Reasoning and the outrageous — pay attention

If someone made an outrageous accusation about you, what would you do?

I know what I would do, because I’ve done it.

A few years after 9/11, I renewed my passport so I could go to my then-brother-in-law’s wedding in the Cayman Islands. Five days in the sun and sea in the late winter. It was lovely.

Back in the old U.S. of A., when I presented my new passport (just one outgoing stamp!) to the Customs Agent, he confiscated it and sent me scurrying to a holding room. Needless to say, this concerned me.

I sat in a little room for about a half an hour, crammed in with an array of mostly darker-skinned people, with and without children, with and without possessions piled high around them. I had all of my bags with me, too. (And, dear Reader, I do not travel light.)

Two uniformed men sat at a high desk on one side of the room. Eventually, one of them called my name. I struggled to corral my stuff so I could get to the desk. I’d only made it halfway across the room when he asked me, “Have you ever been in trouble with the law?”

I was completely gobsmacked. The words positively boomed out of my mouth: “GOOD GOD, OF COURSE NOT!” The roomful of nervous detainees laughed out loud. One of the uniforms may have laughed too. And just like that, I was free to go.

Outrageous accusations, reasoned responses

I did not watch yesterday’s news conference live; I figured I could get all I needed from the recaps. And then my social media feeds filled up with the word “germaphobe.”

I couldn’t have done this thing, the man said, because I am a germaphobe.

A curious argument. Made even more curious as I saw people begin to debate whether or not the substance in question actually contains germs. Of course, that completely misses the point.

The point is, he had been accused of committing an outrageous act. But did he respond with outrage? Did his voice boom out across the room, as mine did, “GOOD GOD, OF COURSE NOT!”

No. Instead, he tried to reason. And while I know the allegation is still not verified despite the best attempts of journalists and the intelligence community, the fact that he resorted to reason rather than outrage tells me all I need to know.

We’re hard-wired to believe

A while back I read Robert Cialdini’s book Pre-Suasion to learn more about marketing. But Cialdini made some points worth considering in this situation:

“…a communicator who ushers audience members’ attention to selected facets of a message reaps a significant persuasive advantage: recipients’ receptivity to considering those facets prior to actually considering them.”

outrageous lies can persuade us at any moment
The tagline of Cialdini’s invaluable book

In other words, the “look over here!” of “I’m a germaphobe” does more than distract us from the more important point—the disgusting nature of the alleged behavior. What Cialdini calls “channeled attention” can “make recipients more open to a message pre-suasively, before they process it.”

The words are barely out of the liar’s mouth before some part of our brain starts thinking, Hmm. He may have a point there. Just because he spoke, not because of what he said. This makes gaslighting a breeze.

Distractability is hard-wired into us. Back in the Jurassic, our ancestors probably needed to make decisions before they had fully processed information. Stop to think about whether the dinosaur chasing you has already eaten lunch and you’d likely be the main course.

Today, when would-be predators wear suits and (made in China) ties, we need to retrain our brains to reflect more.

In a time when too many political leaders manipulate the truth while insisting that they are the only honest actors around, we need to pay attention not just to what gets said but to what it actually means and what it might be distracting us from.  Social media exacerbates the problem because journalists need to process information instantaneously, with no time to ponder or synthesize it.

When outrageous things occur—and it seems safe to assume we’ll see more of them—listen for outrage in response. If you don’t hear it, press for it. Because it’s a sign we’re in trouble, my friends.

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Metaphor: guiding your audience’s attention

“If you want to change the world, change the metaphor.” — Joseph Campbell

I ran across that Joseph Campbell quotation in Robert Cialdini’s book Pre-Suasion.

Cialdini argues that “the main function of language is not to express or describe but to influence.” And he’s assembled an impressive array of scientific research to back up that contention.

Influence runs on a spectrum from benign to coercive. We can influence by sending subliminal messages, that the audience barely perceives. By offering advice, one friend to another. By instructing, when an authority figure weighs in with expertise. We can also influence as Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather did, by “mak[ing] him an offer he can’t refuse.”

We’re seeing a lot of that kind of influence these days. Generally we call it “bullying.” But how—short of placing a severed horse’s head in someone’s bed—do we make that influence more memorable? Enter our friend the metaphor.

Metaphor, serving writers for over 2,350 years

In 335 BCE, the Greek philosopher Aristotle codified much of what was then known about literary theory in his book Poetics. Aristotle defined metaphor as “giving the thing a name that belongs to something else.” In another work (Rhetoric, for anyone out there as nerdy as me), he explained, “Metaphor most brings about learning.”

So if you want to “bring about learning,” use a metaphor. But—I hear you say—I’m not teaching anything. I’m just talking about my business [or whatever your subject is].

Ah, but if you engage the minds of the people in your audience, they’re more likely to remember what you say. And Cialdini believes you’re more likely to get them on your side.

Metaphor gives your readers of listeners a little puzzle to think about. Cialdini uses the example of a long-distance runner “hitting the wall.” Our brains take in those words literally, and then quickly recognize the metaphor. Walls block forward progress. Right! The runner felt unable to continue. On subsequent hearings, we’ll recognize the figure of speech more quickly. But it still produces a millisecond of “Wait, what?” in our brains.

