Tag Archive for: communication skills

What Do These Have in Common?

What do these seven things have in common?

  1. Brass name plate
  2. House with a white picket fence
  3. Family playing a game
  4. Ancient map of the world
  5. Giant orange work glove
  6. Airplane flying by
  7. Golf clubs, tennis racquet and a basketball

If you put them together they form a slightly weird, but memorable word picture, and are prompts for questions you can ask when you meet someone for the first time. I learned this ice breaker approach in a Dale Carnegie class more than a dozen years ago. Here’s the weird word picture:

When you look at someone for the first time imagine a big, brass name plate above their head. As you approach them you see a nice home with a white picket fence. You enter the home and see a family playing a game. You look across the room and see a fireplace with an ancient map of the world on the mantle. Magically, you ascend the chimney and there’s a giant orange work glove at the top. As an airplane flies by the glove grabs it by the tail and on the wings you see golf clubs, a tennis racquet and a basketball.

Let’s dissect each of the items to find out how they can help you initiate conversation in a non-threatening way and kickstart the principle of liking.

  1. The brass name plate is a simple reminder to ask someone their name. Once you’ve done that, picture their name written on it to help you remember it.
  2. A house with white picket fence is a prompt to find out where someone currently lives.
  3. The family playing a game is a visual to ask, “Tell me about your family.” This is better than asking, “Do you have any kids?” because that can be a sensitive subject for some people who cannot have children or chose not to.
  4. The fireplace with an ancient map of the world is a subtle reminder to ask where someone is originally from. This question is good because most people don’t live in the same town where they were born.
  5. The giant orange work glove on top of a chimney is a prompt to ask what the person does for a living.
  6. The plane flying by is a trigger to find out, “Do you like to travel?” or “Where’s the coolest place you’ve ever been?”
  7. Finally, the golf clubs, tennis racquet and a basketball on the wing of the plane can start a conversation around hobbies and sports the person might enjoy.

Why all the questions? A big part of your ability to influence people is contingent on building good relationships. It’s a scientific fact according to principle of liking; the more someone likes you the better your chance of hearing yes when you try to persuade them. With that in mind, here are three big reasons to use this approach:

  • In How to Win Friends and Influence People Dale Carnegie encouraged readers to show genuine interest in the other person. I’m sure you feel good when someone shows real interest in you so be that person for someone else.
  • Connecting on what you have in common is a simple way to bond with another person. The more you find similarities the easier it is for them to like you and for you to like them.
  • Last, the more you learn about someone the more opportunities there are to pay a genuine compliment. The more you offer genuine praise, the more the person will like you and you’ll like them.


Whenever you meet someone for the first time – be it at a networking event, work, party – it can feel awkward to get a conversation going. But it doesn’t have to be when you have a script to follow. I encourage you to practice each question till they roll off your tongue in a natural, conversational way. Do so and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much more people like you and how you’ll come to like others in return.

Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC. An international speaker, coach and consultant, he’s one of only 20 people in the world personally trained by Robert Cialdini, the most cited living social psychologist on the topic of ethical influence. Brian’s LinkedIn Learning courses Persuasive SellingPersuasive Coaching and Building a Coaching Culture: Improving Performance through Timely Feedback, have been viewed by more than 65,000 people! Have you watched them yet? Click a course title to see what you’ve been missing.

Just Don’t Do It!

I’ve no doubt you’re familiar with Nike’s famous slogan Just Do It! As someone who spends most of his time communicating through keynote presentations, training, coaching and consulting, sometimes the best advice is Just Don’t Do It!

When I attend conferences and workshops, in addition to learning new information, I pay close attention to the presenters. I do so because I’m always looking for ways to improve my communication skills. The better job I do as a presenter, the more likely audience members are to walk away with ideas to help them professionally and personally. Sometimes what I learn while watching other presenters is what not to do.

I was at a training event recently where it was apparent the presenter knew the material. Unfortunately, he was an awful presenter. Here are a handful of phrases he uttered that caught my attention:

  • “Thanks for coming to listen to me drone on.” Really, that’s what you’re going to do for three hours?
  • “Contrary to popular demand I won’t cover…” If people want it, why not cover it? At least don’t mention it if you’re not because it causes disappointment.
  • “If you’ve zoned out for some of this presentation I don’t blame you.” Then why should we have even come?
  • “In order to break up the monotony I’ll show a video.” How about trying to make it less monotonous?
  • He used example that wasn’t directly related to his subject and told us not only did it fail, he “went down in flames.” Why highlight your failure with an irrelevant example? Instead, how about telling us what you did that worked?

