Let’s say that you’re the mayor of a big city that’s growing rapidly. Traffic jams last the entire day. Tempers fray and drivers become more and more aggressive. People ignore traffic laws. Pedestrians cross the streets whenever and wherever. Accidents happen constantly. Police can’t keep track of the chaos.
You’ve tried cracking down with more police writing more traffic tickets. That only makes the drivers angrier. Traffic is constantly tangled. The air is increasingly polluted. Your popularity is plummeting. You need a persuasion strategy to convince drivers to play fair and obey the rules. What to do?
How about putting some zebras in the streets? That’s what the mayor of La Paz, Bolivia did. Here’s how the magazine Veinte Mundos described the situation:
“Vehicular and pedestrian traffic is increasing every day in the Bolivian capital. Automobiles don’t respect the traffic signals and pedestrians cross the street wherever they want. It’s total chaos. People’s lives – especially children’s lives – are in constant danger. As a result, local authorities decided to take concrete steps to improve the situation. Thus were born the ‘zebras.'”
Each day in La Paz, roughly 400 to 500 young people dressed in zebra costumes disperse through the city to guide and direct traffic. But they’re not traffic cops. They’re not there to enforce the rules. They’re behavior modifiers. Ultimately, they hope to persuade people to behave – and drive — better.
The zebras dance and chatter and interact with both pedestrians and drivers. They remind people to mind the traffic lights, buckle up, cross with the light, and generally behave like good citizens. They reward good behavior with a dance, a pat on the back, and some kind words. They make fun of bad behavior by miming “Can you believe that? WTF?”
According to El País, the zebra program began in 2001 and quickly captured the attention of Kathia Salazar, a popular local actress. Salazar volunteered to run the program and soon became known as mamá cebra. Salazar says that the program started slowly: “When we first began, people yelled at the zebras, cursed them, and even tried to run them over. Slowly, things changed. Today, pedestrians are the ones who are protecting the zebras.”
The zebra program is sufficiently popular that it is now spreading to other cities, like Tarija, Sucre, and El Alto. It’s also expanding into new services. Zebras are now visiting schools and retirement homes. Their message has expanded, too. It’s not just about traffic. More generally, it’s about good citizenship and a positive attitude. As Amanda Pinos, a 29-year-old zebra puts it: “Our principal task as urban educators is to ask citizens to reflect on their own behavior and create a kinder, more respectful attitude.”
A similar program in Bogotá, Colombia inspired the zebra program in La Paz. The Bogotá program, which used mimes rather than zebras, began in the early 1990s and claimed to have reduced traffic fatalities by as much as 50%. I haven’t seen similar statistics for La Paz but it’s a fair bet that the zebras have calmed and smoothed and enhanced traffic in a traditionally tumultuous city. Think about it. Wouldn’t you drive more safely if zebras were around?
In persuasive presentations, we often appeal to commonplaces — opinions, attitudes, or perceptions that are widely held by a particular group. Like common sense, these attitudes are (supposedly) common to all members of a group. As persuaders, we can speak to a common point of view. We’re on common ground and we can move forward together.
The problem, of course, is that commonplaces aren’t so common. Indeed, many commonplaces have equal and opposite commonplaces to counterbalance them. One commonplace advises us to look before we leap. Another reminds us that he who hesitates is lost. On the one hand, we root for the underdog. On the other hand, we admire the self-made man – who is anything but an underdog.
It seems that we can find a commonplace to suit almost any argument. Want to lower taxes? There’s a commonplace for that. (The government is inefficient. You earned it. You keep it. etc.) Want to raise taxes? There’s a commonplace for that. (We’re all in this together. We need to help each other. etc.) And “good” commonplaces can be twisted to support “bad” causes. As Shakespeare reminds us in The Merchant of Venice, “The devil can cite scripture for his own purpose.”
In my persuasion class, I ask students to write papers in which they argue a point. By and large, my students are quite adept at deploying commonplaces to support their arguments. I notice that they often deploy commonplaces that they believe in. To be persuasive, however, we need to consider the commonplaces that the audience believes in. I shouldn’t assume that you think like me. Rather, I should seek to understand what you think and use that as a starting point for building my argument.
The concept of using the audience’s commonplaces is as old as Greek rhetoric. It got a boost last year when the sociologists Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg published their research on argumentation and moral values. Their basic finding: we are more persuasive when we frame arguments for a political position around “the target audience’s moral values.”
Feinberg and Willer point out that liberals and conservatives have different moral values (or commonplaces in our terminology). They write “…liberals tend to be more concerned with care and equality where conservatives are more concerned with … group loyalty, respect for authority and purity.”
They then tested how to persuade conservatives to take a liberal position or vice-versa. For instance, how would you persuade conservatives to support same-sex marriage? They found that conservatives are more likely to agree with an argument based on patriotism than one based on equality and fairness. Conservatives tended to agree with an argument that, ““same-sex couples are proud and patriotic Americans … [who] contribute to the American economy and society.” They were less likely to agree with an argument couched in terms of fairness and equality.
Aristotle taught us that the best person to judge the quality of food is the one who eats it, not the one who prepares it. The same is true for arguments. You can’t judge how effective your argument is. Only the audience can. The moral of the story? Get over yourself. Learn what the audience is thinking.
I subscribe to Harvard Business Review’s (HBR) Management Tip of the Day and, every business day, I get a one-paragraph idea for improving my communication and management skills. It’s an intriguing way to get exposed to a wide-range of ideas in short period of time. (Click here to subscribe).
A recent tip summarized how to “Avoid Fighting With Your Spouse When You Get Home From Work.” The article notes “It’s unrealistic and unhelpful for couples to expect that they’ll automatically be in sync when they arrive home; different needs, different recovery times, and different experiences…make it more likely that you’ll be out of sync.”
It’s a good point and it reminds me of a story from a young colleague of mine named Molly. Molly and her husband have been married for just a few years and they both work outside the home. They’re settling in to their careers and their jobs are demanding. They noticed that, when they arrive home, their emotional states are often “out of sync.”
Sometimes Molly would arrive home after a tough day and notice something askew in the house. She might stew on it a bit and, when her husband arrived home, she would “pounce” on him. Sometimes, it’s the other way round – husband arrives home first, stews on something, and pounces on an unsuspecting Molly when she arrives. I suspect that all married couples have had similar experiences.
What makes Molly and her husband different is that they realized that neither one of them was at fault. It wasn’t his or her fault. Rather, it was a question of timing and the degree to which they were in or out of sync emotionally.
So they decided to … buy a porcelain elephant. They also agreed to a timing-and-discussion protocol. The porcelain elephant normally sits on a bookshelf. However, if either Molly or her husband is stewing about something, he or she moves the elephant to a coffee table in the living room. It’s a quiet signal that “We need to talk.”
Let’s replay the same scenario. Molly arrives home in a bad mood, notices something askew in the house, stews about it, and … moves the elephant to the coffee table. Her husband arrives home and notices the elephant. He can immediately ask her what’s wrong or – if he’s really not in the right mood – he can ignore it for up to 12 hours. They’ve agreed that, when the elephant comes out, they’ll have a meaningful conversation to resolve the issue, but not necessarily upon walking in the door.
I think it’s a genius move and a very mature strategy for a young couple. It ensures that the conversation happens while leaving some flexibility for both parties to get in sync emotionally. As the HBR article notes, don’t have the conversation “…right when you get home. Set aside some time to talk when you’re both feeling more relaxed.” Molly and her husband have figured out exactly how to do that.
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.
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.