Monthly Archives: July 2009

The Perils of Risk Communication

I spent four years as the leader of the Health Communication Research Branch in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during both the Clinton and Bush administrations.  My lead agency was the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).  I learned a great deal about the importance of risk communication particularly when those messages come from government leaders.  People who are good at risk communication tend to keep their jobs while those who aren’t, don’t.  And with good reason.  If you are supposed to be a health and safety expert, you should know how to talk about it.

Couric Interview SebeliusLast night I witnessed a weak example of risk communication from a government leader.  Katie Couric of CBS News interviewed Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary for Health and Human Services.  You can follow this link to first read a transcript of the brief interview, then click on the interview image on their website to watch the video.  I’d encourage you to do so.

While Secretary Sebelius projects an approachable expertise, her responses to Couric’s questions are good examples of weak risk communication.  Couric often phrases a question that asks for a direct, clear, “yes” or “no,” while also expecting elaboration.  Yet in virtually every case, Sebelius answers the question with a long, careful, and complex response that tries to be all things to all people at all times and never clearly answers the question.  It sounds more like she is running for office and less like a health and safety expert.

The problem is particularly acute given the topic:  Vaccination for swine flu.  Vaccines are controversial health programs that generate great fear and worry in many parents.  While the overwhelming majority of most people understand the value of vaccinations in general, each particular case is cause for serious consideration.

Sebelius needs immediate coaching from risk communication trainers.  She has great presence, has an excellent voice, and shows great calmness.  She looks like a trustworthy leader who also knows what she’s talking about.

But she needs to take the next step and master the patterns of talk required for effective risk communication.  Learn and rehearse simple, direct statements.  Answer immediately with short, clear, and decisive statements, then add clarifications.  Address negative issues with sensitivity and respect, but provide correct counterarguments.  Risk communication is not like management communication.

This is not a trivial matter.  Weak risk communication can make a bad situation worse for everyone including yourself.  A painful example to consider is  Dr. Jeff Koplan who was the Director of the CDC during the anthrax attacks of 2001.  Koplan was the initial face and voice of the Federal government during those scary weeks and he was not an effective risk communicator, despite his outstanding credentials, reputation, and experience as a public health researcher and leader.  He didn’t know how to talk about the risk.  His words tended to increase fear, doubt, and worry.  Not only was he replaced as the lead spokesperson (by Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes for Health), but Koplan resigned as CDC Director just a few weeks later.

Risk communication is a difficult form of persuasion and it requires training, practice, and experience.  While it is similar to other forms of persuasion like management and leadership and to a certain extent, teaching, it has its own unique qualities that need specific study.

Nudging for Nothing

Good science often provides both good news and bad news in the same moment and a report by Dan O’Keefe and Jakob Jensen in the Journal of Communication illustrates this.  O’Keefe and Jensen conducted a meta-analysis of the research literature investigating the effects of message framing on health risk behavior.  The good news is that they found something.  The bad news is that the something they found is next to nothing.

At the outset we need to get on the same page with some key words.  First, a meta-analysis is a quantitative review of the literature.  Instead of doing a narrative review where you read everything on a topic, think hard about it, and draw conclusions, a meta-analysis collects all the quantitative data on a topic, analyzes the combined results, and then draws conclusions (quantitative and qualitative).  Well done metas can make a huge contribution to research by providing a large scale perspective with properly applied analysis.  So, a meta is a like a review of the lit, just with numbers instead of words.  It is a well established method that can be abused, but when done right, is a good thing.

Second, message framing is a persuasion tactic that provides information against different backgrounds.  We can say, for example, that health tests like mammograms are helpful either because:  1) the test can detect cancer early when it is easier to treat (gain frame) or 2) if you don’t test, you may not detect cancer early when it is easier to treat (loss frame).  In both message frames, the same claim is made:  Get a mammogram.  However, the gain frame focuses upon advantages while the loss frame keys on disadvantages.  Framing is usually conceptualized within Prospect Theory which is part of the Nobel-prize winning work of Dan Kahneman and Amos Tversky.  You might also know about framing, Prospect Theory, or Kahneman and Tversky through the recent book, Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.  Nudges are operationalized through “choice architecture” with message framing being a type of choice design.

