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New Research on Eye Contact.

Here’s a recent interesting article from the Washington Post, adding to what we think we know about eye contact. I add a caveat, however: We can’t judge the impact of eye contact without detailing what KIND of eye contact is being displayed. As humans, we instinctively detect and decipher thousands of micro messages when we communicate with others. There’s a huge difference between the aggressive eye contact of an adamant arguer, and the warm eye contact you get when you talk to your best friend. It’s all about rapport.


– Teresa Erickson

Making eye contact can hurt your argument, study finds

By Meeri Kim, Published: October 5

“Look at me when I’m talking to you!”

If you’ve ever used that line during a disagreement, you might want to think again. Forcing eye contact when trying to change someone’s mind may actually cause listeners to become more stubborn, a new study shows.

Researchers found that subjects made to hold eye contact with a speaker were less open-minded and held steadfast to their original opinion, more so than those who looked elsewhere.

“Eye contact is a very intimate thing,” said Julia A. Minson, study author and a social psychologist. “So when you’re in a situation that feels confrontational, I think it’s more likely to put people off.”

Locking eyes with another person can feel bonding or threatening, depending on the context. Between a mother and her infant, eye contact helps build a stronger connection. Exchanging flirty glances across a crowded bar heightens attraction and activates pleasure centers in the brain.

But in other situations, a head-on stare can be the human equivalent of a bull getting ready to charge. Think of those old Western movies where two gunslingers have a stare-down amidst the tumbleweeds before a shootout.

“When animals make eye contact, it’s usually prior to a dominance contest,” Minson said. “Dogs aren’t going to look each other in the eye unless they’re about to fight.”

When two people disagree, the context more so resembles a dominance contest than intimate bonding, she said, and can make a direct gaze seem aggressive.

“It’s already a tense situation,” said Frances S. Chen, the other study author and a social psychologist. “That’s a very primal way that eye contact is used.”

The findings contradict a common belief that locking eyes with objects of your persuasion will promote closeness and help sway them more easily.

Prior to the experiment, participants were surveyed on their opinions on various hot-button topics such as animal-farming practices and nuclear energy. The researchers then had them watch videotaped speeches supporting the opposing viewpoint while using eye-tracking technology. Afterward, the subjects were asked whether their attitude had changed.

The ones who focused on the speakers’ gaze were less likely to budge than those looking at other parts of the speaker’s face.

“People were less open-minded and receptive the more they look at the eyes,” Chen said.

Researchers tested spontaneous and forced eye contact. In the first experiment, they didn’t specify an area of gaze focus, but in the second, they told the subjects to stare at either the speaker’s eyes or mouth. The results — that eye contact was tied to less opinion change — were the same.

The study was published online Wednesday in the journal Psychological Science.

Minson and Chen met in graduate school and found a common interest in what makes people receptive to persuasion. Or, as is more often the case, why it can fail even in the face of clear-cut evidence to the contrary.

“Regular run-of-the-mill people have a very hard time changing their mind,” Minson said. “Obviously, looking at the current political issues, this is not a trivial problem.”

She teaches negotiation analysis at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and says that the results of the study can help people in different areas of their lives — from the boardroom to the household.

“I’ve got two little kids, and when I’m not happy with them and trying to convince them that some particular thing is unsafe, I don’t try to force eye contact or say ‘Look at me!’ I resist that urge as a parent,” Minson said.

Joe Navarro, a 25-year veteran of the FBI and an expert on body language, found that agents have more success with coaxing information out of interviewees when they avoid direct eye contact.

“It was easier to get people to confess by not sitting directly in front of them, which is a very primate antagonistic behavior with a lot of eye contact,” Navarro said in an e-mail. “What worked best was just to sit at angles to them so there is less eye contact.”

Conveying Authentic Passion Under Pressure

What does it feel like, before you do a major public talk or broadcast media interview?

Those feelings, “butterflies, nerves, are your sympathetic nervous system preparing you for a stressful situation…pumping adrenaline into your system. It can either slide into Fear – which makes it hard to stay in control and think clearly. Or into excitement – the positive energy athletes and professional speakers use to perform at their peak…

Here’s a quick exercise to help you manage your state so you can channel this rush of energy into excitement – positive, authentic passion that will make you riveting and compelling as an interview subject, and indeed, for any public communications encounter.

