When the right words create the wrong message

by Peter Watts Paskale

Addressing the Republican Jewish Coalition, Governor Chris Christie accidentally dropped a geographic f-bomb that left him apologizing to the gathering’s sponsor, leading GOP cash donor, Sheldon Adelson.

And all that poor Governor Christie had done, was to use a perfectly correct term. What went wrong? How is it there are times in public speaking when using the correct words can be fatal to your message?

The political goal of speaking at an RJC event is a simple one: Impress your pro-Israeli credentials on Sheldon Adelson, and the event held at Adelson’s Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas attracted multiple Republican hopefuls. John Kasich of Ohio was there, as was Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Jeb Bush put in an appearance at the fringe, and of course, Chris Christie was center-stage.

Christie gave a passionate speech. Everything was going wonderfully, until an unfortunate reference to “the Occupied Territories” accidentally slipped a non-Kosher item onto the buffet of his pro-Israeli credentials.

Check your editorial style guide and you’ll find that this is the correct term for much of the land disputed between Israel and the Palestinians. Its the correct word. Why therefore did an audible hiss arise from the room, and why did Governor Christie find himself having to apologize for his hideous error?

There are times in public speaking, when the correct term can be decidedly the wrong message.

A speaker’s first goal is to move their audience, and to move the audience in the direction of their argument. They have three tools with which to do this – the logic of their argument, their use of emotion, and their ability to convince listeners that they, the speaker, see the world just as the audience do. This last tool is known as “ethos” – persuading the audience to trust your viewpoint.

It’s here that Governor Christie slipped. For ethos, choice of language is crucial. If your audience uses a specific term to refer to a specific entity, then you had better use either the same term or a close approximation. By using the term “Occupied Territories’ in front of an Israeli interest group, Chris Christie did the opposite.

Good speeches use distinct language. There’s a category of rhetoric called Distinctio which states that when a term is vague, the speaker should clarify it. There are exceptions though, and by using the perfectly correct phrase “Occupied Territories”, Governor Christie obeyed an important law of rhetoric, but forgot an even more important rule of political messaging: “Reflect the interests of the audience.”

During his 2012 presidential run, Mitt Romney fell into the same trap. His attendance at Nascar was a good attempt at ethos: I like Nascar, therefore I’m an ordinary guy like you. His statement while at Nascar however, that he had friends who “owned Nascar teams”, was an example of how it can all go wrong.

Rand Paul meanwhile is highly accomplished at using ethos. His speeches are tailored precisely to the audience. Close attention is paid to turns of phrase. His recent appearance at Berkeley was a case-study.

Paul also obfuscates. He occasionally rambles off in what appear to be artless loops, but those loops are specifically placed to charmingly blur the focus of the audience. Whenever Rand Paul rambles, you can be sure he is acutely aware of a contentious topic lurking nearby. Paradoxically it’s this apparent deviation from message that helps him to remain on message.

How would you refer to the lands contested between the Israelis and the Palestinians? Unless you have a close involvement with the topic, I’m sure you might use phrases such as “Gaza”, or “the West Bank’, or maybe “Palestine”. The phrase  “Occupied Territories” doesn’t exactly trip-off the tongue. It has the same tenor as Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – the sort of name that could only be created by committee.

That’s why I’m sure this wasn’t a case of Chris Christie mis-speaking. I’m sure that this was scripted, and scripted by a speech-writer who first did their due diligence by confirming precisely the right phrase, but then blew the speech out of the water by forgetting who the audience was going to be.

Yes there is always a correct way to refer to something, but no it isn’t always a good idea to use it. In all types of speaking, whether place names or industrial jargon, the first base needs to be finding out not which words the dictionary uses, but which words the audience use.

Make those words your own, and the audience will follow.

 

For credibility, hit the tables

by Peter Watts

To persuasively get your presentation point across, there’s a lot to learn from studying the ethos of casinos.

Oxymoron there? Maybe in the classical sense of “ethos”, but in terms of presenting, when we mention “ethos” we’re talking about credibility. The more ethos you can build in the eyes of an audience, then the more logic or “logos” they will assign to you, and the more logos you have, the more inclined they are to accept your argument. No matter how flimsy it might be. More on that later!

It’s possible to have a watertight argument, but not persuade the audience. Casinos meanwhile have a completely illogical argument, and yet persuade their audience to part with bucket-loads of cash, and this little piece of presentation power is called the ethos-logos loop.