I texted my wife and said I was about ready to gouge my eyes out with my pen. She suggested I handle it like a bad blind date – go to the restroom and don’t go back. I took her advice and slipped out during a break.

Words Matter

In his NY Times bester-seller, Pre-suasion: A Revolutionary New Way to Influence and Persuade, Robert Cialdini builds the case the setting the stage can make a big difference when it comes to influence. Maybe you occasionally lead meetings, facilitate training or perhaps you’re a fulltime teacher. In each case you’re influencing people as you teach them.

I’ve heard professional educators, people in corporate training, open workshops saying, “I know some of you are here because you have to be,” or “I know some of you are here because your boss made you come.” No, no, no!

Approaches like those just noted either implant negative thoughts or reinforce a negative perceptions attendees might already have. Your job as a facilitator is to help them learn and one step in that direction is to put them in a state of mind that’s conducive to learning. To do this, early on in my workshops I typically ask three questions:

  1. Where are you from?
  2. What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
  3. Why are you excited to be here?

The first question is a nice way for people to connect because oftentimes attendees find out they’re from the same geographic area as others in the workshop. It’s a natural conversation starter.

Question 2 begins to change people’s thinking. Some people don’t enjoy their jobs but getting them focused on activities apart from work that they do enjoy puts them in a better frame of mind.

The final question is geared towards changing their mindsets about learning. When I ask why they’re excited the vast majority of people come up with at least one reason and respond with, “I’m excited to be here because…”

If a person can’t come up with something I might ask, “If I can help you get your kid to empty the dishwasher more often would that make our time together worthwhile?” That usually gets a laugh and positive response. Then I make sure to address that for the individual.

When it comes to learning, subtle shifts in the following mindsets can make a big difference:

  • Closed minded to open minded
  • Bored to curious
  • Uninterested to interested
  • Apathetic to excited

Using a little pre-suasion can make that happen. You can accomplish that using the right questions, certain types of music or the right imagery. I think of this as setting the stage. When your session starts off well it becomes much easier to keep people engaged and learning.


Your words matter because they set a tone. At all costs avoid the kinds of phrases I described near the beginning of this post. But don’t settle for avoidance. Whether you call it pre-suasion, setting the stage or creating the right atmosphere, don’t leave it to chance. Think about frame of mind you want people in as your event starts and do what you can to create an environment that’s conducive.

Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC. An international speaker and trainer, he’s one of only 20 people in the world personally trained by Robert Cialdini. Brian’s LinkedIn Learning courses, Persuasive Selling and Persuasive Coaching have been viewed by more than 60,000 people! His latest course, Creating a Coaching Culture, will be online in the second quarter. Have you watched them yet? Click a link to see what you’ve been missing.

The Mindless Things We Say Affect Us and Others

When you communicate your words create thoughts and feelings within you and for others. Sometimes the feelings come first then trigger thoughts. Other times thoughts may be prompted followed by feelings. Whatever the order (feelings-thoughts or thoughts-feelings) next comes behavior. If you agree with that assertion you’ll also agree that some of the mindless things you say affect your behavior and the behavior of those who hear your words.

I’m Sorry

There are certainly times for legitimate, heart felt apologies. However, if you pay close attention to the times you say you’re sorry, or when others do, you’ll realize quite often sorry isn’t necessary. This came to my attention when I watched a Ted Talk from sociologist Maja Jovanovic.

In early childhood parents and others teach us to say we’re sorry for a variety of reasons. Most are legitimate but after that our need to apologize seems to takes on a life of its own. As Jovanovic points out, constant apologizing disempowers you and can lead others to think less of you.

Here is an example. Let’s say you’re on your way to a meeting and a major car accident will cause you to be late. As soon as you realize this you call the person you’re supposed to meet with and say, “I’m sorry, I’m going be late. There’s an accident on the highway and the traffic is at a standstill.” The accident wasn’t your fault which means being late isn’t your fault so why apologize? It would be just as legitimate to say, “I’m calling to let you know I’m going be late because there’s an accident on the highway and the traffic is at a standstill.”

