What do Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have in common?
In addition to being old, white, and angry, they both use an ancient rhetorical technique known as attributed belittlement. The technique has survived at least since the days of Aristotle. It survives because it’s simple and effective.
Attributed belittlement works because nobody likes to be humiliated. If I tell you that Joe thinks you’re a low-life, no-account, I’ll probably get a rise out of you. What I say about Joe may not be true, but that’s not the point. I want you to feel humiliated. To accomplish that, I’ve attributed to Joe belittling thoughts about you. I want to make you so angry that you don’t even think about whether I’m telling the truth. I want to manipulate you into focusing your anger on Joe. I want to short-circuit your critical thinking apparatus.
The technique works even better with groups than with individuals like Joe. You can get to know an individual. Perhaps you already know Joe and you like him. That casts doubt on my veracity. But with a group – nameless, faceless bureaucrats, for instance – it’s easy to imagine the worst. They hate us. They look down on us. They take advantage of us. Belittlement works best when we can profile an entire group of people. It’s not logical but it’s effective.
So, let’s imagine the following quote:
They look down on you. They think they’re superior to you. They think you’re here to serve them. They think they can push you around. They’ve taken your jobs and your money and now they just want to rub your nose in it.
Would this quote come from Donald or Bernie? Well, … it depends on who “they” are. If we’re talking about immigrants and religious minorities, it seems like something the Donald would say. If, on the other hand, we’re talking about billionaires and fat cats, it’s more likely something that Bernie would say.
Note the rhetorical device. While talking to you, the speaker attributes horrible thoughts to other people. These are people who are easy to caricature. They’re also easy to profile: after all, they all think alike, don’t they? They’re also not here to defend themselves. Whether you’re Donald or Bernie, it’s an easy way to score cheap points.
By the way, I’m not an innocent bystander here. I sold software for mid-sized companies and often competed against some very big fish. I told prospective customers that, “The big software companies don’t want your business. You don’t generate enough revenue. They won’t give their best service. You’re just a little fish in a big pond.” It didn’t work every time. But when it did, it worked very well.
The good thing about attributed belittlement is that it’s easy to spot. Someone is talking to you about another group or company or person who is not physically present. The speaker attributes belittling thoughts to the third party. It’s a good time to say, “Hey, wait a minute! You’re using attributed belittlement to make me angry. You must think I’m stupid.”
When I coach an executive on public speaking, I always spend some time reviewing the nerve curve. This is a theoretical curve that plots degree of nervousness on one axis and presentation quality on the other.
The arc of the curve is the same as the arc of a baseball thrown across the diamond. It rises, reaches a peak, and then descends. The lesson is simple: you need to be somewhat nervous to give a good presentation. Nervousness alerts your senses, focuses your mind, and stiffens your spine – all good things for giving a great presentation.
If you follow the nerve curve, you’ll also realize that too much nervousness is a bad thing. The peak of the curve represents your best possible performance. If you become so nervous that you pass the peak, your performance starts to degrade. You might shake, sweat, and stammer. Your audience will be sympathetic; many of them have been there and done that. But they won’t be listening to your message.
Another way to read the nerve curve is that some stress is good for you. A little stress will improve your performance. Too much stress will degrade it. But it’s also true that too little stress will degrade your performance. If we want to maximize performance, being under-stressed may be just as bad as being overstressed.
That’s an interesting perspective for me because my docs have always told me to reduce my stress. They seemed to be saying that all stress – even a small amount – is bad for me. I should strive to eliminate stress. But striving creates stress, doesn’t it?
From my recent readings, I’m beginning to conclude that stress follows the nerve curve. Too little is bad for you; too much is bad for you. You need to attain just the right amount.
So, how do you attain the right amount? Well, not by disengaging from the world. If you try to minimize your stress, you may just get bored. And, as Colleen Merrifield and James Danckert point out in Experimental Brain Research, boredom is stressful. In fact, it may well be more stressful than being sad. (The authors also point out that, “Research on … boredom is underdeveloped.” Sounds like a promising field.)
Your attitude towards stress also seems to play an important role. If you believe that stress is bad for you, and you feel stressed out, you may well conclude that you might drop dead at any moment. That, in itself, is stressful. On the other hand, if you understand the nerve curve, you know that some stress is actually good for you. As you start feeling stressed, you’ll realize that your performance is also improving. You’re more likely to feel energized and engaged rather than stressed and depressed.
So, what’s the lesson here? Try a little stress. It may well be good for you.
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.
The other day, Suellen and I saw Chip Heath give a presentation on the key messages of his new book, Decisive. Heath is on tour to promote the book and Denver was a well-promoted stop along the way.
I’ve written about the book in recent weeks and plan to write more in the near future. It’s a simple, clear synopsis of recent research on decision-making.
Today, however, I want to focus on Heath’s presentation style – he reminded me of many lessons I’ve learned in public speaking. Here’s a summary.
Establish rapport and credibility – a large audience turned up in Denver and Heath commented on it immediately, saying, “It’s clear that the people of Denver are intellectually curious. In fact, I’d say that they’re four times more curious than people in Austin and eight times more than people in Los Angeles.” It was funny but it was also a nice compliment. We loved him right away. Best of all, it wasn’t canned.
Slides as hooks not as script – Heath used a lot of slides. He advanced to new slides regularly; no slide stayed up for more than a minute or two. Each time he advanced, the audience “refreshed”. Most of his slides had fewer than ten words on them. Many had only an image. Heath told the story; the slides illustrated it. The text on the slides helped you remember the key points; they didn’t steal Heath’s thunder.
Tell a story, not an abstraction – Heath told a lot of good stories about decisions gone right and gone wrong. They were stories about flesh-and-blood people whose experiences illustrated key ideas about decision making. Every now and then, he would state an abstraction to summarize a point. He never said, “the moral of the story is…” but he could have.
Humor — he wasn’t rolling-in-the-aisle funny, but he had a dry, wry sense of humor that helped hold our attention. We paid attention partially because we didn’t want to miss a laugh line.
Parallel construction – Heath’s book has four major messages – the WRAP process. Heath covered all four and each section was structured in exactly the same way. We always knew exactly where we were in the narrative. We never got lost.
Finish early – Heath finished about ten minutes ahead of schedule (at least, ahead of the schedule that I had in mind). Giving 500 busy people ten minutes of their life back is a nice contribution to our mental welfare. We appreciated it.
Practice, practice, practice – it was clear that Heath was a polished presenter and that he had given this presentation before. That didn’t make it boring. Rather, we concluded that he respected us enough to make good use of our time. If he respects us, we can respect him.
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.