From the Lab: Confidence in Completeness

Yesterday, we saw that a minor blunder—which one would usually expect to have a negative effect—can actually, in some circumstances, have a positive one.

In a recent study, Meyrav Shoham, Sarit Moldovan, and Yale Steinhart demonstrated another way in which negative information about something can actually improve our view of it. In the context of online reviews, they found that a negative review can actually have a positive effect—as long as the review is irrelevant. The reason for this is that an irrelevant negative review leads consumers to feel that their view of the product is more complete, without actually giving consumers a real reason to dislike the product.

In the words of the researchers, “when consumers encounter products with mostly positively valenced reviews, they may turn to the available negatively valenced reviews in order to determine whether the product merits its high ratings. This suggestion derives from research showing that individuals assign considerable weight to negative information, which is often expected to be more diagnostic than positive information. Moreover, consumers tend to feel more certain about their attitudes when considering both positive and negative aspects during the decision process.” Therefore, “when the content of a negatively valenced review is irrelevant and lacks the expected diagnostic value, consumers feel that they have more complete information about the product, while the irrelevance information indicates that the product has no real drawbacks. This leads to improved product evaluations compared to when there are no negatively valenced reviews (and information is perceived as less complete), or when there are relevant negative reviews (because the product is perceived as having real drawbacks).”

Somewhat paradoxically, this means that whenever you’re pitching something, it may actually benefit you to address some of the arguments against your position, as long as these counterarguments are weak compared to your own arguments. This will lead the audience to believe they have seen both sides of the issue and give them more confidence to make a decision. As an added benefit, by presenting these counterarguments yourself, rather than allowing the audience to think of them first, you can more completely influence their view of both sides, and more effectively convince them to side with you.

From the Lab: The Power of Imagination

Close your eyes and imagine a world in which your speeches are significantly more charismatic and persuasive. As Richard Young notes in How Audiences Decide, there’s an easy way to make this a reality: simply use the power of imagination.

For example, voters who are asked to imagine a particular candidate winning an election become more convinced that that candidate will win it. Similarly, people who are asked to imagine having a disease come to believe that it is more likely they will catch it. This is also true for winning a contest and getting arrested for a crime. (On the other hand, when an outcome is difficult to imagine, people believe it is less likely to happen.) Studies have also shown that these beliefs can lead to changes in behavior: for example, homeowners who are asked to imagine the benefits of having cable TV are more than twice as likely to subscribe to it then those who are simply told about the same benefits.

While I’ve previously suggested that asking the audience to imagine something can make a great hook for your speech and that imagination can be an effective supplement (or replacement) for visual aids, these studies suggest that it has even greater power: it can also convince the audience to see the world your way. Whether it’s convincing them that good things will happen if they accept your ask, or convincing them that bad things will happen if they don’t, imagination can be a powerful tool in your persuasive toolbox.

From the Lab: The Power of Deadlines

In a recent blog post on Scientific American, Kristen Berman and Wendy De La Rosa made the radical proposal that we move tax day up by a month—from April 15 to March 15. In support of this proposal, they cite research by Suzanne Shu and Ayelet Gneezy showing that the longer a deadline is, the more likely we are to procrastinate, even when the deadline is for claiming a free benefit.

In particular, people are more likely to claim a benefit when there is a deadline than when there is no deadline, and when there is a shorter deadline than when there is a longer one. Therefore, while it’s tempting to think that giving your audience greater flexibility in responding to your ask will make them more likely to comply, this research shows that the opposite is the case. Just as constraints can lead to greater creativity, they can also lead to greater compliance.

From the Lab: Ask in Person (Updated)

In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, Vanessa K. Bohns wrote about her new research that found that “people tend to overestimate the power of their persuasiveness via text-based communication, and underestimate the power of their persuasiveness via face-to-face communication.” This is consistent with previous research that showed that negotiations in person are more effective than negotiations by video, which are in turn more effective than negotiations by email.

