Proving you can do it

by Peter Watts

Thought is language, and language is thought. We think in words and that’s why the special speech-patterns used in rhetoric can be so powerful.

They help you, and your audience to think in whole new ways.

One of my favourites is a pattern called “Argumentum a Fortiori”. It means argument from strength. It’s a form of logical proof.

To convince an audience that something is possible, think of the most extreme situation in which your case has triumphed, and make the argument:

“If we can survive / endure / triumph / function in those circumstances, then we can achieve anything.”

Here’s why a Fortiori is so wonderful. To use it, you have to recall your victories, and thereby build not only your audience’s confidence, but also your own.

This week saw a superb example of a Fortiori.

The backstory to this quote is the widely condemned decision of the Indian Supreme Court to re-instate an 1861 article of the Indian penal code, making it illegal to be gay in India.

In a New York Times article of December 15th, an Indian activist called Gautam Bhan used the most wonderful a fortiori argument. When asked if he was daunted about now having to fight the Indian Supreme Court, Bhan responded:

“Do you know what’s daunting? It is that moment when you are 15 and you are terrified of who you are. If we have survived that, the Supreme Court does not know what fear looks like.”

Now that’s a Fortiori!

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?

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