The Art of Communication, The Science of Persuasion

Can organizations be persuasive?

Why not? But let me start at the individual level.

Do you remember the last time you changed your mind because of someone’s powerful persuasion? And in what ways was that persuasion powerful? Further, if you were wrong in the first place, how easy was it for you to admit that you were wrong?

On issues for which one has little preference, like a movie a person is ambivalent about, a friend’s recommendation may suffice. On issues that are complicated and evoke strong feelings, it would take time and several presentations from trustworthy sources before a person is willing to consider changing her mind.

Not much of a persuasion.

Not much of a persuasion.

So, it is with a delight I came upon this article: How to change someone’s mind, according to science, published in Washington Post on 2/10/2016.  It’s short and an easy read, unless you link to the original scientific report (which is important but oh so densely written). The original research utilized data from an internet forum, ChangeMyView, on Reddit. People post opinions, ranging widely (or, wildly as well?) across topics and perspectives, and challengers respond to individual posts with their reasons for challenging the opinion in that post. The forum also records when people change their minds and why they change their minds, so we can tell why certain arguments are stronger than others. It’s observing in real-time, which is more convincing than lab-controlled after-the-fact tests. (see persuasion result #2 below)

Here are the key results summarizing the dynamics of persuasion: (some may be “obvious” – once they’ve been pointed out):

  1. The more people respond in challenge to the original post, presumably sharing a similar view, the more persuasive the challenge argument is.
  2. Timing is important. Earlier responses carry more weight.
  3. Some back and forth helps change minds, but too much becomes belligerent and seems to inhibit further change. Five rounds of back-and-forth is average; additional rounds have little further effect.
  4. Using different wording from the original post for response helps; so is a longer reply (within reason).
  5. Calmer language helps. I wonder if this could apply to politicians?
  6. Using specific examples helps.
  7. Use of the definite article is more powerful, such as “the,” instead of “a.” (Might this explain why many Asians, whose native languages don’t have definite articles, seem to be meek?!)
  8. I” signals a more malleable view than “We.” Think about how we pass down cultural norms.
  9. Hedging is double-edged. “It could be the case” sounds waffling, but its softer stance gives the other side more room to ponder. Not unlike “calmer” language.
Good timing and "calm" language...just one paw.

Good timing and “calm” language…just one paw.

I think these principles are useful for individuals but also for organizations. Whenever organizations find themselves in tough situations, either in a scandal or in a controversial situation, they could apply these principles in crafting their public statements. Let me use our local large organization, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, LANL, to offer some examples. (I am learning.)

It seems as though whenever LANL finds itself in hot water, its initial responses worsen its ability to effectively address the matter at hand. The WIPP accident of 2 years ago, is one of the most recent thorny situations. Radioactive contamination was detected at the underground storage at the WIPP site. Later, they found the barrel that released the radioactive material, and that the barrel came from LANL. The most frequently heard initial response to this problem, “we are currently investigating the situation” came across as woefully inept. The “currently under investigation” expression is widely interpreted as “we don’t really know what’s happened.” And that interpretation became the narrative which the public and the media commandeered. Even if LANL could have clarified the problem in four months – which they didn’t – this clarity would not have claimed the audiences’ interest nor public respect. Timing!

What could LANL have said differently at the time? How about (hypothetically) “We have four potentially plausible scenarios right now. Each is likely to result in {such a situation}, and we are systematically establishing the facts that will allow us to evaluate these scenarios and ultimately determine the actual cause.” Establishing the narrative that the range of possibilities is known and that investigation will drive toward convergence, versus the narrative that LANL has no clue what could possibly have happened, could retain greater credibility for the Lab.

Number matters.

Number matters.

Timing in crisis management is utterly important. Waiting in anxiety cedes to others the lead on the narrative. On the other hand, an immediate measured response allows the organization (or an individual) to gain control of how the narrative develops. In fact, crisis or not, an organization staying on top of current events and relevant issues can win credit for the organization which may be useful in the future.

At an earlier time, during LANL’s contract negotiation in 2005 — after yet another scandal and before the operating contract changed hands to a private consortium — it was perfectly understandable (and should have been expected) that most of the Lab employees were demoralized. There was a blog where employees could, and did, vent their frustration. What did the top management do to develop a more positive narrative? Attempt to shut down the employees’ blog. Good grief

By actually addressing some of the comments, at least those comments that bore merit (of course, that would have required management to acknowledge people’s frustrations), management might have offered some solutions, or reasons why the solutions most popularly proposed might be inaccessible. Maybe even confronting some of the totally baseless insults (and there were many) with facts could have slowed or stopped the festering from continuing. Again, taking the lead in shaping the narrative should have been a goal.

Of course this all begs a deeper question: Who decides the content of the communication, the timing of the communication, the strategy of the communication? PR department? Public Affairs? Executives, and if so which one(s)? That’s the art, where wisdom and judgment are called for. During a crisis, an organization can’t afford the luxury of looking for leadership, forming a committee, or engaging in a week-long process to decide what needs to be communicated. But a dysfunctional organization thinks it needs such luxury. A lumbering giant (like the NUMMI case) would be too rule-bound even to recognize the difference.

A "definitive" article.

A “definitive” article.

For whatever reason(s), LANL is often too slow with its public relations exercises. While I contend that – at least outside of a crisis – content is far more important than image, an intelligent organization should be able to exercise both, developing content while being mindful of its image in the minds of outsiders. The tragedy of LANL is that it has superior content in scientific work – leading the world in many fields – but the organization as whole simply doesn’t seem to know how to express itself to improve its image with the public. Many people inside and outside the organization know this problem, yet, no one has succeeded in doing much about it.

LANL is about to go through yet another major transition, from its current management entity to another management entity yet to be determined. I hope someone takes charge of the organization’s narratives in the next couple of years: the blogosphere narratives, the news media’s and columnists’ narratives, the technical journals’ narratives. The irony is this: LANL is a fabulous science organization with profound technical content, but in contrast the social psychology of the organization is mostly void and/or chaotic. While the writing for the next contract needs careful crafting, managing the narrative of the Laboratory needs genius equal to that of its world-class science and engineering.

But I am not holding my breath.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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