Listen my children and you shall hear
of the midnight ride of Paul Revere…
So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm…
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
We all know the story. Here’s the account from Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point:
In two hours, Paul Revere covered thirteen miles. In every town he passed through along the way – Charlestown, Medford, North Cambridge, Menotomy – he knocked on doors and spread the word, telling local colonial leaders of the oncoming British, and telling them to spread the word to others. Church bells started ringing. Drums started beating. The news spread like a virus as those informed by Paul Revere sent out riders of their own, until alarms were going off throughout the entire region.
Paul Revere’s ride is perhaps the most famous historical example of a word-to mouth epidemic.
Gladwell goes on to describe that one reason Revere’s ride worked so well was that it was Paul Revere who made that ride, and not someone else. Paul Revere was a world-class networker. People knew him – he knew people. When Paul Revere spread the news, it was not a stranger spreading that news – but a person they knew, recognized, trusted. He had credibility.
It reminds me a little about the time when Walter Cronkite, out of character for him, injected his opinion into a broadcast. He stated, simply, that Vietnam was not winnable – a stalemate was the best we could hope for. He stated it directly to the American people, and President Lyndon Baines Johnson famously responded:
“For it seems now more certain than ever,” Cronkite said, “that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.” After watching Cronkite’s broadcast, LBJ was quoted as saying. “That’s it. If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”*
The common thread here is this: when a person speaks, the more known/connected that person is, the more trusted, the more credible…then the more people will respond.
It takes a while (a lifetime?) of networking, of building a reputation of reliability, of building true credibility, to have that kind of impact.
So – make every connection you can. Make those connections “strong ties” (Gladwell again). Because, one of these days, you are going to need people to listen to what you have to say.
* Yes, I am aware that there is some element of myth to the Cronkite story and LBJ’s response. But, a myth is powerful — whether it gets details right or wrong. I tell my students that “a myth is a story that is true, whether it is true or not.”
Bono recently wrote a beautiful tribute to Sargent Shriver: What I Learned From Sargent Shriver. He worked with Shriver’s son, Bobby, on some major efforts to help alleviate poverty, especially among the most desperately poor. In the midst of his tribute is some great communication advice:
I have beautiful memories of Bobby and me sitting with his father and mother at the Shrivers’ kitchen table — the same team that gazed over J.F.K.’s shoulder — looking over our paltry attempts at speechifying, prodding and pushing us toward comprehensibility and credibility, a challenge when your son starts hanging round with a bleeding-heart Irish rock star.
Comprehensibility: make sure your message can be easily grasped, easily and quickly understood, by your audience.
Credibility: (Aristotle called it ethos): make sure you have done your homework, lived your message, gained respect – in other words, make sure you have earned the right to speak.
Pretty good advice for all of us in the communication business – which, by the way, is just about all of us!
How many commercials have you seen for Coca-Cola in your lifetime? Something close to a gazillion (to adapt Forrest Gump’s word). I’ve seen many of them and the ones for Pepsi, and 7UP, and… But given a choice, I always buy the Dr Pepper product. (What can I say?, I’m from Texas! In my youth, it was actual Dr Pepper. Currently, it’s the Diet Cherry version. Oh, for my youth back!).
I’m convinced that Coca-Cola (and a host of other companies) would pay you close to that gazillion figure, in cash, tomorrow afternoon, if you could do one thing: create a commercial that, after one viewing, would get every viewer to buy their product, and only their product, for the rest of his/her life.
But you can’t create that commercial. I don’t care how creative you are, how brilliant you are, you can’t create that commercial. Why? Because persuasion/rhetoric is not a science, it is an art. It is imprecise, never guaranteed.
For example, Barack Obama was elected President with 52.87% of the popular vote. That means, after all that campaigning, all those debates, he was unable to persuade some 47.13% of the people to vote for him. By the way, my favorite illustration of this comes from Nolan Ryan. Arguably the greatest candidate ever for the Baseball Hall of Fame, he had 5,714 career strikeouts and 7 career no-hitters. Sandy Koufax, with four, is #2 on that list. Ryan got 491 votes out of 497 votes cast. (This was only the second highest percentage in history, at 98.79%. Tom Seaver beat him with 98.84%, 425 out of 430 votes).