Third, Nudge is the current rage for nuanced intellectuals pursuing public policy, particularly with the Federal government.  President Obama has nominated Cass Sunstein to run an important regulatory office in the Executive branch and Sunstein has made no secret of his desire to use persuasion tactics like Nudge and framing to influence citizens to make smarter choices.  While there are many elements to Nudging Public Policy, tactics like framing are part of the Standard Operating Procedure.

Fourth, according to theory, with a particular kind of behavior – disease detection – loss frames should work better than gain frames.  It’s a long argument, you need a good theory background, and it is accessible to anyone willing to die in the library for it, so go to it, otherwise you have to take this claim on its face.  Thus, when Dr. Sunstein becomes the Regulatory Czar, he might propose to write all Federal communications about women getting mammograms with loss frames to encourage more women to get the test.  He might do the same for men and tests for prostate cancer.  With anything that involves disease detection, he might require wording in the loss frame because of the theoretical advantages, plus some good experimental research.

Now, we can get to the research article from O’Keefe and Jensen.  So, what happens when you Nudge with a frame?

According to the meta-analysis, not much.

They scoured the literature and located 53 research reports that provided tests of gain versus loss frames on disease detection.  These studies involved 9,145 participants on a wide variety of topics.  The key comparison was that difference between loss framed messages versus gain framed messages.  Theory predicts that loss frames should be a lot better at motivating people to do the “right” behavior.

And, technically, this is exactly what they found.  Loss frames did produce more behavior change than gain frames and this average change was beyond the .05 level of statistical significance.  Now, the bad news:  the effect size, expressed as the correlation r, was .039.

For those of you with no stats background, a “small” effect r is considered to be anything over .100.  Thus, the obtained r of .039 only one third of a small effect.  Expressed in the Windowpane format this is a 49.39% versus 50.61% difference.  Which is a quantitative way of saying, “Nothing happened” (although that is not what we say when we look at a computer screen and realize our next grant application just died).

Now, quickly to the tut-tuts and “Sir, may I interject the observation that . . .”  There is much more to the analysis.  Lots of numbers.  Lots of nuance.  Lots of potential exceptions.  I agree.  More research is needed!

Yet and still, focus on the Main Point:  All the smart money has been on a very particular bet for over 20 years and that bet is proven to be baseless with this meta-analysis.  Let me provide as unadorned a quote from the paper as I’ve ever read in a scientific research report:

This must be counted a rather disappointing conclusion.

Can I get a big “Hell, yeah!” from all the redneck girls and boys like me on this?

Let’s divide the remaining comment into two streams:  Science and Policy.

The science here is surprised.  Dan O’Keefe does good work and this report is yet another example of his skill, patience, and prudence.  If he has any skin in the game, I have no idea where it is.  The report is objective, balanced, and driven by science.  It provides strong evidence of a theory failure.  I would argue that the first place to pick up the pieces on the science side is through a thorough dual process analysis.  Many framing studies are done without carefully controlling or measuring the processing state of the participant (and I’d make that assertion about a lot of Prospect Theory research).  Framing can function either as a cue or an elaboration moderator and it makes a huge difference in outcomes.  Thus, frames, prospects, and Nudges still may work as claimed, but they need a large rewrite.

The policy, I fear, is probably going to be largely unaffected.  Nudgers, in particular, will probably not read this report and if they do, will find a way to isolate it from their beliefs.  Really smart Nudgers will most likely read this article, discern the master stroke missing from the meta-analysis, and adjust their thinking without testing it.  My largest worry is that people will try to Nudge within the Federal government even in the face of this empirical failure.  These results should not have occurred.  Unless you can demonstrate empirically why and how framing should still work here, you should seriously reconsider Nudging anything.

Otherwise, you are Nudging for Nothing.

Great Moments in Weak Arguments

When high WATT processors think about “strong” arguments, they generate positive thoughts (“elaborations”) that then lead to positive attitude change.  When high WATT processors think about “weak” arguments, they generate negative thoughts that then lead to negative attitude change.  Thus, argument quality drives direction and amount of elaboration which drives direction and amount of attitude change.  This is just basic Central Route theory from the Elaboration Likelihood Model.