Again, I point this out because apologizing isn’t always necessary and can actually be counterproductive in terms of how people may view you.

Not Bad

This one is a pet peeve of mine. When you ask someone, “How are you?” it’s very common to hear, “Not bad.” You might be thinking, I know what they mean, but do you really? Let’s analyze this phrase just a little.

Does saying “not bad” mean you’re actually doing well? If so, why not say, “I’m doing well. Thanks for asking.” If bad is the standard are you content simply because you’ve avoided the bad state? That’s not the same as doing well. Or how about this one, “Not too bad.” You could be doing bad but as long as you’re not doing too bad you’re okay. Really?

You might think this is knit picking but it’s important. Doesn’t it make you feel different – in a good way – when someone answers you with “Doing well” or “Things are great” or “Fantastic”? Remember, your words create thoughts and feelings which lead to actions.

No Problem

Recall a time when someone did something you appreciated. It’s likely you said, “Thank you.” I bet you’ve heard the response “No problem” more times than you can count. If someone is paid to help you – restaurant server, customer service, salesperson, etc. – do you really care if it was a problem for them to help you? It’s their job and jobs are created to help people solve problems!

When someone thanks you for helping them any of the following responses are much better:

  • Thank you, it’s nice to be appreciated.
  • You’re welcome. We’re here to help.
  • I enjoy helping people so it was my pleasure.

Those are just a few potential responses to a heartfelt thank you. I’m sure you can come up with many more if you take a moment to think about it. Any of those phrases will leave someone feeling better about their experience than “no problem.”


Having just read this you might begin to notice some of these phrases in your communication. Or, you may notice other words and phrases that don’t serve you or others well. That’s great! Habits are hard to break and it begins with awareness. When you catch yourself don’t get down, be thankful for your awareness. The next step is to begin using words and phrases that will create the kinds of thoughts, feelings and actions in others that you’d like to see.

Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC. An international speaker and trainer, he’s one of only 20 people in the world personally trained by Robert Cialdini. Brian’s LinkedIn Learning course, Persuasive Selling, has been viewed by almost 55,000 people! Persuasive Coaching went live earlier this year and Creating a Coaching Culture will be online in the second quarter. Have you watched these courses yet? Click a link to see what you’ve been missing.

There are No Dumb Questions, Thanks for Asking

When you were in grade school I bet you had teachers who said, “There are no dumb questions. Thanks for asking.” Why did they say this? Because they understood kids could be self-conscious about looking dumb in front of their peers and that can stifle the learning process. Your teachers also knew the same question was probably on the minds of other kids.

When it comes to persuading people much of the time it entails dialogue and true dialogue means asking questions then listening. Unfortunately, too often people are not actually listening. Stephen Covey put it this way, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” According to Covey, true listening happens when you “seek first to understand, then be understood.” That usually starts with a question.

A few weeks ago I reached out to a friend via Facebook messenger with a question because I wanted to understand his opinion on something he posted. I asked him about the Megyn Kelly controversy where she said she didn’t see anything wrong with someone dressing up as Diana Ross for Halloween because she’s an icon that many people – black and white – would love to be like. I wanted my friend’s opinion on the topic. He gave a thoughtful response but then told me how disappointed he was in me for asking.

Right or wrong, every step of the way in life we learn. The current views we hold on race, sexuality and many other things in life are learned. What was acceptable 25, 50, 100 years ago is very different than today because we grow and learn. The more “enlightened” views we hold today versus those of the past might be considered racist, homophobic, ignorant in 25 years.

My friend asked why I would come to him, a gay white male, with my question rather than going to a black person. He wrote, “have you ever sat down with a person of color and asked them these hard but informative questions? Based on what you and I have talked about I’m guessing not. Believe me they want us too.” For me the answer was simple; my friend was the one who posted the story along with his opinion so I was curious to know more about his thoughts.

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time you know I’ve not shied away from issues of race. If you’re curious about my thoughts follow this link to see a few of my posts on the subject.

