Using Particular Phrases to be More Compelling

I’ve recently been on vacation and I’m catching up on some reading. One of my favorite magazines and websites is the Harvard Business Review or HBR.org.

In the March 2011 issues is an Idea Watch section about the persuasiveness of experts. What the finding suggests is that when experts are less certain about their opinion, the more likely the opinion is going to be interesting and perhaps more intriguing to the audience.

What does this mean? It’s a little nugget for helping when people are scanning through information. If there are themes or patterns people tend to zone a out a bit. Important nuance can be lost. But when those themes are broken the reason for the deviation prompts curiosity.

This can be applied in the workplace. As the labor reports are coming out the economy is slowly picking up steam. There are many people looking for work. If you are writing a job recommendation for someone, its good to pepper in the phrase “high potential” in addition to “high achieving.”

  • High Achieving – Is a reference to the past. It shows capability and success but it isn’t necessarily relevant.
  • High Potential – Is a reference to the future. It latches onto a vision, onto hope, and shows adaptability and flexibility. Its more inspiring.

Here’s a blurb from the article Experts are More Persuasive When They’re Less Certain:

What makes a message compelling?

By “compelling,” I mean relevant to the core argument. In
another study, we had subjects read reviews that also gave four out of
five stars, but their content wasn’t really about the restaurant. They
said things like “My friend and I laughed the whole time. I liked the
way the menu looked and the colors they used.” That’s not compelling.
Even if it were interesting, it’s not what makes a restaurant good or
bad. Whether the reviews were confident or not, people didn’t find them
persuasive.

Where else do you want to take your certainty research?

One thing I’ve started looking into with some other
collaborators, Jayson Jia and Mike Norton, is how people view potential.
Our initial findings seem to show that people value high potential more
than high achievement.

That explains why a rookie quarterback like Sam Bradford makes more money than Super Bowl champ Drew Brees.

Sports are a great example. In one study,
participants read the scouting report on a basketball player. Some read
the actual stats for the player’s first five years in the league; others
read predictions for the first five years’ performance. The numbers
were identical. Then we asked, How much would you pay this player in
year six? On average, people gave the veteran who had performed $4.26
million and the rookie who was projected to perform $5.25 million, over
20% more.

Rookie talent in general, not just in sports, seems vastly overweighted.

Exactly. If you present people with letters of
recommendation for one job candidate described as “high potential” and
another described as “high achieving,” they’ll find the letter for the
high potential candidate more interesting and possibly more persuasive.

How can people be so thick?

Proven achievement is very certain. It’s less surprising
and less interesting to think about. Potential is uncertain and kind of
exciting. You can imagine many outcomes. Maybe they’ll do better than
you expect!

OK, I have to ask: How certain are you about the validity of your research?

I think our findings tell us something important. But you
never know what other variables could be in play here. The more we
research this, the better we’ll understand it.

I’ll buy that.

You see? It works.

About benleeson
My name is Ben Leeson. I currently work for a large financial company in IT. I went to school at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY. I graduated with a B.S. in Business Administration concentrating in HR. Professor William Brown taught me and I enjoyed his classes; even acquiring an appreciation for just about all things HR. I didn’t pursue a job in that field after college but I’ve kept up with it. This blog will further my fascination with all things HR. I hope to grow my knowledge of the area through thoughtful writings and spirited feedback. I will attempt to have a fairly routine style so anyone reading can come to expect certain segments. Please excuse my incorrect grammar and occasional misspelling.

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