In the new study, participants asked strangers to fill out a survey—either by email or in person—and to predict how successful their request would be. While participants expected that both types of request would be equally effective, in reality, the face-to-face requests were 34 times as successful! As Bohns notes, this means that “despite the reach of email, asking in person is the significantly more effective approach; you need to ask six people in person to equal the power of a 200-recipient email blast.”

Therefore, while email can be significantly less stressful than speaking, the latter will almost certainly be more successful. If you have the opportunity to ask face-to-face, take it!

Update (4/17/17): In a post today on The Science of Us, Matthew Hutson highlights some additional research on the benefits of speaking over writing. For example, according to one study, when a “hire me” pitch is presented in writing, the candidate is viewed as significantly less intelligent, likable, and hirable than when the same pitch is spoken. A follow-up study found one potential reason why: when we read someone else’s writing, we hear it in an unnaturally monotone voice. Another study confirmed that it’s significantly harder to discern the tone of an email compared to speaking. And yet another study found that conflicts are more likely to escalate when they play out over email than when they play out face-to-face or over the phone.

In the News: Convince Yourself First

Last week, a variety of science media outlets reported on a new study that “shows how lying to yourself makes you more persuasive.” While the study itself is quite interesting—it did indeed show that deceiving yourself helps you deceive others—as I’ve said previously, I’m more interested helping you present the truth. Luckily, we can learn something about that from this study as well.

As study co-author William von Hippel notes, “what’s so interesting is that we seem to intuitively understand that if we can get ourselves to believe something first, we’ll be more effective at getting others to believe it. … If you need to convince somebody of something, if your career or social success depends on persuasion, then the first person who needs to be [convinced] is yourself.”

There are (at least) two interesting things at play here. First, as we saw in another recent blog post, conviction itself can be persuasive. Similar to enthusiasm, where the more enthusiastic you are about your topic, the more interested your audience will be, the more conviction you have about your argument, the more persuasive you will be. Second, as I note in The Science of Speaking, when thinking of ways to persuade your audience, it often helps to think back on the arguments that persuaded you, and repeat (or repurpose) those to persuade your audience too.


In the News: How to Say “No”

In The Science of Speaking, I present many techniques for persuading your audience to accept your asks. But what if you’re on the other side of the request? What if someone is asking you to do something—and what if the response you want to give them is “no”?

According to a 2012 study by Vanessa M. Patrick and Henrik Hagtvedt, reported by a variety of media outlets, there’s actually a better and a worse way to do this: say that you “don’t” do something instead of that you “can’t.” As Cari Romm explains on The Science of Us:

Saying “I don’t eat X” when tempted by an unhealthy snack, for example, made participants feel more “psychologically empowered” than using “can’t.” The same held true with a scenario about resolving to exercise each day: “I don’t skip my workout” was a more powerful motivator to get to the gym than “I can’t skip my workout.”

As Shaunacy Ferro notes on Mental Floss,

Regardless of whether you’re talking to yourself or another person, “can’t” suggests that you might want to do something, but aren’t able to … The implication is that in another set of circumstances, you could. But when you say “I don’t,” … there’s no room for debate. It’s a hard-and-fast rule that you set for yourself.

In addition to being a more empowering strategy for yourself, a followup study by Patrick and Hagtvegt found that the “don’t” approach is also more effective than the “can’t” approach at convincing the requester that you really mean “no.” Participants who heard refusals using the “don’t” approach rated them as significantly more persuasive and full of conviction than refusals using the “can’t” approach.

Off the Shelf: Information Is Not Enough

In The Science of Speaking, I note that it’s not enough to simply give your audience the right information and hope that this will be enough to change their behavior.

In Fostering Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing, Doug McKenzie-Mohr and William Smith cite some pretty sobering data that backs up this claim.