Russell Barrow, an African American, has been my best friend for more than 40 years. He was the best man in my wedding and stood with me at the renewal of my wedding vows. Because he’s so close to our family our daughter Abigail calls him “Uncle Russell.” Russell and I talk almost every day on my drive home from work. We talk about race, politics, President Trump, Colin Kaepernick, times where Russell experienced racism, and many other issues. Nothing is off the table because I love him, respect his opinion and I know whatever question I ask I won’t be judged. That leads to the kinds of conversations most people don’t have. At work I’ve spoken with dozens of African American coworkers over the years and a common question has been, “What’s it like to be an African American working at State Auto Insurance?” The answers have always been eye opening!

I would hope most people who’ve experienced negative attitudes and behaviors from others would welcome the opportunity to change their hearts, minds and actions, especially if they’re approached in a spirt of openness to learn. A great place to start is non-judgmental dialogue that allows people to get to know each other.

What’s to be learned from this experience that might help you in the future? A couple of things come to mind:

  1. First, just because you disagree with someone, or cannot fathom how they might hold an opinion different from yours, don’t make sweeping judgments about them or their psychological state. The truth is, you probably know very little about them, their life experiences or their thinking.
  2. Second, and most importantly, don’t shut down the conversation by making some feel ignorant or bad for asking a question in good faith. Show some grace and be thankful that they asked because it’s the first step towards better understanding. If we stop talking we’re screwed!

Remember, when it comes to persuading others – changing hearts, minds and actions – there are no dumb questions. Be grateful the other person is curious enough to approach you with a “help me understand” or “I’m curious” attitude. Saying, “Thanks for asking,” before sharing your insights will go a long way towards having more constructive conversations in the future. The more we do this as a society the better off we’ll be.

Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC. His Lynda.com/LinkedIn Learning course, Persuasive Selling, has been viewed nearly 150,000 times! The course teaches you how to ethically engage the psychology of persuasion throughout the sales process. Not watched it yet? Click here to see what you’ve been missing.

Think Before You Speak or Write

I read a LinkedIn post from Wharton Professor Adam Grant in response to a Washington Post piece, More companies are buying insurance to cover executives who sexually harass employees. Grant wrote, “Seriously, companies: instead of buying sexual harassment insurance, how about you stop promoting sexual harassers into positions of power?”

Unfortunately, we see it all too often in sports and now it’s coming to light in business in an unprecedented way. It’s almost common place to see sports teams pick up or keep athletes who’ve been involved in things that would cause termination in almost any other business. Why? Because of talent and the impact on the bottom line. Now we’re seeing that many businesses have been doing essentially the same thing for some of their top talent.

I don’t disagree with Grant’s assertion that businesses should do much more to vet people before moving them into positions of greater power. However, I had a problem with many of the ignorant comments to his post because too many people didn’t know what they were talking about. I’d venture to guess most didn’t even read the article that prompted Grant’s comment.

I’ve been in the insurance industry for more than 30 years so I want to share some insights. Businesses can buy a product called Employment Practices Liability Insurance (EPLI) to cover financial losses from things like sexual harassment, discrimination and wrongful termination. Why is the coverage needed? Simple – to protect the business from serious financial consequences or possibly ruin. This includes covering attorney’s fees, even if the allegations are proven false. A side benefit is more compensation available for those who’ve been harmed by someone in the employ of the business.

Imagine this for a moment. You own a small business and an employee does something really dumb – stops a bar on the way home from work while driving a company car. He gets in an accident shortly after leaving the bar and is found to be just over the legal limit for drunk driving. I’m sure you’d be darn glad you had a business auto policy to protect you and your company. He on the other hand might be spending some time in jail and will certainly see his personal insurance premium skyrocket.

Now imagine you own that same business and unbeknownst to you an employee does something (sexually harasses someone or makes an offensive racial comment) that leads to a lawsuit against your company. Depending on the size the lawsuit it could force you into bankruptcy unless you had an insurance policy to help protect you.

Here are some things to think about:

  • Would you want to lose your job if you worked in one of those companies because their doors closed?
  • If you invested in one of those companies wouldn’t you want management to be careful and have protection in place, just in case?
  • If you were a separate organization that depended on the company being sued, wouldn’t your business life be easier if they could keep operating as opposed to shutting down?
  • What if it turns out a court finds the lawsuit was without merit?
  • Here’s the biggest question – if you’re the one who was harmed, wouldn’t you want to know compensation is available?

