From the Lab: What Are They Thinking?

Reading the research on effective persuasion, it’s easy to get the idea that emotion, values, and intuition are always better than logic—that heart and halo are always better than head. In reality, however, this isn’t always the case.

In a 2008 study by Adam Galinsky and colleagues, they tested several different ways of approaching a negotiation. In the negotiation, participants played the role of either a service-station owner or a prospective buyer of the service-station. The scenario was designed so that while there was no immediately obvious solution that satisfied both parties, with a little creativity, a win-win was possible. The prospective buyers were divided into three groups: a control group, an empathy group, and a perspective-taking group.

In the control group, participants were simply told to focus on their own role.

In the empathy group, participants were told:

In preparing for the negotiation and during the negotiation, take the perspective of the service-station owner. Try to understand what they are feeling, what emotions they may be experiencing in selling the station. Try to imagine what you would be feeling in that role.

In the perspective-taking group, participants were told:

In preparing for the negotiation and during the negotiation, take the perspective of the service-station owner. Try to understand what they are thinking, what their interests and purposes are in selling the station. Try to imagine what you would be thinking in that role.

When they considered only their own role, 39% of buyers closed a deal. When they imagined what their partner was feeling, 54% succeeded. When they imagined what their partner was thinking, a whopping 76% of buyers found the win-win. While empathizing with their partner helped a little bit, when participants imagined what their partner was thinking, they were almost twice as likely to reach a deal! In another negotiation scenario, this perspective-taking approach resulted in both the highest joint gain (the sum of satisfaction of both parties), and the highest individual gain (for the perspective-taker).

Therefore, whenever you’re preparing to communicate—particularly if involves a persuasive element—it pays to get inside the head of your audience, asking yourself, “what are they thinking?”

From the Lab: Scientific Advocacy

In The Science of Speaking, I wrote, “Whereas our scientists and engineers often protest the pitch …” There’s an important, unanswered question here: why do our scientists and engineers protest?

There are several possible reasons for this.

First, many scientists and engineers believe that pitching is something they shouldn’t need to do—it’s their job to generate ideas, and someone else’s job (sales and marketing) to sell them. This belief is understandable, but ultimately wrong: as I note in the book, everyone engages in persuasive speaking, even if they don’t think about it in those terms.

Second, there is a significant subset of scientists who believe that pitching is something they shouldn’t do (note the deletion of the phrase “need to” here). They believe that scientists should stick to science and not get involved in advocacy. This is because they think that getting involved in advocacy will harm their credibility as scientists and perhaps even the credibility of the scientific community as a whole. Based on these assumptions, some have even gone so far as to say that science and advocacy are fundamentally incompatible.

Thankfully, a recent scientific study (published just this past weekend) thoroughly debunks this myth.

In a randomized controlled experiment, John Kotcher and his colleagues tested public reactions to six different advocacy statements made by a scientist—ranging from a purely informational statement to an endorsement of specific policies. Here’s what they found:

We found that perceived credibility of the communicating scientist was uniformly high in five of the six message conditions, suffering only when he advocated for a specific policy—building more nuclear power plants (although credibility did not suffer when advocating for a different specific policy—carbon dioxide limits at power plants). We also found no significant differences in trust in the broader climate science community between the six message conditions.

As the researchers conclude, “Our results suggest that climate scientists who wish to engage in certain forms of advocacy have considerable latitude to do so without risking harm to their credibility, or the credibility of the scientific community.”

Hopefully, this research will encourage more scientists to speak up and share not only their brilliant findings, but also their recommendations for how we can apply them!

From the Lab: Shifting the Spotlight

As I note in the nervousness chapter of The Science of Speaking, speakers are usually much more critical of themselves than their audiences are. As Amy Cuddy notes in Presence, this is partly due to the spotlight effect, “one of the most enduring and widespread egocentric human biases—to feel that people are paying more attention to us than they actually are … and usually in a bad way, not a good way.”

As a demonstration of the spotlight effect, she cites a study by Thomas Gilovich, Victoria Medvec, and Kenneth Savitsky in which participants were asked to wear a potentially embarrassing t-shirt, then estimate how many of their classmates had noticed it. While fewer than 25% of their classmates actually noticed, the participants believed that almost 50% had. In another experiment, less than 10% of their classmates noticed their attire, while again, participants believed that nearly 50% had. In an experiment in which participants were asked how their classmates would rate their performance in a discussion, participants believed that their performance stood out much more than it actually did (in both a positive and negative direction).

Obviously, the spotlight effect can be a major contributor to speech anxiety. And in fact, a variety of studies have confirmed that the more self-focused we are, the more anxiety (and other negative emotions) we feel. So what can we do to overcome it?

First, as I have advised before, realize that the spotlight effect exists and that you are going to be much more critical of yourself than your audience will be. Don’t worry so much about what they think of you because they’re not thinking about you as much as you think. (They mostly have their own spotlights on themselves.)

Of course, I realize that this advice not to worry is really no help at all. As I’ve also noted in the past, it’s much more difficult to not do something (i.e., to stop using filler words), than it is to do something else instead (i.e., to take a deep breath instead of saying “umm”). So what is something you can do instead?

One good way to overcome the spotlight effect is to consciously shift the spotlight off of yourself and onto something else—for example, to focus on why you’re giving the speech or what you want the audience to take away from it. As the research on self-focus have shown, when you shift the heat of spotlight off yourself, you’ll begin to feel much better.