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Aristotle, HBR, and Me

Excellence is a habit.

Excellence is a habit.

I love it when the Harvard Business Review agrees with me. A recent HBR blog post by Scott Edinger focuses on, “Three Elements of Great Communication, According to Aristotle“. The three are: ethos, logos, and pathos.

Ethos answers the questions: Are you credible? Why should I trust your recommendations? Logos is the logic of your argument. Is it factual? Do you have the evidence to back it up? (Interestingly, the more ethos you have,the less evidence you need to back up your logos. People will trust that you’re credible). Pathos is your ability to connect emotionally with your audience. If you have high credibility and impeccable logic, your audience might conclude that you could take advantage of them. Pathos reassures them that you won’t — your audience knows that you’re a good citizen.

When I teach people the arts of public speaking, I generally recommend that they start by establishing their credibility (ethos). The trick is to do this without overdoing it. If you come across as a braggart, you reduce your credibility rather than burnishing it. A good tip to remember is to use the word, “we” rather than “I”. “We” implies teamwork; “I” implies an egocentric psychopath.

After establishing your credibility, you proceed to the logic (logos) of your argument. What is it that you’re recommending and why do you think it’s a good solution for the audience’s needs? It’s often a good idea to start by defining the audience’s needs. Then you can fit the recommendation to the need. Keep it simple and use stories. Nobody remembers abstract logic and difficult technical concepts. They do remember stories.

Think about pathos both before the speech and in the conclusion. Ideally, you can meet the audience before your speech, ask insightful questions, and make personal connections. The more you can talk to members of the audience before the speech, the better off you’ll be. Look for anecdotes that you can use in your speech — that also builds your credibility. If nothing else, spend the last few minutes before your speech shaking hands with audience members and thanking them for coming to your speech. At the end of your speech, you can return to similar themes and express your appreciation. It’s also appropriate (usually) to point out how your recommendation will affect members of the audience personally. For instance, “We believe that our solution will help your company be more efficient. It will also help you build your career.”

Those of you who have followed my website for a while may remember my videos on ethos, logos, and pathos. I made them when I worked at Lawson Software and was teaching communication skills internally. Again, I’d like to thank Lawson for allowing me to use these videos on this website as I build my own practice.

By the way, all these suggestions apply to deliberative speeches. You present a logical argument and ask your audience to deliberate on it. On the other hand, you can also give a demonstrative speech where you throw the logic out altogether. They’re often called barn burners or stem winders. You can learn more here.

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.

Innovation, Persuasion, and Listening

I’m listening.

I struggle to be a good listener. When I’m engaged in an intense conversation, I’m often: 1) Framing my response; or 2) Thinking about a solution to the problem at hand. Of course, when I’m thinking about something else, I’m not really listening — I’m maneuvering. More importantly, I’m not being persuasive. If the other side thinks I’m not listening, they’re less likely to be persuaded to my point of view.

So I was pleased to find a recent McKinsey white paper by Bernard Ferrari titled “The Executive’s Guide to Better Listening”. (Click here). As Ferrari points out, “Listening is the front end of decision making.” If you want your company to be more innovative, you’ll need to make a number of critical decisions. If you’re a good listener, you’ll make better decisions and be more persuasive. That’s the best double play since Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio.

So how do you become a good listener? Ferrari suggests three critical skills. First, show respect. Respect breeds confidence and trust. (This is essentially the same lesson that Greek rhetoric teaches — build trust first). If you’re a manager, you probably have a complex set of responsibilities. You can’t know everything about every facet of your domain. By respecting your teammates, you will naturally draw them into the conversation and learn from them. If you simply jump to a solution (as I sometimes do) you short circuit the entire process. Not only do you miss out on any advice about the current situation, you also teach your colleagues not to offer advice in the future. This doesn’t mean you should avoid incisive questions. Au contraire, the more the better to keep the conversation flowing.

Second, keep quiet. Ferrari suggest a variation of the 80/20 rule — let the other person speak about 80% of the time while you speak only 20% of the time. (This also works when you’re on a date — always encourage your partner to speak more than you do). This is a particularly hard one for me. I want to jump in and share my opinion because I know it’s … well, brilliant. But often times, I wind up answering the wrong question or chasing an irrelevant tangent because I’ve spoken too soon. As Ferrari notes, it’s important to take your time: “…if a matter gets to your level … it is probably worth spending some of your time on it.”

Third, challenge assumptions. This doesn’t just mean that you challenge other people’s assumptions. It also means that you encourage your colleagues to challenge your assumptions. As Ferrari writes, “… too many executives … inadvertently act as if they know it all … and subsequently remain closed to anything that undermines their beliefs.” Ultimately, “The goal is common action, not common thinking…” So, be explicit. Let your colleagues know that you don’t know everything and welcome their questions, especially the challenging ones.

I’ve found that it’s not easy to master these three skills. But when I do succeed, I learn more and, frankly, I have more fun. That makes me a better manager and a better teammate. And that makes my company more innovative.


Moderating the Extremes

It’s complicated.

Your friend, Mary, avidly and vocally supports a national flat tax. Or maybe she’s convinced that free trade is the only sensible way to stimulate the world economy. Or maybe she actively supports more government programs to ensure equality of opportunity.

Let’s also assume that you disagree with Mary. You’d like her to see your side. But she’s so convinced that she’s right — and everybody else is wrong — that it’s difficult to have a conversation with her. Your attempts at dialogue just devolve into long-winded diatribes.

So how do you move Mary? Here are two different communication strategies:

  1. Ask Mary why she thinks her position is correct.
  2. Ask Mary how her ideas would work in the real world.

If you pursue Strategy 1, Mary will simply launch into her “pre-recorded” sound bites and positions. Strategy 1 does not require Mary to think. It merely requires her to repeat. She continues to convince herself. As a result, Mary’s position will likely become even more extreme.

Strategy 2, on the other hand, requires Mary to think through a variety of complicated, real-world issues. A common feature of extreme political positions is that they’re over-simplified. By requiring Mary to think through complicated issues, Strategy 2 often reveals weaknesses in the logic. It’s not so simple as it seemed. As a result, Mary’s position often becomes more moderate and more nuanced.

The effectiveness of Strategy 2 derives from the “illusion of explanatory depth”. In their article on the phenomenon (click here), Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil explain that, “People feel they understand complex phenomena with far greater precision, coherence, and depth than they really do; they are subject to an illusion—an illusion of explanatory depth.” When you ask people how their ideas would actually work, they start to bump into the limits of their illusion. They don’t understand it nearly as well as they thought. As their explanation falters, so does the certitude of their position.

In this final week of the presidential campaign, many people are stating extreme positions. If you want to have a substantive discussion with another person — as opposed to a battle of sound bites — don’t ask why they believe something. Rather, ask them how it works.

How to get a sports car

fast carWant to get a sports car?  Start by asking for a motorcycle.

It’s a variation of a basic rule called reciprocity — as identified by Robert Cialdini in his book, Influence. Every society adheres to some form of reciprocity — it helps cement relationships.  It’s useful to know that, if you do someone a favor, you’ll likely be repaid in the future.

The reciprocity principle may seem obvious.  But there are many subtleties and variations.  Learn three of the major variations — and how to get a sports car — in this week’s video.

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