In each case, there’s a risk that needs to be protected against and insurance companies are willing to offer protection for an appropriate price. Please note: The insurance won’t keep a wrongdoer out of jail if he or she is found guilty of a crime! The insurance is to protect the business.

Many of the comments I saw (nearly 200) in response to Grant’s post were laughable because so many people don’t understand what the insurance is and what it does. Should we do away with auto insurance and simply tell businesses to hire better drivers? There’s already an incentive in place to hire good drivers – lower insurance premiums – but sometimes bad stuff happens. Here are just a handful of comments that show no understanding of the issue as it relates to insurance and protecting a business:

  • “I didn’t even know that such a type of insurance exists. Awful.”
  • “Really? This absolutely stupid!”
  • “We really do live in a profoundly sick society.”
  • “Wow! Can’t believe this even exists.”
  • “You’re kidding. Let’s not solve the problem; let’s just CYA with insurance. This is just wrong.”

Why this post this week? Perhaps to protect you. There’s an old proverbs that says, “Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise.” Today that could also apply to jumping into an online conversation before you have all the facts. Think first, do a little research, or at least read the article being referenced before you offer an opinion because it might help you avoid looking foolish.

Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at InfluencePEOPLE. His Lynda.com course, Persuasive Selling, has been viewed more than 100,000 times! Have you seen it yet? If you want to learn how to ethically engage the psychology of persuasion throughout the sales process then you’ll want to watch it.

Persuasive Coaching: Listening STARS

Last week we explored the necessity of asking good questions if you want to be a persuasive coach. You’ll recall the right questions can be effective because they tap into the principle of consistency. It won’t do much good to ask lots of questions if you don’t spend focused effort listening. This week we’ll explore five tips to help you grow in this area.

There are several levels of listening and the two you should shoot for as a coach are attentive and empathic.

Empathetic listening is where you seek to put yourself in the place of the other person. You not only understand where they’re coming from, you have a strong sense of how they feel. Empathy is different than sympathy.

Imagine someone tells you they lost their job. You might feel sympathy for them because you know intellectually it must be difficult and scary. The person who empathizes wouldn’t just acknowledge those feelings, to the best of their ability they’d allow themselves to feel the anger, hurt, and scariness that come with losing a job.

Empathetic listening is something most of us shy away from because it often entails feeling emotions we’d prefer to avoid. After all, who want to feel bad if they can avoid it?

Attentive listening allows you to understand where the other person is coming from but not necessarily feeling all the feelings. If you can’t empathize then attentive listening is the next best thing because at least the other person has been heard and you’re still in a better position to coach them.

How can we listen attentively and perhaps empathetically? Most people never consider how they could be a better listener and very few have view listening as a skill that can be improved. When I teach classes on communication I often share a method to help people become Listening STARS.

STARS is an acronym that stands for: Stop, Tone, Ask, Restate, Scribble. We’ll take a brief look at these five simple steps which, if put into practice, will make you much a more effective listener and better coach.

Stop. First, you need to stop whatever you’re doing when someone is talking to you. Doing so conveys respect and makes the other person feel important. Additionally, you will catch more of what he or she is saying because multi-tasking is a myth. You cannot listen when you’re texting, typing an email, or doing any other activity that taxes your cognitive abilities. Many studies show the best you can do is switching quickly from one task to another which means there are times you’re not listening.

Tone. Paying attention to tone is important because it often conveys feelings. When I ask my wife Jane how she’s doing and I hear, “Fine,” in a short, terse tone I know she’s not fine and wants me to ask how she’s really doing. Much like body language, tone can indicate how someone is really feeling.

Ask. This reminds us to ask clarifying questions. Normally I don’t advise people to interrupt someone when they’re talking but the exception is to get clarification on something that was shared to prevent miscommunication. Another advantage of asking clarifying questions is doing so shows you’re actively listening.

Restate. It’s one thing to think you understand another person but it’s altogether different to actually understand them. Never assume. Instead, take a moment to restate in your own words what you think he or she is trying to convey. If you realize you don’t either ask more questions or have them to tell you their story again.

