Thursday, December 5, 2013

Teaching Millennials: Some Notes from the Classroom, Part 3

Be Interdisciplinary (Continued) 

Today's post, the third in a series of installments about the college classroom, will be entirely oriented towards some of the sticking points that come up when attempting to design and teach a multi-disciplinary course to contemporary undergrads. 


Research conducted by consulting firm Dynamic Communicators concluded with this rather troubling finding:  within 15 minutes of having been exposed to a presentation, over 70% of the audience members (approximately two thousand people in this study---exposed to a variety of different speakers) "had no idea what had just been communicated...Some could remember a joke or illustration, but most couldn't identify any purpose or direction for the talk."

The study continued:  "That isn't the sad statistic.  We also interviewed the speakers and discovered that more than 50 percent of the speakers could not articulate an objective or focus to their talk."

In the previous articles, I have emphasized System 1 decision-making---the intuitive, snap-judgment prone decision-making component within the brain's neural architecture which uses non-verbal communications, heuristics, and other quick, information-frugal processes to come to a holistic conclusion ("good/bad", "like/don't like", "strong/weak", "hot/not hot") about someone very quickly.  In the previously-mentioned studies, I am sure that most audience members had in fact formed an opinion about the agent, the speaker, and could articulate that opinion of him or her in at least cursory terms.  This probably happened in seconds.  However, the lack of an ability to recall the point of the talk itself is something that educators need to keep in mind, because being liked by the class is part of the game, but having them develop and retain skills is the other.

I've been studying and researching this material for many years and have sought instruction from some very skilled individuals.   A recurring theme in the persuasion literature is that the vast majority of presentations and pitches are unfocused.  Being extroverted and self-assessing that you are "good with people" or "have the gift of gab" actually can amplify the problem because it can lead to a lack of focused, systematic intellectual preparation and rehearsal (I was historically one of the worst offenders---I enjoyed the adrenaline rush created by having to present on the fly, with little or no preparation).

There are a couple of techniques which I found---both used by high-level influence professionals---to help a professor or another type of influence agent to restore a laser-like focus to the message.

1.  Identify the nature of the talk:  "Persuasive" vs. "Enabling".

2.  Create an objective statement by A) writing a proposition, B) interrogating the proposition, C) writing a response to the interrogation, and D) choosing a key word in the objective statement.

These are not my ideas.  They come directly from the Dynamic Communicators experts who conducted the study.  

Persuasive vs. Enabling

A Persuasive topic tries to motivate you to make a change, and gives you the reasons why.  An Enabling talk tries to give you the tools to implement the change, and tells you how to do it. 

Do not try to be both Persuasive and Enabling in the same pitch.  Choose one objective or the other based on the audience's current motivation level to do what you want them to do. 

You can have two different pitches on tap---the first aimed at Persuasion, the second aimed at Enabling those who have been successfully persuaded.  You could conceivably run both pitches in one larger session, provided that you have a good break in between.  This is basically what a teacher should do, in my opinion.  In fact, if I had to sum up the art of teaching in one statement, I would say that the most successful teachers have both effective Persuasion and effective Enabling knowledge domains readily available in the classroom.

 The Objective Proposition and its Interrogation

The difference between the two types is then captured in the construction of a proposition.

Persuasive Proposition:  "Every international affairs undergraduate should learn a foreign language."  
Enabling Proposition:   "Every international affairs undergraduate can learn a foreign language."

The reader can immediately see that the natural, skeptical response to the first, Persuasive Proposition---this skeptical response is known as the Interrogation---involves "Why?"  The similar response to the Enabling Proposition intuitively involves "How?"

This sounds very simple and obvious, but frequently a speaker will have a persuasive pitch that he or she self-sabotages by answering or trying to answer the "how?" interrogation, rather than by satisfying the appropriate "why?" level of interrogation that is the reflexive audience response to his initial statements.

...And this assumes that even his initial statements are clear, a feature that we should clearly not take for granted.

When you go to the next step, Interrogating your own proposition, you modify your objective statement:

- If it is a Persuasive Proposition:  "Every international affairs undergraduate should learn a foreign language because ... "

-If it is an Enabling Proposition:  "Every international affairs undergraduate can learn a foreign language by..."

I will add this tactical contingency:  often you will be tasked with just giving a "how to" Enabling presentation.  However, even if you are dealing with a highly motivated audience which has already, presumably, accepted why they should be doing what you are advocating, you should still have a Persuasive Pitch on tap.  The enthusiasm may not be as universal as you were led to believe, and someone could become disturbed during the Enabling presentation and say something like this:  "Remind me why I should care about this again?"  You will need to be able to deal with this directly or you could have the start of mutiny on your hands---all eyes will be on you to justify or re-justify the entire effort.  Don't fuck that up.

