Saturday, July 28, 2012

Powers of persuasion

I work a lot in the realm of communications and leadership, so of course the conversation often comes turns to the art of persuasion. As with any art, many people think they are more skilled at it than they are. I have a colleague who claims she "could sell ice to Eskimos," which is a marketing cliche that I wish would die, once and for all! The truth, as any parent can attest, is that you cannot make anyone do anything. Unless they want to.
So when I heardlatest report on NPR's "Morning Edition" last week, "Manipulating People into Saying Yes" I was intrigued. Vedantum reports that new research shows people will comply with requests you make of them, i.e. do what you want them to do, if you first make an unusual request that grabs their attention. And that makes sense, because in that initial approach you are establishing a relationship. Then your subsequent request (what you really want them to do) does not seem to come out of the blue. NPR's radio clip provides some humorously anecdotal evidence of how and why this works.

As I say to my clients and students, you can't make people do anything they don't want to -- unless they see how they would benefit. So how do we convince people of the benefit of doing what we want? Look at human nature. Many of us want to live our lives peacefully, not rocking the boat unless we have reason to. Though we may not actively go out of our way to please others, we also don't want to cause undue anxiety/draw attention/make others angry by needlessly displeasing them.

In his story, Vendatum highlights the nature of his request: "And what the unusual request gets you to do is it gets you to stop and think. And when you get to stop and think, you become much more likely then to comply with the real request." People don't want to displease him, so they do the little thing he asks. Why? He gets their attention by showing his vulnerability. He starts to break down the walls that separate him from his subject. He clearly establishes a relationships.

The lesson for us? When we jolt our conversation partners out of "auto pilot mode" and invite them to be not only in the moment, but in the moment with us, we have taken the first step toward true communication.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Separated by a common language

Just back from a trip to Toronto!

Had a great time visiting the Bata Shoe Museum, Art Gallery of Ontario, dining with friends, catching what breezes we could on rooftop bars (in the middle of a heat wave), and walking, walking, walking!

Being in English-speaking Canada as an American really makes you realize how very important it is to communicate clearly! Yes, we speak the same language, with more or less the same accent (I grew up on the U.S. side of the Great Lakes, after all). But I found I needed to listen closely to actually hear what is being said. Spoken Canadian, after all, can be different from spoken Mid-Atlantic or Midwestern American English.

That's one of the wonderful things about travel: you see with new eyes and hear with new ears! When we don't do this, and kinda-sorta listen, putting our ears on auto-pilot, we miss out on the nuance that can reveal so much. If we can listen attentively, taking in and responding to different cadences, accents, and vocabularies, we will no longer be separated by a common language (with apologies to GBS). And nothing will be lost in translation.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

News flash: men and women more alike than different

Well, like I always say: someone should do a study!

And they did. This week I heard a story on NPR about a recent study concerning communications differences between men and women. And how it adversely affects women in the workplace, specifically those pursuing science and math careers. 

The story, ably reported by NPR Science Correspondent Shankur Vedantum, reveals some truths about how we communicate. These discoveries, refreshingly, fly in the face of what I ironically refer to as conventional wisdom: "The sampling technique has revealed flaws in common stereotypes. Take the one about how women like to talk much more than men. When Mehl actually measured how many words men and women speak each day, he found there was practically no difference — both men and women speak around 17,000 words a day, give or take a few hundred."

That sound you heard around 5: 45 p.m. Eastern Time on Thursday? That was me, cheering in Arlington, Virginia. The "stereotype threat" referred to in the story has long been one of the banes of my professional and personal existence. Yes, stereotypes often have a basis somewhere 'way back, but that does not mean they hold for every new encounter. And yet our brains like to organize and categorize, so stereotypes creep in insidiously, and before we know it, we are operating under false assumptions. And so are the people we are trying to work with and live with. Even when we know we do not fit the stereotype, the fact that we are aware of it affects our performance.

One of my biggest communications mantras is "banish the inner critic" whenever you speak/interact in the public sphere. Trust your preparation, silence that negative voice. It is hard, but neccesary if you want to succeed. You can't allow someone else's prejudices to trip you up!

Yes, this is extremely challenging when the stereotype is so pervasive and yet unrecognized. Harness your inner warrior and fight it! Because in your more circumspect moments, you know that ugly stereotype -- the one less mindful folk insist applies to you -- is setting a trap.

And now we have the science to prove it.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Lincoln: leadership and vampires

Hoping to beat the heat that blankets much of the mid-Atlantic region this week, I took advantage of our "indoor season" here in Virginia and finished reading Ronald C. White Jr.'s excellent A. Lincoln. It is a compelling biography of one of our nation's true heroes. Today as we experience governmental gridlock, we could use a leader like Lincoln, whose wisdom and determination led him to do the right thing, in spite of public opinion, often against the advice of his "team of rivals"(as Doris Kearns Goodwin so famously dubbed his Cabinet).

I am not quite sure about the new movie Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. I have not seen it, but I wonder if its timing was planned to tap into a national zeitgeist. Aside from being in the middle of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War , this election year make us think about leadership. Many feel we could use a leader like Lincoln, who was brave enough to stand up to his enemies and fight to the finish (see White's book for a description of Lincoln's ongoing frustration with his generals, "Unconditional Surrender" Grant excepted).

White's biography provides a great case study in leadership. I urge anyone anywhere who wants to be a real leader to read it. I particularly appreciate the pages White devotes to analysis of Lincoln's important speeches and addresses. And the detail he gives on Lincoln's thorough preparation! The master speaker worked tirelessly in relentless pursuit of the right phrase, the correct tone, and imagery. He also kept reams of private "notes to self" in desk drawers wherever he was (law office in Springfield, Presidential Office in the White House) that provided the foundation for many speeches - even years later.

So the myth that he scribbled the Gettysburg address of the back of an envelope is just that  --- a myth. But like the story about Lincoln being a vampire slayer, maybe it appeals to us because we need to believe that someone who is such a monumental figure had superhuman qualities. No mere mortal like us could accomplish so much. . .  Or could she?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

When lightning strikes!

On Friday I finished two weeks teaching back-to-back classes at American University's intense Discover the World of Communications program for high school students. I spent three hours every morning with incredible youth leaders and leaders-in-training, sharing my approach to public speaking in a course called "Speaking for Impact." The afternoon I was with young filmmakers who wanted to explore being in front of and behind the camera in "Acting & Directing for Camera." It was a whirlwind!

I kept thinking I need to blog about the experience, but kept putting it off because a) I was pretty brain-fried when I came home after teaching (and commuting into DC during rush hour -- which I am not used to -- and which doesn't seem to be any better in the summer), and b) I could not think of one overarching theme to distill into a blog post.

And then, Friday night we got hit with an incredible storm in Northern Virginia.  So the power was out for 30 hours and I couldn't blog if I wanted to.

I got to thinking, though, about different types of power, and realized that I had been dealing with variations on the theme of power for the past two weeks (an insight I may share with the new batch of "Speaking for Impact"-ers tomorrow).

Communication is a tool. Used the right way, it can yield enormous power. We often forget that. It only takes a second to make a lasting impression. Sometimes, we connect with people instantly. Crackle! You feel the electricity, like a lightning strike. Other times we have the luxury of establishing a relationship that unfolds, over time, like a lazy summer shower that gives us gifts of rainbows. But always, when we successfully communicate, we connect: there is a transference of energy from one person to another. And back again.

A successful communicator disturbs the atmosphere: We feel enveloped by her or his presence, energy and message. Much like a good lightning storm, a good speaker (and filmmaker, for that matter) generates electricity.
Feel the power!