hat.

My speech is under my hat.

On July 4, 1863, Robert E. Lee was leading a Confederate army in retreat from Gettysburg when they were trapped against the rain-swollen Potomac River. The Union army, commanded by General George Meade, pursued the rebels. Abraham Lincoln ordered Meade to attack immediately. Instead, Meade dithered, the weather cleared, the river shrank, and Lee and his army escaped. Lincoln was furious and penned this letter to Meade:

I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within our easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely. If you could not safely attack Lee last Monday, how can you possibly do so south of the river, when you can take with you very few— no more than two-thirds of the force you then had in hand? It would be unreasonable to expect and I do not expect that you can now effect much. Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.

Interestingly, Lincoln never sent the letter — it was found among his papers after his death. Lincoln generally praised his colleagues for their positive accomplishments and said little or nothing about their failures. Apparently, he wrote letters like the one to Meade to relieve his own frustrations — and perhaps to leave a record for history — rather than to humiliate his colleagues and create public acrimony.

As Douglas Wilson, a Lincoln scholar, pointed out in a recent article (click here), Lincoln was  great communicator but not necessarily in the way we think. Some tidbits on how he worked:

  • He rarely spoke in public and when he did he was very well prepared. We think of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural speech as great feats of oratory — and they were. But there weren’t many such feats; he gave relatively few speeches. And he almost never spoke off the cuff. He knew that people followed his words closely and he prepared meticulously. His speeches were extraordinary. Equally extraordinary is the fact that he almost never said anything stupid that he had to retract. Our politicians and executives today could learn a lot from him.
  • He pre-wrote his speeches. Lincoln always had scraps of paper with him — which he often stored in his hat. When an idea — or an elegant way to phrase an idea —  came to him, he jotted it down. He didn’t start thinking about his speeches when a deadline drew near. He was thinking about them virtually all the time.
  • He was mercifully brief. The Gettysburg Address consisted of 267 words. By contrast, this post has about 600. Which one do you think will live longer?
  • He cultivated the press before he needed them. In general, Lincoln got to know his audience before he spoke to them. He gave favors to journalists before he asked for favors in return. Getting to know your audience and letting them know that you genuinely care about them are always good strategies.
  • He understood event jujitsu. The Civil War began with the crisis at Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. Lincoln could have sent in a fleet to shoot up the Confederate fortifications. Instead, he sent in a small re-supply mission. When the Confederates sought to block the mission, they fired the first shots of the war. It’s a small leap to conclude that the Confederates “started” the war. Thus, a small incident became a major victory in the battle to shape perceptions.

Lincoln has always been one of my favorite presidents and I certainly enjoyed the recent movie from Steven Spielberg.  Lincoln communicated effectively and was an expert at shaping public opinion. As the movie showed, he was also adept at cutting deals and rolling logs to achieve his greater goals. Not bad for a kid from the prairies.

 

My Social Media

YouTube Twitter Facebook LinkedIn

Newsletter Signup
Archives