Getting People to Listen to You

2016-07-08 17:58

Rich. Dark. Roasted. Freshly ground. Inhale. Deeply. Unmistakable. Aroma. Anticipation. Froth. Relaxed. Feeling a little sharper. Nice.

Ah, the devil’s brew. One of life’s great pleasures.

If you drink the real stuff, you’ll be forgiven for stopping right now while you quickly go get a mug. Don’t forget to inhale deeply when you open the tin. Come on, you know you want to.

Ok, you back?

Right, so you have a presentation to make. A little behavioural science will get you a long way. The trick is appeal to people in two ways: Priming and Getting People Open to Listening to you.

Priming is a really exciting area of research. If I say ‘yellow’ and ‘fruit’ you don’t even have to consciously think about ‘banana’; the image almost certainly popped into your head. By using words and images related to something most people hold in memory, it is possible to induce an evaluation or even an action in a person without them realising it.

So if I primed you with concepts related to ‘Extrovert’, chances are you’ll deliver a stronger, more confident public speech than if I had you read the words – ‘quiet, unassuming, cautious and introverted’. So the executive assistant, or mentor to someone about to deliver a presentation, should use strong, affirming, and visually-stimulating words. Don’t make it obvious; their brains will fill in the details. Don’t say, “You’re a great speaker” – say things like, ”Today’s a great day, I’m feeling confident”. A little fluffy perhaps? Try it.

In 1996, Bargh, Chen & Burrows, designed an experiment that primed a group of subjects with words related to the elderly, while other control groups got lists of random words. The experimenters then secretly, and blindly (they did not know which group of words a person had been primed with) timed the length of time it took for people to walk a certain distance shortly after being primed. Guess which group walked the slowest? And while replicating this experiment is almost impossible due to what we refer to as ‘expectancy effects’ – which means the experimenters now are consciously trying to test for a particular result, and this is potentially, albeit subconsciously, signalled to participants or it influences subsequent interpretation of the data. Replication is a notoriously difficult challenge in social psychology research because of this, nonetheless the evidence for priming generally is robust. Just ask the marketing industry.

Workplace priming is a real thing. For instance, if one is primed (by past experience, the media, your social circle) to think of other people, especially people that are different from us, as possessing particular character traits, then we are likely to prejudge individuals without even realising it. Don’t underestimate your inability to overcome your inherent bias, you are not as rational as you think.

For instance, if you treat everyone like they can’t be trusted, or basically like children - then they are more likely to behave that way. Imagine I said to you, ‘I want you to work in a place where nobody trusts you to do what you say you're going to do’. I think most people would tell me to get knotted.

Then I’d say, welcome to corporate South Africa. The lack of trust is so ingrained in our workplace behaviour, that we can’t imagine working any other way.

Very South African Scenario: Meeting of highly-paid, highly educated professional grown-ups takes place. At end of meeting, we repeat everything again, making it clear who has agreed to do what. Again. This is then followed up with an email to all the adults that were in the meeting confirming what was agreed. Again. To what end? So we can hold everyone accountable? Cover our own ass? Because we don’t trust the people we spend a third of our lives with to keep their word? Frankly, it's unmitigated bullsh!t. Rubbish culture. Does a real leader of people perpetuate that kind of implicit mistrust in an organisation?

Like I said, that nonsense is so ingrained in South African corporate culture; many managers simply can’t imagine it any other way. Try doing that in Europe and people will tell you to piss off and stop treating them like a child. And rightly so. A good manager makes a private note of what people said and uses that for discreet follow up; a crap manager blasts out unnecessary 'confirmatory emails' right after a meeting.

So here’s a thought: Drop the recap. Drop the mail. Trust your colleagues, some of whom you hired, to do what they say they will. I promise from the depths of my being, your organisation will not be any less effective. In my experience, when people are treated like adults, they tend to act like them too.

Ok, so how do we get People to be Open to Listening to Us? Try these -

1. Get people smiling.

2. Use simple language.

3. Write in large, clear font ONLY.

When people smile, they relax. When they relax, they’re more inclined to listen. Prime them with words and images that are likely to get them smiling. The key is subtlety. When people smile, they feel the emotions associated with smiling. Our bodies, not just our brains can reinforce a sense of well being. Try it right now. Force yourself to smile at the screen right now. A big, toothy grin. Notice how you’re feeling. When people feel good, they listen. They’re primed. Then relax, they’ll be more open to your ideas (Jaffe, 2010).

As for simple language, there is research that shows the use of unnecessary, pretentious long-winded words in attempt to create an impression of intelligence, is in fact negatively correlated with… yup, intelligence (Oppenheimer, 2005). I’ll go one further – people who use jargony, acronym- and Greek-letter laden sentences often do so in an attempt to mask unconscious feelings of insecurity about the real value of their job to society. There is no need to speak gobblygook, unless you’re trying to sound like a smart ass. Think about it. How many of the truly smart people that you know and respect ‘utilize erudite vernacular irrespective of necessity*’? Thought so.

And finally, some interesting research into an area known as ‘cognitive strain’ has shed a little light on how counterproductive those slick, icon-loaded, flow-charty, arrow-y, fine-font PowerPoint slides are. The objective of a presentation is to get the audience interested in your ideas, not your iconology. What you want to do is create ‘cognitive ease’ (Kahneman, 2011) for the people in your meeting. Make it dead simple for them to understand what you’re proposing. A bright chap, Shane Fredericks, designed a Cognitive Reflection Test – I won’t go into the details, suffice to say, a major finding was that the use of small, detailed, hard-to-read font induced ‘cognitive strain’. More effort, less attention. More detail, less interest. More flowy, arrowy, profile piccy, cutesy, colour-coded maps of Africa……..more aaaarrrrggghhhhhh COFFEEEE!!!!


*Oppenheimer, D. (2006). Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly. Applied Cognitive Psychology. Vol. 20, 139-156

Bargh, J., Chen, M. & Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of Social Behaviour: Direct Effects of Trait Construction and Stereotype Activation on Action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 230-244

Rosenthal, R. (1995). Critiquing Pygmalion: A 25-year Perspective. Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 4, 171-172.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Jaffe, E. (2010). The Psychological Study of Smiling. Associations for Psychological Science: Observer. Vol. 23

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