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 You’re 70 years out of date.”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.
In the 1992 movie, Glengarry Glen Ross, Alec Baldwin played a very hard-nosed sales manager determined to teach a bunch of rookies how to sell. He used intimidation, fear, stress, and money as motivators. He didn’t believe in being nice. He believed in closing.
Baldwin also introduced a term that I’ve heard many times since: Always Be Closing or ABC. The idea is simple – you’re always looking for prospects, qualifying them, moving them through the sales process, and closing them. Then you start over. You’re like a shark – always moving, always eating.
Always Be Closing is associated with pushy, high-pressure sales tactics. You might find them in use at car dealerships or time-share condo conventions. We’re all familiar with them and we all profess to hate them.
Now what about nonprofits? Is Always Be Closing an appropriate technique for raising funds for a nonprofit organization? I don’t think so. For me, nonprofit fundraising is all about relationships. It’s about building for the long run, not closing in the short term.
So I’ve created a new ABC for non-profits: Always Be Conversing. A conversation, of course, has two parts: talking and listening. Always Be Conversing suggests that we’re always ready to talk about our nonprofit organization (NPO) and listen to our constituents’ needs. By conversing with constituents, friends, and our broader network of acquaintances, we build relationships. Over time, those relationships allow us – quite naturally – to ask for donations.
Always Be Conversing also implies that we actively seek out conversations. To create rich conversations, we need to prepare ourselves. Here are some pointers:
Over the coming weeks, I’ll write more about fundraising for nonprofits through story telling and relationship building. In the meantime, start telling your stories. You’ll be surprised at the impact you can have.
(My NPO is the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. If you need information about multiple sclerosis or help in dealing with it, just drop me a line. I want to Always Be Conversing).
Long ago, when I was a product manager at NBI, I gave a speech on local area networks (LANs) at a customer conference. LANs were just becoming popular at the time and industry analysts were debating which standards would prevail.
NBI was betting on a standard called CSMA/CD. IBM was betting on token ring. The objective of my speech was to persuade the audience that CSMA/CD was the better choice and, therefore, more likely to prevail in the long run. Token ring, on the other hand, was risky and might become a dead end product – much like IBM’s OS/2 operating system.
I knew the technology cold and I gave a great speech if I do say so myself. I highlighted the technology advantages of CSMA/CD. I set criteria around the key functions that CSMA/CD could perform and token ring couldn’t. I know that most audiences admire IBM so I didn’t take any cheap shots at Big Blue. A cheap shot would weaken my credibility, not theirs.
At the end of the speech, I was busy patting myself on the back when a very nice woman came up and asked a simple question: “What’s a LAN?” Throughout my speech, I had defined an array of advanced technical concepts but had forgotten to define the basics. My face turned red as I realized that I had just made the rookiest of rookie mistakes. I had asked the audience to come to my house rather than going to their house.
In the trade, this is known as the curse of knowledge. I knew the audience wouldn’t know the finer points of CSMA/CD but I assumed – erroneously – that they grasped the basics. I didn’t need to explain them. I never even thought about it.
In Made To Stick, the Brothers Heath tell the story of “tappers” and “listeners” which was the subject of Elizabeth Newton’s dissertation in psychology. Tappers received a list of popular songs and were asked to tap out the song on a tabletop. No whistling or humming allowed; just tap on the table. Listeners were supposed to guess the song.
Tappers were confident that they could convey the song successfully at least 50 percent of the time. But, in fact, listeners guessed the song correctly only 2.5 percent of the time.
Why were the tappers so confident? Because they could hear the song in their head. They heard the taps but they also heard so much more. As the Heaths point out, “Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.”
When I gave my speech on LANs, I could hear the entire song in my head. I knew how it sounded. I knew how to orchestrate it. I knew where to pause. I knew where to put in jokes. I knew it cold.
The only thing I didn’t know was what was in my audience’s head. That’s the curse.
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.
When preparing a speech, I encourage my clients to hand write their notes and scripts. There’s something about handwriting that helps you connect with your thoughts and themes. The technique is especially helpful when preparing slides for a speech. Rather than sitting down at a keyboard, start with a set of yellow sticky notes. Then write down your thoughts — one per page — and arrange the notes on a wall. You’ll think more clearly and connect thoughts more effectively. You’ll also create better slides, with less text and more flow.
I never knew quite why handwriting worked so effectively. I just knew that it did. Then I stumbled across an article by William Klemm in Psychology Today about the importance of writing in cursive (as illustrated above). Klemm argues that learning to write cursive makes kids smarter. When learning cursive, “…the brain develops functional specialization that integrates both sensation, movement control, and thinking. Brain imaging studies reveal that multiple areas of the brain become co-activated during learning of cursive writing of pseudo-letters, as opposed to typing or just visual practice.” It also improves fine motor skills and gets kids to learn to pay attention more effectively.
Similarly, Susanne Baruch Asherson, writing in the New York Times, argues that “Cursive handwriting stimulates brain synapses and synchronicity between the left and right hemispheres, something absent from printing and typing.” Iris Hatfield, writing in New American Cursive, says there are ten reasons to learn cursive. Among them: increased speed, better fine motor skills, better self discipline, and improved self-confidence.
These articles are about teaching cursive to children. Do these benefits apply to adults? I encourage my clients to write drafts of their speeches (or press releases or white papers, etc.) by hand. I think most of them don’t take my advice — it just seems antiquated. But those that do, report positive results. Their communications are simpler and clearer. I also encourage my students to write drafts of their essays by hand. Again, most of them don’t take my advice. But I can generally guess which ones do. They turn in better papers.
So think about your communications. It’s a complex world and communicating effectively is a fundamental competitive advantage. Give cursive a chance. You may just find that you win more business.