Scribble. If you can take notes do so. When you do this don’t try to write the next great American novel because you’ll miss too much if you’re too focused on writing. Try to bullet point key concepts that will trigger more detailed thoughts when you reread your notes.

Each of these five steps is simply a choice but don’t fool yourself – listening is hard work. To improve it will take time, energy, and patience. Like most skills you need to succeed in business and life, listening needs to be worked on continually. It’s not easy but the personal and professional benefits are huge.

Houston, We Have a Communication Problem

If you saw Tom Hanks in Apollo 13 then no doubt you remember the phrase, “Houston, we have a problem.” Tom Hanks uttered those words when he realized there was a major problem that could cost the astronauts their lives. Whenever that phrase is used you should take note because something serious is happening. This applies to communication as well as space travel.

Where I work we are going through major changes in just about every aspect of our business. One big area that’s changing is how we communicate with one another. We’re trying to be more open, honest and collaborative in our communication. In a word, we’re striving to be more candid with one another so we can accomplish more. But Houston, we have a problem.

What is candor? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary its “unreserved, honest, or sincere expression.” When we’re candid we’re being sincere in expressing our thoughts and feelings about someone or something.

What holds people back from being candid? In a large corporation perhaps the biggest issue is fear of reprisal if someone up the food chain doesn’t like what they hear. Another hindrance is fear of looking foolish for expressing something others might disagree with. And certainly personal baggage can get in the way. For example, if you were raised in a home where you were constantly shut down, ridiculed or ignored you probably decided long ago that it wasn’t worth voicing your opinions.

A company also has to agree on exactly what candid means. Is it okay to say whatever is on your mind in the spirit of being candid? Someone might think, “What a f#&%ing stupid idea!” but is saying that the type of candid communication a company really wants? If a company is only looking at honesty and sincerity then perhaps it is candid.

But the bigger question is this – will that “candid” approach create a more open environment that encourages conversation or will is shut down dialogue? Based on my 30 years in business I think it would crush any attempt at creating more open, honest and collaborative communication.

Whatever the reasons for a lack of candor, just because its announced that management wants candid conversations doesn’t mean they’ll happen any time soon. Personal change is hard and cultural change is even harder. People usually take a wait and see approach hoping someone will break the ice. Employees want to know, “Is it really safe to speak up and voice an opinion when it differs from those in charge?”

Whenever communication takes place there’s a dynamic between the speaker and the listener. There’s what the speaker thinks he said and what he actually said. On the part of the listener there’s what she thinks she heard and what she actually heard.

A speaker might think he simply asked, “Why were you late?” when he actually came across accusatory because of heavy emphasis on the word “why.” Even if is was an innocent question the listener might have placed more emphasis on “why” than was intended and become defensive. As you might imagine, miscommunication happens easily and often.

When it comes to effectively communicating you can’t change the other person but you can make personal choices that will change you and that could open up the lines of communication. To build a culture where candor is the norm the bulk of the responsibility rests with each person. Here are three simple things you can do to help create a culture of candor:

  1. Preface your words. If you think your message could be misinterpreted consider the point of view of the audience and what they might need to hear first.
  2. Don’t get defensive. Even if what you hear provokes you candid conversation means hearing the other person out. Reciprocity means emotions will be matched unless you make a conscious choice to respond in kind to fear, anxiety or anger.
  3. Discover the real meaning. Ask questions to draw out the real meaning behind the words. It’s often the case that what you hear first is just the tip of the iceberg.

“Houston, we have a problem,” was a distress signal, a call for help. The NASA scientists came through and saved the Apollo 13 crew. When it comes to communications issues we can do the same if we take time to incorporate the three ideas outlined above. Do so and you’ll become a building block in a culture of candor.

What’s in a Name?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” That famous quote comes from William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. Juliet utters that line to Romeo as she makes the point that no matter his name (he was a Montague and his family was at odds with Juliet’s family, the Capulets) he is still the man she loves.

It’s a well-known line that does contain an element of truth because the rose would smell every bit as sweet no matter what we called it. However, if we renamed the rose something like “The Dogcrap Flower,” very few people would be willing to even sniff it.

