12 November 2010

4 ways to make people believe you

Credibility takes a life-time to build and a moment to lose - it is hard to believe the auditing skills of an Enron auditor. Credibility is also domain specific - you might trust your mom in several areas, but if she is not a surgeon, you probably wouldn’t trust her to perform a brain surgery on you (you probably wouldn’t trust your mom on dressing advice also). But, besides those extreme examples, there are ways to make your communication more credible. How to make people believe you?

1- The Sinatra test

“If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere else”, goes the song from Sinatra (thus the “Sinatra test”).  What this means if that if you can do something (like succeed in New York), this means that we can believe you will do well anywhere else. If you are an engineer hired by Google, probably you would be also by other tech companies. If your blender can blend an iPad, probably it can blend any food you manage to put in it. If you catered in the White House, probably you qualify for catering anywhere. So if you have examples that might look like a Sinatra test, use it.

I know most catering companies never did or will cater in the White House, but think on your turf: did you cater on the local town hall or for a local star rich entrepreneur ? So probably you can do great anywhere in the city.

2 - Add details, even when they are irrelevant

University of Michigan researchers ran a simulated trial where 2 groups of jurors were asked to assess the fitness of a mother to keep her 7 year-old son in her care. Each group heard the same carefully balanced arguments for and against the mother. One group however was given some vivid detail for the supporting arguments. As an example, one favorable argument was that the mother ensured her son washed and brushed his teeth before bed-time. In the vivid detail version they added "He uses a Star Wars toothbrush that looks like Darth Vader". The additional details were purposely irrelevant to the argument.

The impact? 6 out of 10 of the jurors hearing the vivid version of the favorable arguments judged the mother to be suitable, while only  4 out of 10 of the jurors who heard the vivid version of the unfavorable arguments judged the mother to be suitable. The irrelevant vivid details had a big impact! The explanation is that what you can picture vividly in your mind will look like closer to the truth.

3 - Give out the testing credentials

NBA rookies have a lot of young horny girls around them. If you are a young NBA rookie, it’s quite easy to get carried away and screw every single lady that compliments your size. To try to avoid rookies to get AIDS and get rustled by ladies who want to get pregnant and get their money every rookie attend an “intro to the league” seminar. There, the league could tell the NBA rookies that they should protect themselves because of AIDS and pregnancy, but that wouldn’t work (the common sense is also obvious, they probably would know this already – but knowing doesn’t lead to action). So instead they planted some very “dressed to kill” ladies at the conference hotel bar without the rookies knowing they were planted by the league. They made plans to meet with the ladies after the conference and so on. The next morning, all the ladies entered the conference room and announced: we all have AIDS. Boom, the rookies got it, they were this close to having sex with someone that had AIDS, they should better protect themselves. By allowing people to test something themselves, it makes it much more credible.

Another example is the “will it blend?” videos. You can see the blender doing its work and blending iPhones, iPads and whatever people put in there. This is already very credible because you can see it, but it is completely credible because you can test yourself. Get the freaking blender and put stuff there and see if it blends or not. The same way you can test other blenders and see if they are up for the test or not. It is very credible to test it yourself.

An old use of test credentials? Enter a clothes store, get what you want and try it on, look on the mirror, check for yourself if it is good or not. What would you believe more, your own judgment after you put the pants on in front of the mirror or that pushy sales clerk that, before you even try, is already saying that will look amazing on you?

4 - Make statistics accessible

Lots of people go for the “I will show you the data” approach to gain credibility. It doesn’t work so straightforward because, well, we are human beings. But statistics are great if used correctly: that being, making the statistics tangible to people.

If I tell you US and Russia have 28,000 nuclear warheads, well, it looks like a huge number, but how huge? We cannot picture it because it’s too big (and remember the example above of the Darth Vader toothbrush: if you can’t picture, it is less credible). The nonprofit Beyond War would arrange "house parties" in which a group of friends and neighbors would assemble to hear about the dangers of nuclear weapons. The organizer from Beyond War always brought a steel bucket and BBs (those small metal balls used as ammunition in air guns). He would drop one in - it would make a distinct sound - and say it was the power of the bomb at Hiroshima. He then described the devastation of this bomb. Then he'd drop 10 BBs into the bucket: This is the fire power of one U.S. or Soviet nuclear submarine. Then he had attendees close their eyes: He poured 5,000 BBs into the bucket saying it was today's arsenal of nuclear weapons. The point here is that in any statistic it doesn’t matter the exact number (who cares if it is 5, 10 or 50 thousand? It is too big number to picture), but the relationship used to make this number concrete to the audience.

Stephen Covey has a great example that emphasizes teamwork in his writings. He once tried to give the dry statistics: Only 37% of employees had a clear idea of their mission, only one in five was enthused etc. He got more impact when he mapped this onto a soccer team: "If a soccer team had this same statistics as those, only 4 out of 11 would know where their goal was ... etc."

This and much more appears on Made to Stick, an outstanding book about building messages that stick to people’s brains.

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