Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Speakers: To persuade, get concrete. To inspire, be abstract.

Should you try to inspire your audience--or persuade them? Are you speaking about why your audience should do something--or how to pull it off? New research suggests that decision depends on the timing of your message and what the audience has to do next, whether that deadline is in the future or next week.

When to use abstract versus specific messages looks at recent studies that used political messages to gauge how effective they are
The question tackled by these studies in paper by Hakkyun Kim and his colleagues in the Journal of Consumer Research was when "influencers" are better off using vague, abstract high level messages -- ones that are more about "why" -- versus concrete, specific, implementation oriented messages -- ones that are "how" to get things done.
The studies went on to note that there's a time difference apparent in how political messages are received:  Abstract, inspiring talk works fine when the election is far off, but the closer you get to the ballot box deadline, citizens seem to prefer more concrete promises. The researchers liken it to travel for a vacation, where you might be convinced by vague promises of sunsets at first, but are more likely to want to see an activity schedule or something more concrete the week before you depart.

While it's not possible to extrapolate the findings to the workplace, this study made me think of commencement speeches, which are traditionally long on high-minded abstractions and short on what's actually about to happen to the graduates. Most commencement speakers aim for the high, inspiring and abstract road. That's why I so enjoyed reading 10 things your commencement speaker won't tell you, a list as concrete as the sidewalk. Here's an example that urges the graduates to worry less about doing something grand and positive, and more about not doing any harm:
Everyone will tell you that you can change the world. They are right, but remember that "changing the world" also can include things like skirting financial regulations and selling unhealthy foods to increasingly obese children. I am not asking you to cure cancer. I am just asking you not to spread it.
That's certainly all about the "how" for the audience. The article is excerpted from a book that's out this week, 10 1/2 Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said by Charles Wheelan, whose first job out of college was working as a speechwriter to the governor of Maine--a job that involved writing words of wisdom for graduations, when he was just 23 himself.  Consider that, graduates!