  1. Come prepared, take your notes, arrive early, drink warm tea (not cold water nor coffee which constrict the throat and vocal chords)
  2. Notice new sensations that signal your body’s response to the situation. Recognize these sensations as energy you can channel.
  3. Ground yourself: Feet your feet, your hands, your body pressing against the chair, the effects of gravity (this counteracts the shut-down impulse).
  4. Breathe deep, relaxing belly breaths.
  5. Recall at time and a place when you were performing at your peak doing something you loved with someone you enjoyed…go into that place vividly in your imagination. Let the energy you feel flow into that experience. (You are integrating that resourceful state with the new state “peak communicator”).
  6. Cue yourself just before you go on by saying to yourself  a phrase you find personally motivating. Some of the experts we have worked with have used:

“I’ve got this.”

“I’m the best person for this job.”

“I am going to rock their world!”

Find a phrase that triggers confidence for you, and use it repeatedly. The more you use it, the more powerful it will be in swiftly putting you in a state of genuine confidence and authority.

Tim Ward

The Inner Critic

Most people have an inner critic: a voice inside their head that judges the worth of what they are saying in “live time.” This voice can be distracting and debilitating, so learn to manage this voice so that you control it – not the other way around. There are several techniques for dealing with the inner critic. Find one that is best for you:

  1. Detach from it. Listen to the voice (when you are not performing). Whose voice is it? Is your voice or someone else’s? Are there more than one? What gives this voice permission to speak in your head? That voice is not you, so you can choose to listen or not.
  2. Command it. Say to the voice it: “Quiet – I will hear from you later.”
  3. Make a deal: Appreciate your inner critic, distinguish from the messages it sends that you want to hear, and the ones that are not productive.
  4. Talk back. Use humor: “Right, critic, if I blow this, the world will be destroyed!”
  5. Acceptance:  You aren’t perfect, so what? If you let perfection go, the critic has no power.
  6. Override it: Focusing on your intention (the reason you are doing what you are doing), or on your service to others, on what they need (to hear from you).
  7. Disprove it: When the voice kicks in, consciously remember a time when you were at your best. The critic then triggers you to enter a powerful state.
  8. Use imagery to disempower it. Picture your critic with a humorous face or body.


“Cueing”: A Crucial Tool for Effective Communication

I want to talk about a technique that for me represents some of the most forward thinking on communications.  This one idea has changed the way I communicate. I’m going to share a few skills that you will want to put into practice – both at work, and in other areas of your life.

This communication technique is what I call “cueing,”  and this is a practice and term that’s most common with yoga teachers or personal trainers.  They use the word cueing to mean the verbal and non verbal ways to communicate to  students what move they will perform next, and HOW to do it correctly.

And that’s what you want to do for anyone you are speaking to – cueing is a way of directing and focusing your listener’s attention on what you’re going to say… and telling them HOW to listen to you.

So for example, if you’re about to chair a meeting, you want to say something like:  “ The purpose of this meeting  is to be collaborative, and I know you will all want to participate and have something you’ll want to share.”

You are cueing your audience that you are making a space for everyone to talk, and that they should think about something to say.

Before a speech you are about to give, you may want to cue your audience like this: “What I am going to share with you will give you a new perspective on this issue we are all passionate about,  a perspective that will open your minds to new creative ways of doing things.”

You are repeating the words “New”, and “perspective” and saying the words “open” and “creative.”   You are cueing their brains to turn towards the path you want them to take during your talk.

I use cueing alot at home. I know with my own daughter cueing can work.   Since she was 16 she’s felt bullied and unattractive in high school – and since I learned about cueing a year ago,  I’ve been saying to her often: “You are beautiful, and I know that soon you are going to know just how beautiful you are.”   She’s 19 now and in college, and during the last summer break, she turned to me one day and said, “You know mom, I AM beautiful!”

My new cueing for her now is: “You know how important studying is because you want good grades!”  I fear this may take longer.

My husband has pointed out to me that I have often cued him by saying things like :  “You are the most generous man I know!”  Which he says only wants to make him MORE generous.

And this is the important thing about cueing others – you are cueing them for their own success, you are cueing them to do things they WANT to do, to remind them of resources they possess.

So, for instance, if your friend is going to a job interview, instead of saying, “Oh, I hope you get the job!”  Instead cue them this way: “I know you’re prepared.  And you are at your best when you are prepared.  You’ve got this.”