Now, I readily admit that it is an open question as to who the greatest pitcher of all time is. But did Ryan’s accomplishments, his fame, qualify him to be in baseball’s Hall of Fame? What idiot could possibly have failed to vote yes? Yet, six idiots did exactly that. (I searched, but could not find the quote – but as I remember, Nolan Ryan said something like this: “I’d just like to find those 6 guys who did not vote for me.”)
According to Aristotle, rhetoric involves discovering and using the available means of persuasion, and are three primary means of persuasion – logos: the logical argument, the content of the argument itself; ethos, the ethical argument: the quality of, the believability, the character, especially the credibility, of the speaker; and pathos, the emotional argument: the passion of the speaker, the “I really care about this issue, and you should to” nature of the appeal.
We tend to believe that the “logic” of the argument should win the day. But it’s not that simple. And, frequently, the credibility of the speaker is more important than the logic of the argument. But, even with those two in agreement (logic of argument + credibility of speaker), the emotional appeal can still trump them both.
These thoughts all flow from my reaction to a short blog post, and then the video (below), from the Freakonomics blog. I watched the video. It is really, really good. It is unanswerable. The logic is perfect. But – the logic of the argument has not actually won the argument (I suspect it will be a long time before it does). The logic is unassailable. But, as the ranter says, we won’t take this step because of “sentimental reasons.”
To reject the argument of this speaker is not logical. It is an emotional rejection. The subject — should we get rid of the penny? Of course we should! But we haven’t yet, and probably will not, anytime soon.
Here’s what Stephen Dubner wrote:
The Best Anti-Penny Rant Ever?
I’ve already used up too much of your bandwidth complaining about the uselessness of pennies, but allow me to share with you a wonderful vlog rant by John Green on the many, many reasons why the penny (and the nickel, too) should be abolished. He is good.
And here’s the video. It is very, very funny.
(yes, I have posted on this earlier. I keep learning more, as we all do. And it is a big, big deal. Actual people died. And there is quite an important business lesson in here).
It is Rhetoric 101. A speaker has to be both qualified and trustworthy. Lose either, and you have a bad/failed messenger.
So let’s start by listening to the words:
Here’s the key excerpt from the commercial:
“History has shown a good company will fix its mistakes. But a great company will learn from them… We’re working to restore your faith in our company by providing you with safe, reliable vehicles, like we have for over 50 years.”
So says the new Toyota Commercial. I hope it is true. But I’m not sure they have yet learned from their mistakes. Because the mistake is not “we had a deficiency in our cars,” the mistake was “we had a deficiency in our cars, we knew about it, and we kept selling them and let people keep driving them.” The mistake was not the deficiency, the mistake was that they kept it pretty quiet and did not act.
And cars crashed… and people died.
News item: State Farm warned the NHTSA about Toyota’s acceleration problems in 2007. Toyota certainly got the word then.
State Farm insurance said it noticed an uptick in reports of unwanted acceleration in Toyotas from its large customer database and warned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in late 2007. NHTSA officials said the report was reviewed and the agency issued a recall later that month.
News item: Oops – State Farm has now double-checked, and the NHTSA was first notified in 2004. Toyota got the word then.
In the latest development in the Toyota recall crisis, State Farm, the US insurer, said it had reviewed its records and found it had contacted safety regulators in 2004.
Toyota said Thursday it is recalling 2.3 million vehicles in the U.S. to fix accelerator pedals that can become stuck, the latest in a string of quality problems that have bedeviled the Japanese automaker.
Am I sure that they kept it hidden? Just look at the time line demonstrated above. For at least part of those “50 years,” they kept dangers hidden – dangers they knew about.
Now, I don’t run a big company. I don’t know what I would do if I had a problem on my hands that would cost billions of dollars. But I am certain that there are families who lost loved ones in the crashes that occurred because Toyota knew of the problem and did not deal with it. For at least 5+ years. (The first warning came at least as early as 2004. And call me a cynic, but don’t you think someone within Toyota might have known something before the first State Farm notification?!)
Ask these grieving families what Toyota should have done, and I’m pretty sure they would have said this: “Toyota should tell people not to drive these cars until we figure it out, and fix it!”
Here’s my problem – why should we trust a company, even after watching such a nice commercial, when they knew about the problems, and violated people’s trust, for at least half-a-decade?
For a company, credibility is the gold standard. That standard is quite tarnished for Toyota. And, on a personal note, I come close to resenting their commercial.
(And — on a better note — maybe State Farm really is like a good neighbor!)