This understanding came to light recently when I approached an individual about an idea I had. I wanted to rename something but I knew this person was heavily invested in the current name. Here’s how I approached the conversation:

Me – Have you ever had Patagonian Toothfish?

Other – (making an “ewe gross” sound) No, I

don’t think I have. Sounds kind of gross.

Me – Have you tried Chilean Seabass?

Other – Yes, I love it.

Me – Did you know they’re the same thing? (I hear a chuckle). Nobody was buying Patagonian Toothfish because it sounds bad so they renamed it Chilean Seabass in the 1970s. I bring this up because I think we have a naming problem.

From there I described the problem and the other person agreed rather quickly to explore the name change.

Aside from an example like that, names, words and labels matter a lot! And it doesn’t always matter what the dictionary has to say about what a word means because ultimately we give meaning to words. Understanding your audience and their interpretation of words is what matters most. Here are a few examples.

Thug – a violent criminal (Merriam-Webster)

We heard this word used repeatedly in connection with the recent Baltimore riots. It’s true that those who looted and destroyed were violent criminals. However, many people came down hard on those who used the word – including Baltimore’s mayor and President Obama (both African-American) – because in society the word has become more closely associated with African-Americans. There was a time when the word was used to describe Irish immigrant criminals, gangsters in the 1920s and 1930s, and even former Detroit Piston center Bill Lambier. But the connotation in today’s media is so heavily skewed towards African-Americans that it’s becoming a race-related word.

Niggardly – hating to spend money, very small amount (Merriam-Webster)

In 1999 David Howard used this word when referring to the budget for Washington D.C. and was relieved of his position after a race-related complaint. Eventually he took a different position working for the city and said he learned from the incident.

Bastard – a person born to parents not married to each other (TheFreeDictionary.com)

We can probably all think of someone we know who was born to parents who never married. If you used this word to describe that someone you’d probably get popped in the mouth or get an earful of condemnation for being insensitive. Most people in that situation would have no problem talking about their parents never marrying but would not take kindly to the label.

There was an urban legend about the Chevy Nova not selling in Spanish speaking countries because in Spanish Nova means “no go.” There was no truth to the story but it too belies the point that a name can have a profound impact on the listener.

What does this have to do with persuasion? A lot! Understanding your audience – what words will help and what words will offend – and keeping in mind your ultimate goal will help you craft your persuasive message.

Do we want to see race relations improve in this country? I believe the vast majority of people would say yes.

Tossing around the word thug, when you know how it will be perceived, is not something a smart persuader would do. If an African-American mayor and president can’t avoid controversy then neither will you.

Budgets may be tight but the wise persuader would not use the word niggardly – no matter how the dictionary defines it – because they realize someone will be offended and their message will be lost.

If you want to help tackle the issue of children being born out of wedlock you best not refer to those children as bastards because you’ll offend so many people that your desire to help and good ideas will never be heard.

Yes, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet but rename it incorrectly and almost nobody will take a sniff. The words we use can make all the difference so make sure your words work for you, not against you.

The Messenger Can Make All the Difference

Sometimes it’s not what you say but how you say it that can make all the difference. And sometimes it’s not what is said but who said it that makes all the difference.

I bet most of you would agree that our children are vitally important to our future. After all, at some point each of us will be retired and the fortunes of our investments and the direction of our country will be in the hands of the next generation – our children.

The late Whitney Houston said as much in her enormously popular hit song, Greatest Love of All. The song opens:

I believe the children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way

There’s another well-known quote that goes like this, “He alone who owns the youth gains the future.” Any idea who said that? If you’re like most people you probably didn’t know it was Adolf Hitler. I’m guessing despite the reality that children are our future and that you might have even agreed with the quote, it probably doesn’t sit well with you now that you know who said it.

Sometimes the messenger can make all the difference! If Whitney Houston had sung, “He alone who owns the youth gains the future,” and Adolf Hitler had said, “I believe the children are our future.

Teach them well and let them lead the way,” we’d all feel exactly the opposite about the quotes.

This comes to mind because a church in Alabama used the Hitler quote on a billboard to advertise their youth group! There may be truth to Hitler’s words but no one with any gumption about how to persuade would try to use Hitler’s words in a positive way because he’s considered one of the most evil people to ever walk the planet. Would you want to send your kids to a youth group that’s quoting Hitler?