Okay, class, let’s test our understanding of this simple persuasion chain with a story ripped from the headlines.  John Dvorak wrote a story providing his perspective on the recent search merger between Microsoft and Yahoo and how this will play out against Google.  Dvorak claims that Google will continue to win and that things will only get worse for Microsoft and Yahoo.  (It’s a good article and Dvorak uses a nice persuasion metaphor to argue his claim.)

One reader, “dpolara,” disagrees, claiming that Bing is a better search engine than Google.  Here’s dplora’s argument:

“Enter this equation into Bing! : x-3/x-1=x-4/x-5

(Notice that Bing solves the equation for you)

Now enter it into Google:

Now enter it into Yahoo!

Looks like Bing, once again, has differentiated itself from Google and has offered Yahoo a better product.”

Solve for XOkay, literally millions of people use search engines on the Internet everyday.  How many of them will consider dplora’s argument to be strong or weak?  Now, I’ve got enough propeller in me to fancy solving for x time to time.  It’s almost up there with looking at Marilyn Monroe pictures, price shopping vodka, and checking the S&P.  But, how many other people besides me and dpolara can there be?

Yet, dpolara, wants to take the time to offer this as a refutation to John Dvorak, so it seems dpolara at least believes this is compelling information.

Remember the Rules:  It’s about the other guy, stupid!  And, All bad persuasion is sincere!

These Rules applied here would be:  How many other guys use search engines to solve for x.  And, simply because you solve for x doesn’t mean everyone else does, too.

Nudity, Reactance, Wine, and GatesGate – the Persuasion Connection

Cycles Gladiator Wine LabelIn a prior “Good Sunday Reading” post I noted a story where the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board banned sales of a wine that used nudity on its labels.  Now, we learn that the ban is stimulating sales of the wine, Cycles Gladiator, nationally.

Where to begin?

Sex Sells! right?  Except in Alabama although even in Alabama there’s some dispute on this point.

But, why didn’t Sex Sell before the ban?  Why didn’t the lovely Art Deco-ish label attract national attention and sales before the Alabama decision?

A good persuasion theory answer is, “reactance.”  Whenever people perceive an unfair restriction on their actions, they tend to respond in a defiant, rebellious, and acquisitive way.  Simply because the restriction is “unfair,” people will tend to want the restricted thing even more.

If you work with children, you’ve seen reactance in action and probably didn’t realize it.  You just made a rule, then enforced it with the kids, and Boom! they went off like a cannon shot.  What you probably missed in these kidstorms was that perception of “unfair” restriction.  You doubtless thought your actions were just, legal, and correct, but that’s not the point.  They saw something as unfair and that’s the trigger.

And, of course, reactance and perceptions of unfairness are not restricted to children.  I hesitate to use this as a potential application, but it unfortunately seems to fit:  One might – with great respect, sensitivity, and empathy – consider that just perhaps, maybe, and possibly, that Professor Henry Gates perceived the actions of Sergeant Crowley as placing unfair restrictions and Boom, you get one defiant Harvard prof.  Thus, the GatesGate affair is not about race or class or anything else.  Just good old reactance.

Man, is persuasion science cool beans, or what?  We start with nude nymphets selling wine and end up solving a National Nightmare.


Savannah GA Is Great!

Once again, I got to hold her purse and accompany Melanie to a professional conference held in Savannah, Georgia.  We had a swell time and except for misery at the hands of USAirways, it would have been a fine trip.

Savannah Out the Hyatt WindowWe stayed at the Hyatt and got a corner room with a view of . . . a Federal government installation in the form of a NOAA ship parked here on the river just outside our window.  A busy river out there.

Couple of funny observations.  First, there should be a law that hotels must disclose a transparency rating for its windows.  Second, busy rivers provide interesting bumps in the night.

