From the Lab: Tell People How to Feel

In a recent study, researchers found that the more moral/emotional words (like “fight,” “hate,” “love,” and “peace”) there were in a tweet, the more likely it would be to be retweeted. In fact, with each additional moral/emotional word, the spread of the tweet increased by 20%! As summarized Katie Heaney of the Science of Us, “People Like Tweets That Tell Them How to Feel.”

Of course, this effect was most pronounced within political groups: liberals were more likely to share liberals’ moral/emotional tweets, and conservatives were more likely to share conservatives’. But in general, the more a tweet appealed to Heart and Halo, the greater impact it was likely to have.

This only further underscores the importance of including these kinds of appeals in your speaking: appealing to the Head alone won’t cut it. Wherever possible (within reason), include language that appeals to your audience’s values and emotions, and they’ll be significantly more likely to spread your message.

On the Screen: Do Your Research

Last night, my wife and I finally saw Hidden Figures. There were many great things about the movie, but I want to talk about one particular scene here today.

It’s the scene where Mary Jackson is petitioning to take classes at the segregated high school, which will enable her to apply to be an engineer. She making her case—her pitch—to the judge.

“Your Honor, you of all people should understand the importance of being first,” she says, explaining how he was the first in his family to serve in the Armed Forces and attend university, and the first State Judge to be re-commissioned by three consecutive governors.

“You’ve done some research,” he replies.

Then she explains how he has a rare opportunity to make a decision that will matter in a hundred years, another opportunity to be “the first.”

This is not only a great example of a Halo appeal specifically tailored to your audience—it’s also a great demonstration of how important it is to know your audience, to learn about them by doing some research.

It’s not that all judges want to be the first—in general, most judges actually want to avoid making waves. Their primary job is to apply the existing law to new cases, not to make decisions that overturn the existing law. But with a little research, Jackson was able to identify a personalized appeal that would work for this particular judge by referencing his history of being first.

You, too, can improve your pitches by doing some research about your audience in order to identify appeals you can tailor specifically to them. The more you know about the people in your audience, the more effectively you will be able to persuade them.

In the News: Worse Than Lying

In today’s New York Times “Sunday Review,” Jillian Jordan, Roseanna Sommers, and David Rand review their recent research on why we hate hypocrites so much.

Imagine an environmental activist who hounds people to turn off the lights whenever they leave a room but fails to do so himself. He is a hypocrite. And we hate him. But why, the authors ask, do we hate him so much?

Their answer is that we take moral statements (“it is wrong to waste energy”) as an indication of how the speaker himself acts, even more so than factual statements (“I don’t waste energy”). This means that hypocritical statements are even worse than lying. And this is exactly what their research has found: people view hypocrites as less honest, less trustworthy, less likable, and less morally upright than people who openly lie (i.e., people who say “I don’t waste energy” when they actually do).

Interestingly, however, they also found that if you make a moral statement but explicitly clarify that you don’t always act in accordance with it (i.e., you say “I think it’s morally wrong to waste energy, but I sometimes do it anyway”), you can avoid these negative judgments of hypocrisy. In this case, you will simply be judged on the basis of your actions—the same as someone who wastes energy, but make no moral claims about it.

In The Science of Speaking, I explain that it can be beneficial to admit a weakness in your argument before your audience discovers it themselves. This research shows that this advice is particularly relevant in the case of moral arguments. When you’re making a moral claim (i.e., a Halo appeal), if there’s a chance that you might be discovered as a hypocrite, it’s good to defuse the situation upfront by admitting that you don’t always live up to the ideals you’re proposing, but that the audience should at least join you in trying.