1: The year was 1992.  Republican pollster Frank Luntz was running a focus group in Detroit to test television ads.  Frank was looking at tactics to undermine support for Ross Perot, an Independent presidential candidate.  Frank showed the first focus group a series of three ads: a biography about Ross Perot and his rise from poverty through entrepreneurship to becoming one of the world’s wealthiest people, then one of the candidate’s speeches, and finally, testimonials from others.

“What he found at first was that he couldn’t undermine support for Perot,” writes Stephen Denning in The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative.  Whatever arguments Frank made, support for Ross Perot remained strong.

In the next focus group, Frank made an error.  He mistakenly ran the ads in reverse order: first, the testimonials, then the speech, and finally, the biography.

“With this order, the people said that they didn’t like Perot at all.  His opinions seemed intemperate if they didn’t rest on the foundation of his impressive rags-to-riches life story,” Stephen writes.  It hit Frank like a lightning bolt: “The order in which you give people information influences how they think.  If they’re already positively oriented to the subject, their reaction to what you are saying is very different from what it would be without that connection.”  

As leaders, how do we apply this insight?  To bring about change and inspire action, we must connect emotionally with our audience before presenting rational reasoning.  

To persuade an audience, we must do three things: get their attention, stimulate a desire for change, and then reinforce the willingness to change with facts and reasoning.  To be successful, we should follow these steps in this order.  “When the language of leadership is deployed in this sequence, it can inspire enduring enthusiasm for a cause and spark action to start implementing it,” Stephen writes.

Get attention >> Stimulate desire >> Reinforce with reasons

2: This sequence differs from the traditional approach to communication, where we begin by stating the problem, analyzing the options, and then concluding with a recommended course of action.

Define problem >> Analyze problem >> Recommend solution

This sequence is the “normal,” the “commonsense,” the “rational” way of communicating, Stephen writes.  “It’s an appeal to reason—a model that has been the hallowed Western intellectual tradition ever since the ancient Greeks.  It reached its apogee in the twentieth century.  And it works well enough when your aim is merely to pass on information to people who want to hear it.”

The problem?  Suppose our goal is to get people to change what they are doing and act in a decidedly different way with drive and enthusiasm.  In that case, this approach has two severe limitations: “One, it doesn’t work.  And two, it often makes the situation worse,” writes Stephen.

“Giving reasons for change to people who don’t agree with you isn’t just ineffective.  A significant body of psychological research shows that it often entrenches them more deeply in opposition to what you are proposing,” he notes.

3: In 1979, Stanford psychologist Charles Lord and his team published research on what happens when people are presented with arguments that oppose what they currently believe.  They selected twenty-four proponents and twenty-four opponents of capital punishment.

“They showed them studies that confirmed the penalty’s deterrence as well as other studies that refuted it,” Stephen writes.  “What happened?  The proponents of capital punishment interpreted the studies as supporting capital punishment, while the opponents concluded that the evidence refuted the approach.  

“Both proponents and opponents found clever ways to reinterpret or set aside any contrary evidence so as to confirm their original positions.”

For example, a participant in favor of capital punishment said of a study confirming the deterrence effect: “The experiment was well thought out, the data collected was valid, and they were able to come up with responses to all criticisms.” In the same study, an opponent of capital punishment said: “I don’t feel such a straightforward conclusion can be made from the data collected.”

The opinions were reversed in a different study showing the deterrence effect did not work.  “The opponent’s meat became the proponent’s poison and vice versa,” writes Stephen. “The end result was that the proponents and the opponents of capital punishment became even more set in their positions.  After they reviewed the evidence, they were more polarized than before.”

The psychological term for this phenomenon is “confirmation bias.” Writing almost four hundred years ago, Francis Bacon observed: “The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion . . . draws all things else to support and agree with it.  And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.”

What are the implications for us as leaders?  To spark real change, we must connect with our audience emotionally before providing our reasoning.  

“Successful leaders communicate very differently from the traditional, abstract approach to communication,” Stephen observes.  “In all kinds of settings, they communicate by following a hidden pattern: first, they get attention.  Then they stimulate desire, and only then do they reinforce with reasons.”

More tomorrow.


Reflection: What are the implications of “confirmation bias” for me as a leader?  Consider a current circumstance where I would like to persuade others to my way of thinking.  How can I capitalize on Stephen’s learning above to increase my chance of success?

Action: Experiment and reflect on what happens.

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