Looked at logically, we know that when we walk into a casino, the odds are against us. The best way to walk out a millionaire is to walk in a billionaire. We know this. And yet still people gamble at the casino. What workings are at play?

Gambling relies on a logical fallacy. Author Jay Heinrichs refers to this as the fallacy of hasty generalization.

“If this person won a million bucks, then you can to.”

Sure you can, but the odds are monumentally against it.

So as a presented proposition, casinos have really weak logic. They overcome it by manipulating that ethos-logos loop:

If an audience perceives you as being credible (ethos), they become more inclined to accept your logic (logos). And as they accept your logos, they become even more inclined to believe that you’re credible

Round and round it goes; an unfortunate little persuasion loop in the human brain that gambling establishments have known about since the first dice rolled across a table.

The logos the casino wants you to buy into is the idea that someone, somewhere, is winning big, and it could be you! It’s a weak argument, but the ethos-logos loop suggests we might buy into it, given a sufficient dose of ethos to power the loop.

How does the casino do this, and how can we do the same in presentations?

Clear Rules

Casinos come with rules, and they emphasize those rules. Croupiers for example work under rules about how each and every poker cards is dealt from the shoe.

Rules indicate ethos. There are policies, there are procedures, they are transparent, and they are the same for everyone. Even the classic sidewalk “Shell Game” scam starts out with an apparently thorough demonstration of the “rules” in order to indicate ethos.

In your presentation: Look to timing, agenda, and audience questions

The closest thing to a book of rules in a presentation are the agenda, the stated duration, and how you intend to take audience questions. Once you’ve put those rules on the table, it’s surprisingly important to stick to them. Deviation means you break your own rules, and when you break the rules, your ethos breaks too.

Pay-off stories

Walk into a casino and you’ll see flashing displays of how many millions of dollars have been won that day. Even individual machines boast their pay-out levels. This is another logical fallacy in play. It’s one-sided information. What you don’t see is how many thousands had to be paid into the machine in order to achieve the payout.

In your presentation: Share pay-off stories

By sharing examples of how your product, your service, or your message has helped others, you boost credibility through saying “this happened for these guys; it can happen for you”.

Cognitive Consonance

The one-sided information presented in all those flashing pay-out displays works because it matches the hopes and beliefs of the audience as they walk in. They want to see how much is being won. They’re not so interested in knowing how much is being lost!

Audiences are pre-inclined to think in certain directions, and they look for information that confirms their pre-held beliefs.

In your presentation: Head for the common ground

Even if you want to shake an audience up, it’s not a good idea to confront pre-set world views too early in a presentation. All you achieve is an uncomfortable dose of dissonance, and rather than doubt themselves, the audience will prefer to doubt YOU!

Start by stating common ground that you have with the audience. Where you already know that they buy into certain areas of your message, emphasize those areas.

Shared views emphasize ethos. Disagreements reduce it.

Cheer Leaders

Listen to all those cheers you hear from the gambling tables around you. Each cheer says that yet another member of Joe Public just won big. If they are winning, then it could be you. A logical fallacy again; we don’t know how many people lost, or if the person who just got the cheer only experienced a reprieve during their landslide to a massive loss. We just hear the cheer, and that’s all we need.

In your presentation: Boost-up the cheer leaders

The important thing about cheer-leaders is that they have to be independent. They have to be fellow members of Joe Public.

That’s why independent benchmarks, customer testimonials, awards, and press reviews are gold within sales presentations. Where you’ve got them, flaunt them. Just make sure they are relevant to your message.

Casinos have a lot to teach us about presenting. They’ve spent many, many years, perfecting their craft.

If careful manipulation of ethos boosts the wobbly logic behind gambling, then imagine what it can do when applied to the positive logic of your next presentation.

Should I wear a neck-tie for selling diapers?

by Peter Watts

What you’re wearing when presenting  impacts the credibility that your audience invests in your pitch.

For your consideration:

Ethos clothing proposition 1: Recognised uniforms boost the pitch

When selling diapers, try a lab coat and a stethoscope?

Imprisoned on a treadmill at the gym this morning, I was watching the adverts that were running between the morning news shows. One of them turned out to be for adult diapers.

