People don’t change their minds

I feel like I need to write “People don’t change their minds, they change how they feel,” 100 times on the chalkboard, like Charlie Brown, in the hopes that it will someday fully sink in.

Yes, I’ve heard different versions of this point repeated time and again, by everyone from social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind to Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow to storytelling gurus Chip and Dan Heath in Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard.

The metaphor is: think of the human mind as composed of an elephant and a rider. Elephants are people’s emotional and instinctive reactions, the rider is our rational brain. Guess who wins when they disagree? Per Chip and Dan Heath in Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard:

Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader.  But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant.  Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose.  He’s completely overmatched.

The irony is that reading this alone, by definition, won’t make me, or you, believe it. Until your elephant experiences this in a way it understands, it’s just an idea floating out there like any other, one that won’t change your behavior.

Our inability to live this truth plays out in elections (“don’t they understand he’ll make a terrible President?!”), in fundraising pitches (“I’ll show them the facts and they’ll understand how important this is”) and everywhere in between. We think storytelling and emotional connection is a nice way to start and end a pitch, a cute way to open and close, and forget that these moments are the pitch. The connection to people’s emotional and intuitive selves are the things that direct and point the elephant in one direction or another, while the facts and analysis we present are used by our audience to justify a decision they’ve already made.

Let me try it again:

Bonus: the single best piece I’ve read on this topic, Elizabeth Kolbert’s Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds: New discoveries about the human mind show the limitation of reason from February’s New Yorker.

Concrete, concrete, concrete

Concrete, concrete, concrete

As Chip and Dan Heath captured so elegantly in Made to Stick, to get your point (your story!) across you need to be concrete, always. Concreteness is one of the six elements of their SUCCESS rubric for telling “sticky” stories.

More specifically, you need to use language that speaks to the shared vocabulary of the two people who are speaking. If you have more expertise on a topic than the person to whom you’re speaking, this will feel like dumbing down your language. It’s not. It’s making sure there’s no possibility for confusion where there doesn’t need to be.

Think about it: every time we use language that is not in people’s day to day vernacular (I mean that literally: language that they use every day; concepts that are so familiar that they don’t require a second of extra thought), we are asking them to spend mental effort deciphering language rather than resonating with our story. That is wasted attention and the fault is with us for asking them to expend it.

This is not (not not not!) a question of their intelligence, this is a question of your shared vocabulary and where you want them to use up their precious, finite attention.

This means that every time you’re speaking, you’re saying “for example,” a lot.

It means, for example, that you’re not saying “ethical sourcing” when you could be saying “six year olds in factories.” You’re not saying “assess baseline data” when you could be saying “go to 10 customers’ homes and record whether or not they have corrugated tin roofs.” You’re not speaking about millions of dollars when they live and breathe crores. You’re probably never, ever talking about “paradigms.”

Instead, you are trading conceptual terms for concrete ones, exchanging categories of things (“processed cotton”) with specific and familiar examples (“thread”). You are starting with one specific, familiar item (or action) and generalizing from there, rather than staying at the conceptual level and assuming they’re smart enough to boil it down to the specific. They are, but they shouldn’t have to.

And you’re doing this in a disciplined way, time and time again, because that’s what it takes to have this become natural to you.

Live in their world, speak with their language using vocabulary that parallels their reality, not yours, and they’ll finally start hearing you.

Tap, Tap, Tap

Today I’m going to hear Dan Heath talk about his new book, Switch, which is about how to create changes in people’s behavior.   I count myself an adamant fan of their first book Made to Stick, so I’m looking forward to the talk.  Made to Stick is of the only actionable books on communications I’ve read, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to communicate, sell, interview, connect, or tell stories more effectively (yes this means you!).

Often when I’m asked to do a “how to fundraise” presentation to a small group I’ll start with the “tappers and listeners” experiment that Chip and Dan cite early on in Made to Stick.  The finding was published in the Journal of Political Economy by Dr. Elizabeth Newton, and the experiment goes like this:

Have everyone in your group pair up.  For each pair, elect one person as the “tapper” and one person as the “listener.”  The goal is to have the “listener” guess the song that the “tapper” is tapping.  All the tapper can do is tap her finger on the table in sync with the notes of the song she wants the listener to guess.  So, if the song is “Happy Birthday,” the tapper would tap: “tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-taaaaaaaaaaaap.”  (tap out “Happy Birthday” and you’ll see what I mean.)    Have each person be the tapper once and the listener once

Before everyone gets started, ask them to estimate how often the listener will guess the song correctly.  (You should do this too, right now.  Just write it down or remember your guess.  Will the listener guess right all the time? Half the time? A quarter of the time?)

Now run the experiment and see what happens.

I did this yesterday with a group and it played out like it does every time.  People laugh out loud – it’s a combination of excitement, joy, frustration and embarrassment.  And they do a terrible job guessing the songs and a terrible job guessing how good they will be at guessing the songs.

Yesterday, my group’s median guess for how often the tappers would get the song right was 25%.  In Dr. Newton’s experiment, which was much bigger, people estimated 50%.  And in fact, people in the experiment guessed right 1 in 40 times (2.5%).  In my group yesterday the group guessed right 8% of the time.

Put another way, people estimate that “listeners” are engaged in a coin toss (1 in 2), when really it’s a shot in the dark (1 in 40).

What’s going on here?

Dr. Newton’s article is titled “The Curse of Knowledge in Economic Settings: An Experimental Analysis.”  The Curse of Knowledge in this case is the song that the “tapper” has playing in her head.  As she’s tapping, she literally hears each and every note, and she just cannot imagine what it feels like to be a listener who doesn’t have that tune, who just hears “tap-tap-tap-tap” and thinks “well that could be ANYTHING!!”  The tapper and listener can’t help but get a little bit frustrated at each other.  The tapper thinks “well c’mon, this shouldn’t be so hard,” because she hears the notes accompanying the taps; and the listener wants to please the tapper and wants to get it right but just isn’t getting enough information.

I love having people do this together because it is simple, fun and visceral.  You can tell people a million times to explain things simply, to use narrative, to tell stories, to avoid jargon…and you won’t get half the effect you have after they’ve played this 5- minute game.

It’s easy to remember what it feels like to be both a tapper and a listener and from there you can begin to understand how your own knowledge, expertise and experience are hampering your ability to explain yourself, your story, what your organization does, the change you hope to see in the world.

The next time you’re telling your story and you see a blank, smiling face across the table, take a moment to think: what does this sound like without the accompanying music?


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