Savannah Hyatt Atrium

We checked in at the Hyatt with a great service experience and clear directions to the elevator.  The Hyatt in Savannah has that familiar atrium design with a huge open center space.  We strolled over to the elevator banks, got in, and keyed in our room.  On the way up, I gave my wife a traditional, fanny-pat and secret bun squeeze as we zoom up in the elevator and looked out over the lobby area and atrium.  Whenever we’re in an elevator alone (and sometimes in traffic) I have to express my affection like any normal married guy.  And besides, who can see, right?

Except at this Hyatt, the smoked windows in the elevators and in your rooms are TRANSPARENT.  Think about that.  They tint the windows, but they are still transparent.  In most hotels, a tinted window means that you can see out on them, but that they cannot see in on you.  Except at the Savannah Hyatt.  I was standing around in the lobby area one night, looked up at the elevators and realized that you could clearly see anyone and what they were doing.  I also made this realization about the windows in our corner room.  See, the room overlooked a large sun deck with about 40 lounges and various tables and chairs.  I’d been taking showers then wandering over to our windows and looking out over the river and the sun deck wearing a smile and nothing else thinking, gee, what a fun view.  I didn’t realize until much later in our stay when I was sitting out on the sun deck and Melanie was in our room that . . . you could see in.

If I offended anyone, please accept my apologies.  Yes, I do have a naked body and normally I dress it when I know I’m in public, but when hotels provide tinted, but transparent windows, you may see more than you bargained for or ever wished to see.  Sur-Prise!

But, let’s get to the main point of these posts:  Food.  We ate dinner at the Sapphire Grill, Elizabeth’s, and Il Pasticcio.  (And lunch at a nice Asian place in a converted movie theatre and a “Chicago-style” sandwich joint).

The Sapphire Grill was a total gas and not just for the food.  First, it’s next to Paula Deen’s place, Lady and Sons.  Second, the food is very good.  Third, the ambience is even better.

Now, the food at the Sapphire Grill was quite well done and tasty too.  Melanie had a porterhouse pork steak and raved over it the entire meal.  I had the tasting menu that was delightful if a bit “down the middle” for me.  I like a junkie chef and this person played the tastes a bit too simple and safe for me.  But, it was still an excellent meal with a nice glass of Chablis.

Finally, the ambience was fabulous.  The room itself is dark with lots of wood paneling and a long, exposed, rough brick wall.  Nice bar for early arrivers which included a May-December couple that gave Melanie and me a fun opportunity to gossip.  One of the conversational delights we have in nice restaurants is looking around the room and figuring out the people we see.  Why are they there?  Why are they together?  Married or first date?  If they look like business, who’s picking up the check, who’s buying and who’s selling?  With this odd couple we played detective all night until we left.  She looked like she was having a lot of fun and he looked content.  Then three 30 something babes came blasting in and took a table.  None were wearing wedding bands, all were dressed for a happening night out, and they enjoyed each other’s company.  In my experience it is very rare to see three, attractive, probably single, and 30ish women in an upscale joint.  Usually women like this are with men and usually women like this are married.

So, if you go to the Sapphire Grill, you’ll get to walk by hungry people who are standing in line at Paula Deen’s place, have a great meal, and a great time people-watching.  Highly recommended!

Steve and Melanie at Elizabeth'sElizabeth’s is a great place, one of my all time favorites after only two visits.  It’s away from the river and you really need to take a taxi there.  It’s a long walk and you’d have to go through neighborhoods that everyone says you need to avoid.  But, it is fabulous, nouvelle Southern cuisine served by skilled, professional, and knowledgeable waiters, and all in a most charming large old home setting.

(It reminds me of the house my greatgrandfather Will Hains built around 1900 and that I lived in as a child, then married the girl of my dreams coming down the stairs Michelle Pfeiffer charged up in a movie about my uncle called, “The Children Nobody Wanted.”)

Savannah is a great eating town, but double check the windows.

Science as Cultural Icon: Obedience Doesn’t Explain Everything

Milgram ExperimentThe Milgram obedience studies are a cultural icon much like Proust’s huge novel, In Search of  Lost Time, or Bach’s Cantatas, or the Collected Works of William Shakespeare.  Everyone knows about them and if you are well and truly hip, kewel, groovy, or gear you also know the received opinion about them:  They’re Great!  The only problem is, most folks who wave these icons around during intellectual conversations often haven’t actually read them or heard them or seen them.  They’ve just heard about them and know the cool table evaluation attached to them.

