When it comes to making friends and influencing people in business, Richard Young has a basic rule of thumb for fledgling MBAs: Don’t make the audience work too hard.
Whether it’s a document, a presentation or a group meeting, effective communication is understanding the audience’s cognitive processes and knowing the contents of its collective memory, says Young, associate teaching professor of business management communications and author of a new book, How Audiences Decide: A Cognitive Approach to Business Communication.
The presenter who understands these two concepts can then modify his or her style to make those processes work more efficiently and, consequently, be more persuasive.
“Anytime you can help them process information more efficiently, the audience is more biased in your favor,” Young says. “The harder you make them work, the less likely they are to agree with you. It all boils down to what they already have in their minds and then these processes that they go through.”
Often, people mistakenly believe that persuasion is a mysterious gift that people either possess or lack, some kind of voodoo that separates the top advertising executive, CEO, salesman or trial lawyer from more mortal colleagues. Not so, argues Young: To him, the magic can be explained through cognitive science research, which is the driving principle behind his book.
His second chapter outlines 13 major types of decisions that professionals routinely ask their audiences to make, then breaks down the technique for deciphering the information requirements for each. He also makes a case for linking the logic of the argument to an emotional issue with which the audience can connect.
“Communicators can make a seemingly rational issue more emotional by bringing up the audience’s values,” he explains. “When it’s reason versus emotion, emotion usually wins.”
For example, Young cites a well-known ad campaign that linked Michelin tires with babies. The tagline for the commercials was: “Because so much is riding on your tires.” By linking a child’s life to the tire brand, the ad used emotion to persuade viewers to buy Michelin tires, he says.
Another key to winning audiences is knowing what information to keep and what to discard. A common mistake many talented professionals make is offering too much information, which dilutes their message.
“The more irrelevant information an audience has to process, the lower the quality of their decision turns out to be,” explains Young. “Often business people don’t really understand that … Maybe it may seem important to the communicator, but it’s not terribly important to the audience.”
Worse yet, by including everything but the kitchen sink, the presenter might leave out what is actually the most relevant information for the audience’s decision, even if it is not the most technically important.
When teaching MBA students, Young says he will ask them to step back and think, “If I were making this decision, what would I need to know?” Usually, students who walk through this exercise are able to effectively select the right information, he says.
Young first became interested in the project while teaching MBAs during the late 1980s, when he used some of former faculty member Herb Simon’s think-aloud protocol methodology to see how business audiences might respond to different documents. For example, if you’re giving an investor an analyst’s stock research report, you’d have them think aloud to decide whether they should invest. In Young’s classes, he asked actual business experts to read real annual reports.
“Initially, I was just using that to get a better understanding of what makes comprehension difficult or easy for these audiences,” he says.
During one of those exercises, the investor said, “What I’m really looking for is A, B, C and D, and I’m not seeing it here.”
That response gave Young an idea: What if audiences already knew what information they wanted?
“Here’s a gold mine: They know what they want, all we have to do is deliver it to them,” says Young. “Most of the problems in business documents are content problems – having the wrong content, too much irrelevant content and not enough relevant content.”
So he set out to create a protocol that would deliver the information as efficiently as possible. His premise is that it’s not just more persuasive; it’s actually driving better decision-making.
“The more irrelevant information an audience has to process, the lower the quality of their decision turns out to be,” he says. “Nobody’s immune to this … Everyone is affected by making information easy.”
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