Rule of Three

For reasons that appear to be rooted in human working memory capacity, limited resources for Selective Attention,  and hardwired cognitive rules, the number "3" has great power when it comes to persuasion.  The normal recommendation is to---if possible---give the three best reasons for "why", or the three most fundamental components of "how."  Don't concern yourself with long laundry lists of reasons or steps. This can occasionally mean having to do some modifications to an existing schema and to combine broadly similar concepts.  That's fine.  The reward will be that the audience member will be more easily able to recall the reasons or steps after brief exposure to the material. 

Key Words

When writing your proposition, you will need to identify the key word, which is "always a plural noun that describes the content of your talk.  It is one of the most important words in your objective sentence, and should be repeated consistently in the delivery of your talk."

It should be a memorable, "cool", or "strong" word if possible, and it should be one that will serve as an organizational umbrella for your supporting points.

Persuasive Proposition (key words in caps):  "Every international affairs student should learn a foreign language because of three key, strategic ADVANTAGES that bi-lingual people command in the global marketplace."  

Enabling Proposition (key words in caps):  "Every international affairs student can learn a foreign language by employing these three state-of-the-art, scientifically-validated learning TECHNIQUES."

There is much, much more to say on this topic and this is really only scratching the surface of a fascinating sub-category of influence and persuasion studies, but I will end this for now with the suggestion that you try to use the objective/focusing process described when preparing your next presentation or pitch.  I hope it works well for you.  

Monroe's Motivated Sequence

In terms of overall message format, I personally teach and sometimes use a framework called "Monroe's Motivated Sequence" (it does not necessarily work as well for lectures as it does for specific influence operations---pitches, presentations, and so on).  It has to be modified for contextual considerations, but it's a very efficient intellectual scaffolding on which to construct a persuasion narrative.

1.  Attention.   In the pitch design trade, we often call this a "Grabber".  Get the audience's attention from the beginning. 

2.  Need.  Establish that you understand what the target needs, what his or her problems or concerns are (as they relate to what you are prepared to offer).  You could also think of this as "diagnosis", or "delta" module of the pitch. 

3.  Satisfaction.  Give your solution.  Show, convincingly, that you can solve the target's problems. This could also be termed the "prescription", or "Rx" module of the pitch.

4.  Visualization.   Most people neglect this one---give the target a chance to imagine using your product or service to solve the problem.  At least one high-fidelity mental simulation and "victory"-related emotions are nice to include in the pitch.

What I have found:

-If you are doing a Persuasive presentation, guide the audience through a realistic thought-experiment in which they use your product or service to succeed, and emphasize the nice feelings that would be associated with this success.

-If you are doing an Enabling presentation, give them a practical, applied exercise that is relatively simple, yet satisfying.  They should feel that they have at least the beginnings of an independent capability to do whatever it is that you are teaching them to do. 

5.  Action.  Have a simple, straightforward way for them to hire you or buy from you.  You want as few moving parts or potential distractions between Visualization exercise and Point-of-Sale as possible.  If closing the sale immediately is not realistic (in many cases it will not be), then have a system in place to get to the next step---a longer chat, a second meeting, a visit to your website, a low-risk/low-investment coffee date, whatever.  Just make sure that you have thought it through, because it sucks to build momentum and advantageous strategic or tactical position via steps 1-4 of the sequence and then have it fizzle because the final capture method or system is awkward, forced, or unsophisticated. 

Here's a longer explanation:  

The Monroe Sequence is versatile enough that the same template can be used to construct each of the three major pitch/presentation types that an influence professional needs to have on tap:  A) the formal presentation of approximately 15-25 minutes + Q&A; B) the "elevator pitch" which normally lasts between 1-3 minutes; and C) the "cocktail party dynamic pitch" which is carefully dropped into a normal conversation.  

Some modifications or caveats to be aware of:  there are occasions when the Need statement has already been clearly identified and going over it explicitly will just make the overall presentation or pitch seem awkward.  This occasion is more rare than most seem to think it is---generally speaking, stating the needs of the target audience in an unadorned, direct way is a very good idea.  It is also a check on your overall understanding of the problems that you are purporting to solve.  If you cannot explicitly state your target audience's Needs, then you are not ready for prime-time yet and should make sure that you do have a detailed understanding of the problems that they actually face. 

When you teach a class on, say, Southeast Asian power politics, the Need statement is *not* really about how heads of state in Asia should behave.  The Need statement is what your audience---the students who are paying for your course---should know about SE Asian geopolitics in order to further their own career and personal goals.