A great illustration of this effect is found in an editorial by Adam Cohen of the New York Times.  Cohen observes a new replication of the Milgram obedience experiments from the 1960s recently published by Professor Jerry Burger (a PDF) in the journal, American Psychologist.  In this replication, Burger repeats a specific experiment Milgram conducted in the 1960s and finds the same effect Milgram reported.  Large percentages of adults will punish strangers with electric shocks when directed by an authority figure.

Cohen took the replication as an opportunity to reflect on the lessons of persuasion research for society.  Let me quote him.

“The results of both experiments pose a challenge. If this is how most people behave, how do we prevent more Holocausts, Abu Ghraibs and other examples of wanton cruelty? Part of the answer, Professor Burger argues, is teaching people about the experiment so they will know to be on guard against these tendencies, in themselves and others.”

“An instructor at West Point contacted Professor Burger to say that she was teaching her students about his findings. She had the right idea — and the right audience. The findings of these two experiments should be part of the basic training for soldiers, police officers, jailers and anyone else whose position gives them the power to inflict abuse on others.”

At the outset, since I am going to criticize Mr. Cohen’s arguments I must probably note that I am not in favor of another Holocaust, Abu Ghraib, or wanton cruelty from soldiers, police officers, jailers or even editorial writers.  We can all agree, can’t we, that wanton cruelty is a bad thing, we find it abhorrent, and we’re against it.

But to wave the Milgram icon over this argument is plain wrong.

First, observe Cohen’s claim that “most people behave” with a destructive acquiesence to authority.  While “most” is flexible term, it implies more than 50% of a population.  Most is a majority.  Most is not a minority.  If you’ve got most of the votes in an election, you win.  If you score most of the points in a ball game, you win.  Most is quite a bit.  Most is decisive.

If you take the time to read Milgram’s research, you know that he conducted many separate obedience experiments all with the same basic setup of an experimentor in a white lab coat with a tricked out lab room, a compelling confederate delivering a great cover story, and that shock box, but, more importantly, under varying conditions.  Sometimes the teacher and the learner had physical contact and sometimes they were in different rooms and then many shades in between these extremes.  If you add up all the experiments, you do not find that most of participants showed that destructive compliance.  It is only under specific conditions that a majority of participants showed the “dangerous compliance” to authority.  The greatest percentage, approximately 60%, occurred when the “teacher” and the “student” were physically separated in different rooms or at great distance within a large room.  Under virtually all other conditions, compliance was well under 50%, or less than “most people.”

Thus, Cohen’s claim that most people will show obedience is simply not true.  You need extremely particular and precise conditions even to get to 60%.  Now, one may argue that if only 20 or 30% of people will always behave with thoughtless and dangerous compliance, it’s a big problem.  Okay.  It is.  But, making untrue claims about bad things to make them seem even worse deludes everyone.  Most people do not show dangerous obedience under most conditions.  That gives us hope.

Second, links to Abu Ghraib (or similar military and legal outrages) from Milgram’s research are dubious and not warranted by the evidence.  The best public information we have on Abu Ghraib clearly demonstrates that no one with central power gave legal orders to mistreat, humiliate, and punish anyone.  That bad behavior occurred within a unit of soldiers who knew each other and were clearly acting outside of policy.  Thus, there was no obedience in the Milgram sense of the concept where an obvious, established, and external authority figure delivered clear, consistent, and unambiguous orders to another person.  These folks were not following orders.  They were abusing helpless people for their own amusement.

Third, while there’s nothing wrong with including a unit on Milgram in the training of military and law enforcement, it’s hard to argue that any soldier or officer who demonstrates a wanton cruelty is being obedient.  Again, in the overwhelming majority of instances, the violent act is not one of just following orders, but as in the Abu Ghraib case, the perpetrators were breaking the law, policy, and orders.  Realize that simply because people behave badly when an authority source is around, does not mean we’ve got an application of Milgram’s research.  Most misuses of authority do not flow from following orders, but from not following orders.