When you open your writing with a metaphor, you engage your audience in a way that a straight recitation of facts can never do. Extra points if it’s a metaphorical story.

Metaphor in modern writing

Writers for The New Yorker specialize in using metaphors and stories to hook a reader. I once read an entire article about manufacturing toe shoes for ballerinas. I have zero interest in ballet or shoe manufacturing, but the writer was just that good. I blogged about another masterful New Yorker article a few years ago. Writer Adam Gopnik grabbed me by the lapel with a story about the Beatles and then segued into an article about geopolitics.

In both cases, I learned something. That Aristotle guy was a smart cookie.

Word power – What we say really does matter

Horsepower drives our engines; word power drives our minds.

More evidence from social psychologist Robert Cialdini’s invaluable book Pre-Suasion that the words we use have power to shape other people’s thoughts and actions. We can use that power, as the saying goes, for good or for evil and I hope my readers always choose the former.

Early in the book, Cialdini describes research that discovered a woman will more likely give her phone number to a stranger on the street if a different person approaches her first to ask directions. When the direction-seeker asked to find “Valentine Street,” it seeded the idea of romance in the woman’s mind. The “Valentine Street” women proved much more likely to give out their phone numbers than women asked directions to another street.

I’m used to writing persuasively; that’s my job. But Cialidini shows us that persuasion doesn’t require an entire paragraph. Not even a whole sentence. We can begin the process of persuasion—subliminal persuasion—with just one word.

Word power & electricity

Skeptical? Cialdini was too. So much so that when he encountered a client who asked him not to talk about “bullet points” or “attacking” problems in a speech he was preparing, he thought the client supremely silly.

But the client explained:

“As a health care organization, we’re devoted to acts of healing, so we never use language associated with violence. We don’t have bullet points; we have information points. We don’t attack a problem, we approach it.”

Cialdini complied with the request to modify his language. And then he took a deeper dive into the research.

One study he found asked participants to unscramble words to make simple sentences. One group’s sentences were geared toward helping: “Fix the door.” Another group’s revolved around aggression: “He hit them.” Later, each participant was asked to deliver electric shocks—whose intensity they controlled—to a fellow study subject. Cialdini reports:

“The results are alarming: prior exposure to the violence-linked words led to a 48 percent jump in selected shock intensity.”

How powerful are words? Ask the guy on the receiving end of those shocks.

Speak responsibly

We can’t stop using words, but we can stop using words that inflame the audience—consciously or subconsciously. The words we use can unite or divide. They can foster respect or destroy it. Be aware of what you say, what you write. Use your power for good.

Location, location, location…and creativity

We’ve all heard about the three things that matter in real estate—location, location, and location. Well, they matter in creative endeavors too.

Consider these two sentences:

  1. My academic subdiscipline, experimental social psychology, has as a principal domain the study of the social influence process.
  2. I can admit it freely now: all my life I’ve been a patsy.

Clearly written by two different people, right?


Robert Cialdini wrote both of them for his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Sentence #1 was his first draft of the opening line of the book; sentence #2 opens the book as published.

What’s the difference between the two sentences? Location (3x). Location matters for creativity too

As Cialdini discloses in his most recent book, Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade, he wrote the first sentence in his office at a university, with a view of

“an array of imposing buildings housing various academic institutes, centers, and departments. On either border of this outside window to the academic world, I’d lined shelves with materials that provided an inside window to that world: my professional books, journals, articles, and files.”

But sometimes he wrote in his home office, where he’d see

“the flow of passersby—mostly pedestrians on their way to work or to shop or to do any of a thousand ordinary things that people ordinarily do.”

After writing in both places for some time, he collected his work and read it. And he was surprised to find that

“…the work I’d done at home was miles better than what I’d done at the university, because it was decidedly more appropriate for the general audience I’d envisioned.”

He stopped writing his book at the office. Working at home, he edited everything he’d created at the university. And that’s where sentence #2 comes in.

Now, #2 doesn’t give us nearly the same amount of information as #1. An academic might find it ridiculously uninformative—not to mention subjective. But Cialdini’s whole purpose in writing this book was to make his ideas accessible to a general audience—which academics decidedly are not.

Sentence #2 may tell you less about his work than sentence #1—but it’s also much more likely to capture your attention and keep you reading.

Changing your location, mentally

Cialdini had the luxury of being able to write wherever he liked; but some writers are tied to an office. Or worse yet, a cubicle. So how can you retrofit your environment to loosen up your creativity?

I’ve written before about using a device like an empty chair to symbolize your audience. You can also print out photographs of the people you want to reach—Cialdini says action photographs prove more helpful than headshots. Post the photos on the walls around you or create a slideshow on your computer and run through it before you start work. Trot it out again whenever you feel stuck.

Have a water-cooler type conversation with a target audience member. Not about the subject of your writing—just shoot the breeze: How was your weekend? Did your kid decide on a college yet? Set a timer for 15 minutes and just immerse yourself in the conversation, while your fingers type it out. At the end of your 15 minutes, close out that document and start in on your draft.

Your company may expect your body to be at your desk, but your mind can go anywhere it likes. Send it wherever your audience lives, and your writing will connect with them much more powerfully.

Ready to discover how to write better? Join me at my free webinar “The Courage to Communicate”—Wednesday November 30th at 8pm Eastern, 5pm Pacific.