A smart looking lady in her 40’s was speaking to camera about the display of adult diapers beside her. Let’s call this spokesperson Dee-Dee Diaper. I couldn’t tell what she was saying because the TV monitor’s sound was off, and the ads, unlike the news shows, weren’t subtitled. Dee-Dee however, was wearing a medical  lab coat and had a stethoscope around her neck so I assumed that she must be a medical practitioner of some variety.

For unpleasant conditions such as adult incontinence, we might well turn to the family doctor for advice, and if a doctor is recommending this brand-X adult diaper, then there must be a certain credibility to the product.

This is ethos in action; credibility. Because the person speaking is wearing the recognised uniform of their trade, we become more inclined to accept the logos, or logic, of their pitch. Speakers call this the ethos-logos loop.

By boosting the power of our ethos (and some form of uniform is a great way to do it), then we boost the perceived power of our logos.

Approximately one mile later, a second thought hit me. At no point during the advert had a caption appeared that said “Dr Dee-Dee Diaper, M.D.” In terms of having any medical qualifications, Dr. Dee-Dee had most probably been a fake. Had she been a real family doctor, then I’m sure that would have been emblazoned all over the screen.

So, even the mere presence of the uniform can incline us to believe a message. Uniform is powerful indeed, and one might therefore conclude that if your profession has any type of recognised dress code, it becomes a tremendous asset when pitching.

However, if as a Doctor you were to walk out onto stage to make a conference pitch and were dressed in your lab-coat and stethoscope, and the audience were all in business suits, how would you look? Probably out of place. The audience would assume you either hadn’t bothered to change on your way from the office or that you were trying to ram your credentials down their collective throat.

This leads to a second idea about ethos and clothing:

Ethos Clothing Proposition 2: Dress to match your audience

When convincing IT hackers, dress like an IT hacker?

An alternative view says that you should try to look as similar as possible to your audience, and that uniforms harm ethos by screaming  out “I’m different to you!”

If your audience dresses in one particular way, then by matching them, you give the message that you see, hear, and feel the world as they do. This message then boosts the ethos-logos loop because if the audience sees you as being similar, they will be inclined to believe that you understand their world.

To explore this, we need the help of the Head of the National Security Agency, General Keith Alexander.

In 2012 General Alexander addressed the annual BlackHat Conference of IT hackers in Las Vegas. This gentleman is head of a significant government agency and a decorated US General. That’s a uniform with some serious power, but in deference to the idea that you should dress in a style similar to your audience, somebody sent the General on stage wearing jeans and a t-shirt.

The result was that the speaker didn’t look as if he was mirroring his audience so much as mimicking his audience. Sincerity is a crucial part of ethos and an insincerely worn costume reflects back on the speaker.

The mistake is not limited to US Generals. British leaders are equally good at it. In the past, politicians such as Foreign Secretary Hague and Prime Minister Cameron, have both attempted to mirror their audience with excursions into backwards worn baseball caps and rolled-up shirt sleeves that have made them look not simpatico, but insincerely silly.

We have a clothing conundrum:

  • Uniforms enhance credibility and boost ethos-logos? Or……
  • Uniforms emphasise difference and collapse ethos-logos
  • Dressing for similarity emphasizes shared perspective and boosts ethos-logos? Or….
  • Dressing for similarity looks insincere and collapses ethos-logos

Question: Punk graphic designer meets conservative bank. 

What to wear?

Here’s one final thinking point: Uniforms and dress-codes come in multiple guises. Imagine you run a design business and amongst your staff you have a brilliant young designer who you want to have with with you at a client meeting. That designer however is of a multi-pierced, multi-colored haired, ripped jeans and diaper-pins in odd places type appearance. The customer meanwhile, is a highly conservative bank.

How would you ask your designer to dress?

What would be your ethos-logos clothing solution to maintain their credibility in front of the customer?

Presentation Ethos, Mr Burns, a Dental Nurse, and Me

by Peter Watts

Credibility in public speaking is associated with the level of ethos that you command with your audience, customer, or patient.

Ethos is founded on reputation, it’s founded on the title before your name or the qualifications that trail after it. It’s bolstered by visible accoutrements such as your premises, your equipment, or your uniform. It’s your past track record and your client list. Ethos is that diploma you keep framed on the wall. When ethos is visible, ethos is easy. Once you’ve got the titles and the trappings, then you can ride on them. Right?

Wrong.