The Monroe Sequence is useful for organizing the formal persuasive argument so that the information flows in a manner which has high processing fluency for the target.   If you do things in a different order---say, trying to explain your Solution before you have revealed that you understand the Need, or trying to do either before you have seized Attention, or moving to Visualization before you have produced enough credible evidence that your approach works---then you risk having the target think "wait a minute---this doesn't make sense."

I cannot stress enough that the Monroe Sequence is, in a sense, a Trojan Horse of persuasion and strategic social dynamics.  The real target is the audience's "Old Brain", not higher cortical thinking.  The neocortex exerts so-called "lazy control" over these more ancient areas of the brain, particularly the limbic system.  Cortical interruption---which can be anticipated using the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM)---normally occurs when the cortex has been alarmed.  Perhaps the Old Brain cannot follow what is going on, or perhaps there is a conflict, inconsistency, novelty, or threat scenario present.  Many of the most effective tools of influence work via the old brain's reliance on intuition and heuristics to form snap judgments---an influence professional will usually want to occupy the neocortex with a high-fluency, logical progression (like the Monroe Sequence) while simultaneously attacking the target's old brain with a variety of tactics, techniques, and procedures.

Advanced practitioners of persuasion and influence will apply leverage on multiple channels simultaneously, but the primary target usually remains the Old Brain.  For a military variation on this principle of multi-dimensional, indirect attack, see John Warden's seminal essay "The Enemy as a System".  It can provide quite a bit of illumination.

Article: The Enemy as a System

As I discussed in the last post, there is considerable evidence that students use Old Brain rules to evaluate their professors, probably in less than ten seconds of initial exposure, and rely heavily on insights that can be gained from the professors' physical presentations and non-verbal communication styles.  The Monroe Sequence and equivalents are very important, but non-verbal communications and "brand" considerations probably trump any particular framework for presenting information.

Physical movement on the stage or in front of the classroom can be integrated with the Monroe Sequence for synergistic effect, but I will leave that discussion for another day.

Handling Objections Quickly with "Feel, Felt, Found"

Those who make a living by specializing in high-level heists, infiltration, and other such dark practices will typically separate a given operation into one of three general modes of penetration:

1.  Technical Attack.  This is the realm of the IT-based "hacker" who can penetrate the target's information systems and do what he needs to do that way.

2.  Physical Attack.  Breaking and Entering into the target's facility, which may be performed using old-fashioned brute force or with finesse.

3.  Social Engineering.  Applying the skills of persuasion and influence---which I simply term "strategic social dynamics" for my coursework---to gain access to the target via exploitable human psychological factors and innate cognitive biases or limitations.

Some social engineering techniques made their way into the training programs of elite sales, influence, and compliance professionals many years ago and have since been exposed to a discovery process not unlike Darwinian evolution by natural selection and its attendant "survival of the fittest".  One such long-standing technique is a quick, quite adaptive social algorithm which goes by various names, but which I originally learned as Feel, Felt, Found.

Feel, Felt, Found is meant to be a way in which to easily handle complaints or objections that have a fluid, dynamic quality---as you might find if, say, fielding Q&A questions after your pitch, or a variety of resistance scenarios that can come up during the course of an interaction.   The goal is to make a rapid transition from a Persuasive module of rapport-building and empathy ("Warmth", similarity, empathy, shared humanity) to an Enabling module.  Feel, Felt, Found presumes that the influence agent is in possession of legitimate Enabling competence---that he or she does know how to address a problem or concern.  If you use it without having this knowledge, it poses risks.

The algorithm works as described in this hypothetical scenario:  John wants Mary to install a new app on her smartphone.  Mary angrily objects on the grounds that the app seems dangerous.  John's response, in basic template form:  "I totally understand how you feel.  I have felt the same way.  Then I found that (...doing x, y,z satisfied my concerns/problems) ...."

The power of Feel, Felt, Found is that it avoids direct conflict with an objector or skeptic.  The first step is recognition that the agent understands how the target feels and that the target's emotional state is understandable.  This recognition is sometimes very important.  The second step is the statement that the agent, too, has felt this way. 

After quickly exploring a common ground, it switches cleanly to a solution-finding mode that is hopefully more productive.  The desired effect is one in which the relationship has gone from conceptually having a protagonist and an antagonist facing each other to one in which two similar, human protagonists---"on the same team, wanting the same things"---face a problem together, and one of the protagonists shares his solution.

Obviously the script may need to be filled out a bit so as to not sound glib or formulaic under field conditions, and Feel, Felt, Found will not necessarily work well against a determined, really pissed-off or argumentative antagonist, particularly one who has already tried the solutions that are being recommended by the "finding".  Ultimately you may need to be prepared for a longer, more comprehensive dialogue.  But if you are hit with a less dramatic, more easily-addressed complaint or concern---typically coming from someone who just wants to feel heard and treated like a human being---then perhaps Feel, Felt, Found is something that will show you some attractive downrange results.  Many of my students work in retail, waitering/bartending, or other social-dynamics-heavy jobs, and they have given this technique high marks in terms of real-world practicality and effectiveness. 



