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.

In the News: Clickety Claque

In a recent edition of The Washington Post, Henry Farrell wrote about engineered applause.

He quotes the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica entry for “claque,” which is

an organized body of professional applauders in the French theatres. The hiring of persons to applaud dramatic performances was common in classical times, and the emperor Nero, when he acted, had his performance greeted by an encomium chanted by five thousand of his soldiers … The recollection of this gave the 16th-century French poet, Jean Daurat, an idea which has developed into the modern claque. … There are commissaires, those who learn the piece by heart, and call the attention of their neighbours to its good points between the acts. The rieurs are those who laugh loudly at the jokes. The pleureurs, generally women, feign tears, by holding their handerkerchiefs to their eyes. The chatouilleurs keep the audience in a good humour, while the bisseurs simply clap their hands and cry bis! bis! to secure encores.

As Farrell writes, a

system of complex social influence explains how audiences respond to speeches and plays. Typically, when we decide to clap or cheer, or to sit down and remain silent, we are not only thinking about our own reaction to the speaker. We are also thinking about how those around us are reacting, and are likely to react. … Nearly all of us look to those around us before we decide to publicly express our feelings of approval or disapproval. This, in turn, means that applause, standing ovations and the like can be produced through clever social engineering.

While I don’t necessarily recommend seeding your audience with rieurs and bisseurs — at its core, Farrell’s article is a critique of the practice — the basic concept of social proof is one that is essential to The Science of Speaking. As I note in the book, it’s often the case that people are more likely to do something because other people are doing it than they are to do it because there’s a good reason to do it. This principle can be used to great effect in your pitches.