In persuasion the principle of authority tells us it’s easier for people to say yes to those who have superior wisdom or knowledge. To effectively use this principle of influence you need two things – expertise and credibility. Without both you’ll never succeed. For example, Bernie Madoff has expertise. Despite his pyramid scheme, he does know about investing. But would you trust him with your money? I hope not!

On the flip side, you probably have friends you’d trust your life with … but not your money, because they have no expertise when it comes to investing.

Whether it’s investing, taxes, legal advice, etc., we want people we can trust and those we view as having expertise if we’re to do what they suggest.

Authority can also be borrowed. When I present I use lots of quotes from well-known people. I do so for a couple of reasons.

First, if I say something, people might agree with me, but if Dale Carnegie, Ronald Reagan or Dr. Martin Luther King say it, people will more easily agree because their reputations precede them.

Second, my use of quotes shows I’m well-read and that does add to my personal authority. If people view me as well-read then they naturally assume I’m smarter for it and are therefore more willing to listen to what I have to say.

However, when I choose to use a quote I’m conscious of what it says AND who said it. Many infamous people have made true statements (even a broken clock is right twice a day!) but I would almost never use them because the reaction would be the same as your reaction to Hitler’s quote.

Here’s the bottom line if you’re looking to be a master persuader. Keep your reputation intact so people trust you and continue to develop expertise in your chosen field. When you need to borrow authority, make sure the quote and messenger will both be acceptable to your audience. Do these simple things and your ability to get to yes will go up rather dramatically.

I’m Sorry Dr. Mehrabian

I owe Albert Mehrabian, Ph.D., an apology. I suspect a lot of other people do as well.

Dr. Mehrabian is a Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He garnered widespread attention for his research in the area of non-verbal communication in the 1960s. If you’re in business then it’s very likely you’ve been exposed to his work. Here’s what you might have heard or read:

In face-to-face communication only 7% of your message is based on what you say. Your tone of voice accounts for 38% and your body language is 55%. On the phone it’s 13% words and 87% tone of voice.

This prompted many people – me included – to place too much importance on tone of voice and body language during communication training. It’s not bad to work on those areas to make your communication more effective. The problem is that it has us putting too much emphasis on tone and body language.

It’s amazing how a story told from a speaker platform, mentioned in a book or noted on a blog is simply taken as gospel. After all, that well-respected speaker, author or blogger wouldn’t make such a glaring mistake … would he or she? I certainly did.

I’ve come to understand nearly everyone of us has misinterpreted and misapplied Dr. Mehrabian’s work. This came to light a few weeks ago when I wrote about The Importance of Congruent Messages When Persuading. At that time I also saw a social media post from a friend that prompted me to read more about Dr. Mehrabian and his work. Here’s what I found.

Dr. Mehrabian’s work very specifically had to do with communicating feelings and attitudes. If subjects felt there was inconsistency between a person’s words and tone or body language then they took more of their cues from the tone and body language.

An example would be an apology. Two people can use the very same words and one person might be whole-heartedly believed while the other might not. It’s easy to utter the words but if the apology is not sincere it’s very likely the tone of voice, facial expressions or other body language might convey a different message. You can probably think of a time where someone said the right words but you knew they didn’t mean it because of other cues you picked up on.

On the other hand, if you go to a presentation about home ownership you’re probably not assessing – consciously or unconsciously – the believability of the message based on the speaker’s tone of voice or body language. If you contend with anything it will most likely be the facts (words) he or she uses during the presentation. There’s little in the way of attitude or feelings to be assessed in such a fact-based presentation.

So now what? By all means, don’t discount tone or body language when communicating because both can enhance your presentation tremendously. As I’ve worked on voice inflection and body language over the years I know my presentation skills have improved significantly. But don’t forget, content is king in most presentations. You don’t want to leave a meeting and have people remember what you wore but not what you said. After all, the reason for a meeting or presentation is to convey ideas so everything you do should enhance the message.

Let me conclude by saying I’m sorry, Dr. Mehrabian, I really am. I’ve learned a good lesson and hope you can forgive me. If you could hear me and see me I’m sure you could tell my tone of voice and body language are in line with my apology. My 7%-38%-55% messaging is congruent.