  1. After spending the last 20 years building and selling high-value decision science systems to highly skeptical very large corporations -- who would see their balance sheets disrupted and their jobs disappear if we were wrong -- I have to say this is probably the best thing I have ever read on the art and science of persuasion. I wish I had read it 20 years ago.

    I will respond with more questions or comments later, perhaps a couple of anecdotes (per my wont!), but one element that I cannot praise more highly is the "rule of three."

    Typically, in my experience, the experts who were required to evaluate our systems were 160+ IQ, rarefied talents whom the executives relied upon to vet and qualify what our scientists produced. So, smart guys with extraordinarily robust quantitive skills.

    However, through trial and error I became convinced that any presentation that had more than three core premises would fail. My rule of thumb was that the average exec would remember one thing; the good exec would remember two; and the expert should be asked to evaluate no more than three.

    My goal was always to present no more than three core principles that would have to be explicitly *refuted* for our pitch to be *rejected.* (Of course, one could always be rejected arbitrarily for political, emotional, or pecuniary reasons, but since I could not manage arbitrariness, I ignored those risks other than by attempting to be extremely rigorous about whom we met with under which conditions; we were famous for declining meetings or requiring certain personalities to attend meetings if we took them, which drove a lot of self-important corporate guys batty. For example, I refused to even meet with Bank of America a couple of years ago because the SVP had demonstrated in prior go-rounds none of the qualities that we found to be required in successful sales. His response was of the "You'll never eat lunch in this town again" variety. Yeah right. He's probably developing his Subway franchise by now.)

    My view was that we would make a sale if the executive intuitively responded well to me personally, as well as the broad strategic promises I made (and if that executive had the stones to risk his job in exchange for strategic progress and advantage) (my manner, resume and personality were -- in a sincere sense -- your trojan horse). Then the substantive, irrefutable science of the value prop had to be concise enough that the exec could turn to his rocket scientist and say, "Is it possible that their shit really does X, Y, and may Z?" For that to happen, we had to constrain the pitch to your rule of three.

    With your permission, I'm going to send this to the fellow we hired to replace me as front man.

  2. Bobby, that's high praise indeed coming from a man ike you. Thank you very much, my friend.

    Please feel free to use and modify as you see fit---very much looking forward to your comments when you have the chance.

  3. The bifurcated nature of the audiences I am accustomed to (generalist exec plus Ph.D level quant) led me to always include an elevator pitch with my persuasive pitch; the persuasive pitch had to include a concluding "how to", infamously (in powerpoint-speak) the "Next Steps" or "Action Plan" section.

    The elevator pitch was required because our target exec was never focused for more than a few minutes and required the ability to regurgitate our value prop later to his colleagues and his scientists, in order to say either "I think we should do this because ..." (to his c-level generalist-peers) or "Make sure we validate that Bobby is not blowing smoke up our ass in regard to X, Y, or Z. Because if these wingnuts can deliver 75% of what he just promised, we're buying it" (to his senior technical resource).

    So, any persuasive pitch began with the elevator pitch, itself a kind of dare because it must assert something unique that is too important to ignore, if true. Then the persuasive pitch, then the "next steps" dosie-doe.

    Elevator pitches have always been brutal for me because I'm much more interested in "Why" and "How" than "What" -- it always frustrates me that people don't already know "what". But they don't; most don't think abstractly and spend their time on solving the obvious "what".

    For example, in the gif of the takedown of the Panda, I suppose the elevator pitch is: "Trained operatives who have spent 100 hours rehearsing this specific move will overwhelm an uneducated terrorist in his crappy Fiat and have him in restraints alive within 10 seconds so he may spill the beans within three days."

    But I'm sitting here thinking: what happens if the windshield doesn't collapse like SaranWrap; where do we get an Olympic caliber broad-jumper willing to leap into a moving 2000 pound object; is the driver really stupid enough not to swerve and floor it? because I thought rule #1 was accelerate into trouble and use the car as a weapon. Obviously, none of that is germane to the elevator pitch that must be made to some bozo like Samantha Power, whose probably thinking about the time she introduced Noam Chomsky to her class and why didn't Cass want to have sex last night and will Hillary hire me if she wins the next election?

    1. That's a very interesting and nuanced approach, Bobby. I know what you mean re: elevator pitches. I think that the great ones are almost purely driven by social momentum tactics that start off with a favorable impression and then build on it rapidly.

      We are probably dissatisfied with this format when we are the targets, so we prefer the more thorough discussions to their imprecise, free-wheeling soundbite versions.