For example, in a classic study in which participants were exposed to a three-hour energy conservation workshop that showed them it was easy to conserve energy at home, while participants “indicated greater awareness of energy issues, more appreciation for what could be done in their homes to reduce energy use, and a willingness to implement the changes that were advocated,” when researchers visited the participants’ homes to follow up, they found that in all but a few cases, the participants’ “behavior did not change.” Other studies have found similar results.

“But,” you might say, “these people didn’t hear my pitch! I can make them a true believer!” Maybe you can, but unfortunately, even this is unlikely to help. For example, when 500 people were interviewed about their personal responsibility for picking up litter, 94% said they felt they had one. But when this sense of responsibility was actually put to the test with a piece of litter planted by a researcher outside the interview location, only 2% actually stopped to pick it up.* Many other studies have confirmed that environmental actions are only loosely correlated with environmental beliefs, where they are at all.

If information alone doesn’t lead to action, what are we to do? This research suggests that it’s important to go beyond simply informing your audience to applying the persuasive techniques described in The Science of Speaking and Fostering Sustainable Behavior. It is only by consciously crafting persuasion that you will have a good chance of succeeding in it.

* This is quite reminiscent of the famous “good samaritan study,” which was recently described by Glenn Geher at Psychology Today.

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: Soldier or Scout?

Yesterday on TED Ideas, Julia Galef wrote about two different mindsets we can take: the soldier mindset and the scout mindset, asking: “What do you most yearn for? Do you yearn to defend your own beliefs or do you yearn to see the world as clearly as you possibly can?” The former is the mindset of the soldier, the latter, the mindset of the scout. (If you prefer to listen, she also spoke about this last year at TEDxPSU. The content of the talk and article are nearly identical.)

As always, the question here is: how might we apply this insight to speaking?

As a speaker, you want your audience to be scouts, open to exploring your ideas. But how can you encourage this mindset in your audience?* The answer, I believe, is to be a scout yourself.

Many speakers approach persuasive speaking from a soldier mindset: “if I defend my beliefs, the audience will see that I’m right, and they’ll come over to my side.” But as I note in The Science of Speaking, this approach often backfires because it turns the audience into soldiers too and causes them to reflexively defend their existing beliefs. At the risk of overextending Galef’s lovely metaphor, if a scout meets an enemy soldier on the battlefield, they’re not going to continue being a scout. They’ll either turn into a soldier themselves, or simply retreat to behind their own lines. Neither of these options helps you persuade them.

So how can you present yourself as a scout, extending an olive branch to your audience, and increasing your persuasive abilities? As I mention at several different points in the book, it’s a good idea to meet the audience where they are, and find common ground, rather than just attacking from afar. Another good strategy is to admit uncertainty, or even to admit a weakness in your argument, because this will make you seem more credible. Alternatively, you could engage in an open-ended discussion about their concerns, rather than giving a one-sided presentation. Or, if you struggled to get to where you are—if you once believed as the audience believes—you could tell them a story about that struggle, which will make them much more likely to trust you.

* If you want an answer to the related question of how you can cultivate a scout mindset in yourself, Galef has a great video about this.

From the Lab: But You Are Free

In The Science of Speaking, I present many different techniques for improving persuasion.

Here’s another technique that didn’t quite fit in the book. It’s call the “but you are free” (BYAF) technique.

Here’s how it works:

One of the experimenters approached individuals walking alone in a shopping mall in France. In the control condition, the experimenter made a simple direct request: “Sorry, Madam/Sir, would you have some coins to take the bus, please?” In the experimental condition, the experimenter added: “But you are free to accept or to refuse.” Those in the experimental condition were substantially more likely to comply with the request. Moreover, those who gave in the experimental condition gave twice as much as those in the control condition.

In a meta-analysis of 42 studies, Christopher Carpenter found that the “but you are free” technique generally results in a doubling of compliance rates. In other words, by adding a single phrase to your ask, your audience becomes twice as likely to accept it. Carpenter also found that the exact words you use don’t matter—what matters is that your audience understands that they are free to refuse your request.