Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

communication skills

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.

Jargon — When and Where?

We all complain about jargon.  So why do we use it so frequently?  On the one hand, we use it to show that we belong to an “in-group”.  We’ve been initiated and we know what we’re talking about.  If others understand it, we know they’re part of the group.  If they don’t understand, we know they’re outsiders.  So jargon can be an important “group grooming” tool.  It can also make you seem arrogant and stuffy to anyone who is not initiated.

More importantly, we use jargon because it can be a good communication tool; it’s a very precise and efficient way to communicate with other people who know the code.  For people who don’t know the code, however, it’s confusing and irritating.  As you hone your communication skills, remember that jargon is very appropriate in some situations; very inappropriate in others.  The video will help you understand the difference.

Your frame of reference or mine?

You go to a department store and buy $300 worth of stuff.  To pay for it, you present a general purpose credit card.  The clerk tells you that you can save 10% immediately if you apply for a department store credit card.  From the clerk’s perspective, it’s a very logical argument — save $30 just by doing a little paper work.  Your perspective may be different — it’s one more card to manage, one more bill to pay each month, and so on.  If you’re like me, you’ll decline the offer.  The long-term hassles outweigh the short-term benefits.

What we have here is a frame-of-reference issue.  The clerk’s frame of reference is much narrower than yours.  The clerk’s argument is very logical; indeed, it’s airtight.  But your frame of reference allows more information in and you decline the offer.

To be persuasive in an argument, your communication skills should include the ability to argue logically within your audience’s frame of reference.  To do that, you need to know your audience better than your business or product. Learn more in this week’s video.

Content With Your Content?

Be like Walter.

Be like Walter.

How much can you say in a 30 minute presentation? How much should you say?  Should you aim for more content or less? What’s the difference between a TV newscast and a newspaper? Your persuasive presentation is more like a newscast. It summarizes the key issues and creates a desire to learn more. You speak at about 120 words per minute. That means about 3600 words in a 30 minute presentation. That’s long enough to use your communication skills to summarize the headlines but not enough to give every last detail. Don’t talk faster to fit more in. You need to shrink the content to fit the space available. Learn how in this video.

Evoking Emotions

After you use your communication skills to establish that you’re trustworthy and deliver the logic of your argument, it’s time to touch on the emotions of your audience.  You can do this by the way you behave — your enthusiasm and tone of voice can convey your emotions.  You should also touch on the audience’s emotions by answering a simple question: why is this good for you?  Learn more in the video.

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