Credibility really is the coin of the realm…
The word “credit” comes from the Latin word that means “to believe.” The crisis in America and for 300 million Americans is the lack of credit, the lack of credibility, and the lack of confidence that has rocked our nation to the very core. (Frank Luntz, What Americans Really Want…Really).
I’ve been thinking a lot about credibility lately. You can use a few more words to describe this rare and great trait: trustworthiness, reliability. You know the concept – a person, a company makes a claim. The request is: “trust me.” And then the claim turns out to be not quite what was promised. You are disappointed, and the company/individual loses credibility. Credibility lost is really, really hard to restore. And there is a lot of credibility that has been lost in the current era.
I thought of that as I watched the 60 Minutes interview with Andre Agassi. He has written an autobiography, Open: An Autobiography, and Katie Couric interviewed him in just the right way, allowing him to tell his story, with no holds barred. It was filled with very open admissions and confession. He hated tennis (to some extent, still hates tennis). He wore hair weaves, and was scared to death that one would fall off in mid-tournament (and his hair was definitely part of his persona, his “brand”). He took crystal meth for the better part of a year, and lied about it.
And he was denied the possibility of a good education by a significantly overly-demanding dad. His dad demanded a tennis career, and pushed him away from everything else, including education. This is partly why he has done such a terrific job in providing education for students (he established a successful/impressive school in Las Vegas) in his post-competitive tennis life.
I knew little about his story. I’m a big believer in second chances, and I finished the interview thinking that here was an example of credibility lost, credibility regained. But I also ssaw again that when there is no openness, credibility is one of the casualties. Openness is one of the critical pieces in building, and/or regaining credibility.
Rick Reilly (voted National Sportswriter of the Year eleven times) recently wrote about Agassi and his new book. Here are a couple of excerpts:
This is Agassi’s mea culpa — “Open” (from Knopf, written with Pulitzer Prize winner J.R. Moehringer) — and from the beginning, he and Moehringer set out to write the most revealing, literate and toes-stompingly honest sports autobiography in history. From the parts I’ve been allowed to read, they might have done it.
Why is Agassi so scorchingly honest in these excerpts? Maybe because he once lived enough lies for five men. Or maybe because, as an educator, he’s heard the truth can set him free.
But hopefully, by the time you close “Open,” you’ll know that this book is about more than the wrong turns he took. It’s about how that broken road led him straight to the good man he is now.
Credibility – openness – honesty. These are very good traits to aim for and live out in this very uncertain and suspicious era.
(Note to our readers — normally I would simply leave a comment on Bob’s blog post, but this one needs more room).
I really liked Bob’s post, Q #122: How to become more persuasive. There is nothing I disagreed with, but here are some thoughts I would like to add to the conversation.
Much of what he said is confirmed by the great thinkers in rhetoric. Aristotle spoke of the three primary means of persuasion: logos (the logical appeal), pathos (the emotional appeal), and ethos (the ethical appeal). Bob spoke of four critical factors, including (in shorthand form) credibility, pathos/passion leading to a deep emotional connection between speaker and audience, and other great bridge-building traits that connect speaker to audience.
At the heart of ethos is the idea of, the centrality of, credibility. Here’s a simple and compelling illustration. Normally, the better speaker (i.e., the more dynamic speaker) is the most persuasive. But if the subject discussed is airline safey, no one could match the current credibility of Chesley Sullenberger (the pilot who landed a plane successfully in the Hudson River). Though he is also a clear and compelling communicator, his credibility is so far off the charts that his persuasive abilities in the arena of airline safety would truly be unmatched.
But, as persuasive as these factors are, there is a step that comes before them all. This step is what the ancients described by the word stasis: bringing the audience to a complete standstill in their thinking. In order for anyone to be persuaded to change in any way — in their thinking, their attitude, their behavior — the audience member has to understand: “something is wrong about my current state. My thinking is off; my behavior is not working; my attitude is contributing to the problem.” As long as a person thinks all is ok as it is, no persuasion is possible. Stasis is that moment when a speaker helps the individual stop and think: “I have got to make a change!” When that happens, and only when that happens, will persuasion then become possible.
Bob’s post provides great tools to help that happen — to bring the person to that moment of standstill, and then to point to a new direction.
But bringing the audience/the person to a moment of true stasis — to a true moment of standstill, and the acknowledgement and realization that something has to change — that is the great challenge of persuasion.