From the Lab: Consider All of Your Options (Together)

In a recent study reported by Harvard Business Review, Shankha Basu and Krishna Savani compared two different ways of making decisions: considering your options in series—examining them one by one—or considering them in parallel—examining them all at one, next to each other.

What they found was that across a variety of different kinds of decisions, “people were, on average, 22% more likely to choose the objectively best option when they viewed options together rather than one at a time.” In one experiment, “those who viewed options individually chose the best option 75% of the time, while those who viewed options together identified the best product 84% of the time.”

Unfortunately, we don’t always do this. In a survey about how people made decisions, the researchers found that despite the fact that parallel comparison is better, people only use this technique for about half of the decisions they make. In addition, when it comes to presenting decisions (on a shopping website, for example), only some presenters give their audience the chance to use it (for example, by allowing customers to compare products side-by-side).

When you’re the one presenting a decision, you can use this information to good effect for the benefit of both you and your audience (assuming that the right decision for the audience is also the right decision for you, which hopefully it is). Whenever possible, present options side-by-side, and your audience will be more likely to choose wisely.

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.

Fun and Games: Pitch Deck

Here’s a game that sounds absolutely amazing for parties and public speaking classes alike: Pitch Deck.

As the creators Fred Benenson and Alex Hague explain,

Pitch Deck is a game about pitching objectively bad startup ideas. Each round, everyone combines a pitch card from their hand with a company card on the table to create a new business. Think “Airbnb for fish” or “Roomba for male tears.” Then everyone makes a quick elevator pitch describing what their company does. One person plays an investor, who decides which concept everyone will secretly fund that round. At the end of the game, the funding amounts are revealed, and there are two winners: the person who pitched the most valuable company and the person who invested the most in that company.

Here’s a video that explains further:

The best thing about Pitch Deck is that the creators are generously giving it away for free under a Creative Commons license, so you can play it, share it, and even adapt it for free (with credit).

You can also pre-order an official copy at for the very reasonable price of $25. I’ve already pre-ordered a copy for myself!

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: To Thine Own Self Be True

In The Science of Speaking, I repeatedly emphasize that it’s important to make your speech relevant to your audience. While this is still a good piece of advice, new research suggests an important caveat.

In a recent study, Francesca Gino, Ovul Sezer, Alison Wood Brooks, and Laura Huang tested two different approaches to pitching. Participants were assigned to give an entrepreneurial pitch or a job interview, and told either to behave authentically or to cater to their audience’s expectations and interests.

In a pre-test survey, 66% of participants said that they regularly used the catering approach, and 71% believed that it would be more successful. As it turns out, however, this popular belief was wrong: participants who behaved authentically were actually more likely to receive funding for their ideas and more likely to be hired than participants who catered to their audience’s expectations.

Why might this be? As Gino explains, there are several things things to consider here:

When people engage in catering to others, they try to predict what they want to hear and act accordingly. But making such predictions is difficult and commonly leads to errors. Therefore, when individuals use a catering strategy … they can fail in at least two ways. First, they may inaccurately predict what the person wants to see and hear. Second, even if their predictions are accurate, they may act in an unconvincing manner because they feel inauthentic, deceitful, or anxious.

In fact, this is exactly what they found in the study: candidates who used the catering approach in an interview experienced higher anxiety than those who were simply being themselves, and this anxiety is what led them to be viewed as less hirable.

What are we to do with this information? Should we throw out the catering approach entirely and ignore the expectations and interests of our audience? Of course not.

But while we’re doing so, we should make sure we’re still being true to ourselves. The problem here is not with emphasizing the parts of our message that will be most relevant to a particular audience audiences (i.e., choosing the right “tip of the iceberg” for this particular crowd, which will be different than the “tip of the iceberg” for another crowd). The problem is with trying to be something we’re not, which leads to anxiety and impairs our performance.

A recent tweet by Nancy Duarte is instructive here:

If the tweet were perfectly parallel, it would read: “The audience does not need to tune themselves to you. You need to tune yourself to them.” But it doesn’t—because that’s not the optimal strategy. The optimal strategy is to be yourself, but tune your message to the audience.

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.


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.

From the Lab: Easy to Read, Easy to Do

In a 2008 study, Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz found that when instructions for a task are presented in a font that is difficult to read, readers believe that the task will take significantly more time to complete and are significantly less motivated to attempt it.

This underscores the importance of making your presentations easy to understand, particularly when you are asking your audience to do something. (This principle applies to both your words and your visual aids—all parts of your presentation, really.) When the audience finds it difficult to understand your presentation, this will cause them to view what you’re asking them to do as more difficult, and they will be significantly less likely do it. On the other hand, if you make everything easy to understand, your audience will think what you’re asking them to do is easier, and they will be significantly more likely to do it.

Note: In a followup study in 2009, Song and Schwarz found that when the names of food additives or amusement park rides were hard to pronounce, they were perceived as riskier than those with names that were easy to pronounce.

From the Lab: The Power of Reviews

In a 2008 study, Yi-Fen Chen investigated the social factors that contribute to book sales, discovering several principles that can be applied to speaking.

First, Chen found further support for the power of social proof: when book consumers were shown that a book had a higher rating (in stars), or a higher sales volume, they were more likely to buy the book.

Second, Chen found that recommendations by fellow consumers were even more effective than recommendations by an expert. For example, people were more likely to buy a book when they were told “this recommendation is based on other consumer selections” than when they were told “this recommendation is based on evaluation by a tourism expert.” (While consumer recommendations worked better than expert recommendations, both methods were more effective than no recommendation.)

In The Science of Speaking, I present both of these approaches, noting that you can make your ideas more attractive by telling your audience that many other people are already applying them or backing them up with expert opinions. While this study shows once again that both strategies work, it also suggests that in some contexts, the former strategy may work even better.