Fourth, while the Holocaust certainly contains painful examples of dangerous compliance it would be a terrible error in both analysis and judgment to claim that Milgram’s research is the prime, leading, or best explanation for that horror.  Contemporary Germany is still wracked by living guilt over people who were not simply following orders, but ardently believed in what they were doing at the time and have now come to feel enormous guilt over that deliberate choice.  It was not simple and blind obedience, but a willing participation that turned a blind eye to the moral hazards.

Distinctions like these are not simply a tempest in a teacup, but are rather a crucial part to the science of power and persuasion.  Just as an obvious bad example:  Imagine someone trying to replicate the Milgram studies.  Instead of meeting a middle aged adult male wearing a lab coat and introduced as “Doctor” the study participants meet a 19 year old college sophomore wearing chinos and a ball cap worn backwards introduced as a student doing a project for an undergraduate psychology course.  Do we really need to do the experiment with this or can we agree that considerably fewer people would max out the shock scale and deliver the highest level of punishment?  You cannot apply experimental studies to situations with many different variables and try to argue as confidently as Mr. Cohen does.

Page Hits, Days Online, Title – Doing Some PT Math

You may already know that I am writing for the magazine, Psychology Today, and have a blog on their website entitled, Persuade Me.  Beyond the fact that they’re actually paying me for this, they also provide page hit information on each post.  I’ve been doing this since June 4, 2009 and to date have created 17 posts.  I’d like to share with you a simple list of data that shows on each line the number of page hits, the number of days online, and the title of the post.

  1. 34       1    Persuasion Theory Explains GatesGate!
  2. 313     2    Persuasion on the Job Interview
  3. 285     5    Zeus, the Persuasion Kitten
  4. 285     6    Good Sunday Reading
  5. 1277   6    Selling Gratuitous Sex
  6. 231     9    Faith-Based Persuasion in Afghanistan
  7. 358   12    Good Sunday Reading on
  8. 786   13    Five Magic Words for Persuasion
  9. 640   18    Surviving the Narcissist Mother – Lessons from Fiction
  10. 394   19    Good Sunday Reading
  11. 278   19    Persuasion and Art: Dissonance and “Darkness at Noon”
  12. 325   26    Good Sunday Reading
  13. 353   26    WATTage
  14. 449   34    Persuasion in Love
  15. 396   37    “Why, Because” At Work – Doing the Play
  16. 603   40    “Why, Because” At Work
  17. 170   50    Green Is Good

The biggest hoot on the list, of course, is found on item 5.  The post, “Selling Gratuitous Sex,” has received 1,277 hits making it far and away the most popular post (786 hits is second place).  That post reported on a Journal of Consumer Research article by Dahl, Sengupta, and Vohs this summer.

The second most popular post, “Five Magic Words,” reported on an old influence study by Robert Cialdini published in the late 1970s.

Third and fourth place are a statistical tie with “Surviving the Narcissist Mother” coming it with 640 hits and “‘Why, Because’ At Work,” with 603 hits.  The post on the Narcissist Mother is a “cross-blog” post which means I was commenting on an article written by another PT blogger.  “Why, Because” is a post about the uses of attribution theory on the job.

Color me surprised, but I honestly didn’t expect the “Selling Sex” post to be that popular.  The research behind the article by Dahl et al. is very strong, but Psych Today is not a research resource, but a popular press outlet with a strong audience among college educated females.

Sex does sell.

Of course, there are other factors in the hit rate beyond the content and my skillful prose.  PT features blog posts – sometimes by computer rule and sometimes by editor choice – and that makes it easier for readers to find a post.  Perhaps Sex Sells! with editors or computers more than with readers?

This knowledge presents an interesting writing challenge.  Am I writing to get hits or am I writing to share knowledge I think is useful and interesting?  Sure, there can be overlap.  Hey, I find sex to be as useful and interesting as the next red blooded American male.  Just killing two birds with one stone on that post.  Really.