Most of all, ethos is similarity. It’s can people like you? People buy from people. Are you a likable human, or a cold diploma?

Allow me to illustrate, because I just met this phenomena in the flesh in my Dentist’s office. Or rather, I met her eyes in the flesh because every other bit of anatomy was covered in surgical-wear, and a gloved hand was sticking some cold whining torture tool into my gum-line. How’s that for all the accoutrements of ethos with none of the likability?

About ten minutes into treatment, I must have angled my jaw into the perfect position for oral penetration, because unexpectedly, from under my tormenter’s mask came a creepy but perfectly phrased “Excellent”. Joann the Hygienist had just delivered a grade A impression of the Simpsons character Mr Burns.

Treatment had to stop immediately. I was experiencing an overwhelming urge to respond with a Burns quote of my own:

“Release the hounds.”

Complete strangers till 15 minutes earlier, Joann and I had just established a level of intimacy born of our shared enjoyment in a TV character. Once that connection was established, all Joann had to do was slowly steeple and then drum her fingers together for me to become instant dental putty in her hands (fellow Burns fans will know what I mean!)

In this coincidence of connection, I was experiencing ethos at first-hand. While Joann had all the visible elements of ethos, the Burns connection suddenly gave us a shared cultural reference point. It gave us an aspect of similarity, and we are most readily inclined to favor and believe those who we regard as being similar to ourselves.

Doctors are held up as a prime example of ethos, and yet, how many Doctors find themselves getting sued?

As Malcolm Gladwell explored in his book “Blink”, there is an inverse correlation between the amount of time Doctors spend on social orientation with patients, and the likelihood of their later being sued for malpractice. Malpractice suits are the ultimate expression of the collapse of ethos. Ethos is collapsing through a lack of social connection.

Joann and I connecting over Mr Burns was maybe an extreme example, but the fundamental point remains. For complete credibility, connection is as important as  qualification.

Sales presentation strategy

By Peter Watts

What is your primary goal in making a sales presentation? It’s to sell something.

So why do so many sales-presenters try to conceal the fact? You might be amongst them. Do your sales presentations open with phrases such as:

  • “Your success is important, and we’re going to look at how our products can help you be even more successful.”
  • “We’ve helped many organizations achieve benefits, and in this presentation we’ll explore how we could help you to do the same”
  • “The purpose of this presentation is to demonstrate how our products offer you the best value solution.”

All commendable sentiments, but also great big honking fibs!

A lot of salespeople, especially the salespeople with the really big impressive job titles such as “Senior Strategic Account Director” or some other business-card hokum, have internalized the message that selling is just a little bit dirty. To be after the customer’s cash is sleazy and liable to make them doubt your credibility.

Actually no. If you want to make the audience doubt your credibility then attempting to conceal the primary purpose of your presentation is a far better place to start!

You’re there to sell and the customer is there to buy.

It’s actually two highly compatible agendas.

Within public speaking there is a topic called ethos, and this is all about credibility. As public speaking expert Andrew Dlugan explains, ethos is everything you include in a presentation to show that you are credible in your subject, trustworthy as a speaker, and compatible with the audience viewpoint.

There are things that you can do throughout the sections of a presentation to build-up your ethos as a speaker, but nowhere is ethos more important than the section right at the beginning. This is where the audience asks themselves: “Can we trust this person?”

If you’ve just started your presentation with a sweet sounding but rather transparent fib about your primary purpose, then what do you think you just did to your ethos level?

You avoided any words to do with sales because you didn’t want to sound sleazy, but instead you’ve made yourself sound evasive. And sleazy!

Here are some ideas for professional ways to tell the customer that you’re interested in the colour of their money:

  • “I would love to be able to welcome you as a customer.”
  • “I would be delighted to have your business.”
  • “I want to demonstrate how buying our product will meet your goals.”

All of these statements say “I want your business”, and all of these statements start with the first person “I”. This is important. It’s you that’s standing in front of the customer, and you that is asking them to believe the words that are about to come. Even if you are representing a larger organization, using the word “I” gives meat and ownership to those words.

Now for the little bit of blog-magic. Take any of those three phrases in red, and stick them in front of  any of the three earlier phrases in blue. The result sounds a lot stronger doesn’t it.

By being upfront, you create transparency. Transparency creates trust. Trust creates credibility.

Credibility creates a winning sales presentation.

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