But, they pay me for hits.  Not a lot.  This isn’t NFL money or Malcolm Gladwell money.  But it is an obvious incentive and it appears I might be able to control it with liberal use of words like “sex” and “magic” and maybe “work” and “mother,” although that’s starting to get creepy, even for a red blooded American male.

Magic Persuasion for Sex and Mom on the Job:  Cialdini’s Reciprocity Cue!

Remember the Rules, Steve.  It’s About the Other Guy, Stupid, and All Bad Persuasion Is Sincere.

It’s not easy being a persuasion maven.  Or even a Persuasion Idiot.

Persuasion on the Job Interview – SOLER

You might recall my post on general guidelines for winning job interviews with persuasion.  I gave you five pointers:

1.  It’s about the other guy, not you.

2.  SOLER shows the other guy’s attention and liking.

3.  Monitor and manipulate WATTage, arguments and cues.

4.  Provide strong arguments from the other guys perspective.

5.  Use SOLER to assess both WATTage and evaluative reactions.

I focus now on SOLER.  Since SOLER directly appears in two of the pointers and runs quietly in the background for a couple of others, it’s worth more time, attention, and thought.

SOLER is an acronym for a set of nonverbal behaviors people display during interactions that indicates their cognitive and evaluative responding.  When someone shows all five, you feel a great deal of warmth, interest, and involvement from them, so the SOLER-SOLAR wordplay is most appropriate.  People range from hot to cold with

Squarely face
Open posture
Lean in
Eye contact

Now, quickly, of course, and here’s your gold star:  SOLER is not an absolute marker.  People can control SOLER behaviors and thus can manipulate you with them.  There’s not a woman walking this Earth who has not been fooled into thinking some fella will love her in the morning because he appeared so interested, sincere, and warm – SOLER.  Part of becoming an adult is learning to distinguish between the real and the image and you need that same skill with SOLER whether you’re meeting an interesting new person in a bar or, more to our purposes here, an interesting new job interviewer on the other side of the desk.

Consider these photos of me interviewing the kitten, Zeus.  (Hey, and don’t think these were staged.  We conduct a rigorous interview process with all the cats we bring into this household.  Of course, there’s no suspense here because you know Zeus triumphed at the interview and is now our Persuasion Kit.  He joins Rocket who handles Advanced Napping and Demon-Flynn who runs Enforcement, Terror, and Surprise.)

SOLER kit warm 2

SOLER kit warm 1

SOLER kit cool 1

SOLER kit cool 2

Virtually any unimpaired human past the age of consent can see the difference between the various photos.  Using the SOLER guidelines, however, you can now more clearly understand why some shots look warm and others look cold.  See the change in body lean and orientation, eye contact, and tension.  You clearly see the evaluative, do-I-like-it-or-not posture that marks the person’s attitudinal response.  With SOLER as attitude you can metaphorically think of hot-cold image.

Now, let’s extend SOLER from the obvious “body as attitude” indicator to “body as cognition” indicator.  Generally speaking when humans are interested, engaged, and thoughtful about something, their SOLER will change.  Again, generally speaking a high WATT processor will also tend to look high SOLER.  The mind controls the body and when the mind is interested (high WATT) the body demonstrates it.  With SOLER as cognition you can metaphorically think of spotlight-floodlight image.

Again, here’s your gold star – no, SOLER is not a universal, fail-safe, always works marker.  It is a general tendency, a habitual response, often automatic and spontaneous when it springs from an open and free person.  You need to continuously read the other person to tell when the SOLER is authentic and when it is manipulated.

During an interview you want to observe the SOLER behavior of the interviewer.  Now, good interviewers know about their nonverbal behavior and consciously work to control it to maintain a constant performance across all interviews.  But, they can’t control it in all instances.  Their SOLER will vary even when they don’t want it to.  (That’s what makes human nature, natural; try as we might we are not perfect.)  Look for these variations and try to correlate them to your communication.  Hey, did she just lean in as you told her about that elite internship?  Talk about the experience more and see if she gets more SOLER.  If she does, you’ve probably just delivered a Strong Argument and scored points for your application.  By contrast, if your extended narrative about the internship leads her to turn away from you and cross her arms, smoothly change the topic.

You also want to monitor and control your own SOLER behaviors.  As a general goal you want to maintain a high SOLER orientation throughout the interview.  Just as you can be too rich, too thin, or too good looking in life, during an interview you can’t be too interested, too alert, or too involved.  I can’t help you with the first three advantages, but SOLER clearly runs through the second three.

Practice it.  Learn how to sit in a chair and be comfortably SOLER for ten minutes while conversing.  Videotape yourself or sit in front of a mirror and pretend.  Get a partner you trust to play the interviewer and ask that partner to monitor your SOLER.  Just practice.

One disconcerting discovery you will make on almost every interview is that you cannot maintain SOLER.  You will dim.  Some interviewer will ask you a question or make comment that presses a magic button in you.  More likely, you will suddenly realize that you are slouching in your chair and slightly turned away from the interviewer.  When this happens, don’t panic.  Just adjust your skirt or straighten your tie and go SOLER again.  Practice.

Realize that SOLER is a persuasion skill.  Read the SOLERs of the interviewer to determine their cognitive and evaluative state.  Usually high SOLER interviewers are high WATT (meaning they are thinking and want your strongest job arguments) and are favorably disposed (they like you and what you are saying).  Show SOLER yourself to demonstrate that you are a hot spotlight, feeling good about the interview and the interview while also being focused and interested.

P.S. You might like this related job interviewing post.

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Persuasion Is Like Making Hit Records

Beatles Destroyed Rock Book CoverI’m reading an excellent pop music cultural history book, “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘N’ Roll,” by Elijah Wald.  While enjoying myself immensely through the book, I found an observation from a record producer that could have been taken directly from this blog.

Here’s the key quote.

“Emotion never makes you a hit,” he said.  “I always tell this to singers:  Emotion is not something you feel.  It’s something you make the listener feel.  And you have to be very cool and know what you’re doing.”

Mitch Miller by Norman RockwellThat from Mitch Miller, one of the best selling record producers in the history of pop music.  (Pop culture sidebar:  If Mitch Miller is meaningless to you, think Simon Cowell.  Cowell is kinda the Mitch Miller of today except that Mitch was nice and Simon isn’t.)

Miller makes those crucial distinctions inherent in my Persuasion Rules:  It’s about the other guy and All bad persuasion is sincere.  Whether trying to fashion a hit record or whether trying to fashion a persuasion “hit record,” you have to realize the point is what the receiver does, not what you do or think or feel.

Elijah Wald details the incredible success Mitch Miller enjoyed as a record producer in the 1950s and 1960s.  You may also remember Miller from his successful TV show that featured a “follow the bouncing ball” singalong format (Steven Spielberg used a Miller clip in his fun movie, “Catch Me If You Can” with Leonardo DiCaprio in that Southern family scene with Martin Sheen as the hopelessly Romantic father-in-law to-be).  Miller is still remembered and esteemed today as a man who understood the public’s tastes and knew how to combine singers with songs and bands to create hit records.

As just one great illustration of this, Mitch Miller convinced Tony Bennett, then a well known jazz singer, to cover the country western song, “Cold, Cold Heart” by Hank Williams senior.  Bennett was understandably concerned that he would destroy his hard earned reputation with jazz audiences by doing “hillbilly” music, but Mitch Miller knew otherwise.  Bennett recorded a more dramatic, jazz ballad version of the country hit and made it a hit for himself.

Realize the connection between persuasion and then something that seems unrelated, producing hit records.  Mitch Miller’s observations go to the heart of the common pulse:  It’s about the other guy, not about you.  Focus on the way the other guy thinks, feels, and acts, then launch your persuasion.

Further realize that persuasion and hit records also share another bond:  All bad persuasion (and performance) is sincere.  It’s not about your authentic feelings (your sincerity), but rather about how you are perceived and received by the other guy.  Frequently, your sincere, authentic, and genuine feelings are not in the least bit persuasive to the other guy who has an entirely different point of view from living their own life, not yours.

Once again, we can see the broad application and connection of persuasion in everyday life.  Persuasion is a Big Idea.