Now we should talk about negative cueing.

It’s something that parents already know. When my daughter was little, instead of saying  “Don’t break that glass!”   I would say ‘’Careful with the glass.”

With my husband, instead of “Don’t leave the dirty socks on the floor!”  — I’ve learned to say “Please pick up your socks.”

Here are some examples of negative cueing I’ve heard from some recent talks I’ve sat through:

“I hope I won’t be too boring.”

“This may be too technical and complicated for some of you.”

“I’m very nervous, I didn’t have too much time to prepare, so here goes…”

“I got here in a rush so I may sound rather disorganized this morning, please bear with me.”

“I don’t know how interesting some of you may find what I’m about to talk about…. I hope you’ll find something you can take away with you…”

Finally, I want to talk about self-cueing.

I first realized how important this was in a recent media training I was doing where two of the participants were women.

During our media training we use video cameras to record mock interviews, and before each video session the women would say, “Oh I hate this!”  And I suddenly recalled how often I heard that from women over the years.

So I turned to this young woman and pointed out what she was doing, and I asked her what was a positive statement she could say — that she could believe – that would be a better cue for her.  And after several ideas, she suddenly said, “I know all this.  I’ve GOT this.”  I’ve worked with this woman for several sessions over 3 years.  And this interview was the best interview she’s ever given.

So the next time you’re about to do an activity you are unsure or uncomfortable about, think of how you can cue yourself.  Instead of “I don’t know HOW I’m going to do this…”  You can say, “I already have all the resources I need to get this done.”

Instead of “Oh, I Hate this..”  Have your own version of “I’ve GOT this” ready.
It can be, “I know this stuff so well,”  or  “I’m prepared, and I’m ready.”

Or “I’m actually the best person to do this…”

I’ve come to realize how important language is – both the words we use about ourselves to others… and the words we use about ourselves – to ourselves.

I’m going to leave you with a final thought about cueing – and this is the most difficult.  How to cue others about how to view you.  In other words – what words would you like people to use to describe you, when you are not in the room.

This is something I first heard about from Wall Street CEO Carla Harris, who writes about it in her book, EXPECT TO WIN.  She points out that at your work, most of the decisions made about you and your career will happen when you are not in the room.

She tells the story of how she was passed over for a promotion early on in her career, and she asked her boss why the job went to a man.  And he said to her, “Well, Carla, I just didn’t think you were tough enough for that job.”

Now, as an African American woman who put herself through Harvard and was working on Wall Street, she knew she WAS as tough as anyone, but realized that wasn’t the perception of her.  So she launched a systematic campaign to use the word “tough” to describe herself any chance she got.  So when a colleague would ask her opinion about something, she would say, “Are you sure you want my feedback, you know I can be tough?”

After three months she knew she succeeded when she overheard two people at work talking in a hallway about her.  One was saying, “I’m going show Carla this presentation and see what she thinks of it.”  And the other one said, “Are you sure you want to show it to her, she’s so tough.”

She suggests that you think of three adjectives that you want people to use to describe you,  that are truly congruent with who you are, and use them in conversation to describe yourself whenever possible.  If “strategic” is one of the words you choose, then the next time someone asks you to work on a project you can say “This is great, I’m a strategic thinker and I can really apply that skill on this project.”

So, as a practical exercise, write down the three adjectives you want people to use to describe you.  Then think how you can use one or more of those words in conversation with your colleagues.  Here is an example from a session I just did with a group at an international development bank:

If the words are innovative, results-oriented, and analytical:

“I’m glad you’re asking me about the potential of this report I’m leading.  I want to make sure this report brings concrete results, first of all.  Secondly, I’m most excited when thinking of innovative ways to address these challenging issues, and I was glad to see that this is the kind of project that really allows me to use all my analytical skills.”

Obviously you don’t have to use all three adjectives all the time, but repetition is important.  When you repeat the same adjectives, after a while, people start to think of them in relation to you, they can’t help it.

Cueing is a technique I strive to put into practice every day, and I know you’ll find it useful too.

Teresa Erickson

Don’t use Neutral Language in the Darwinian Marketplace of Ideas

The article below, from the Washington Post (Dec. 18, 2011), is a great example of how a neutral idea can be reframed as something negative – even sinister. In this case, the John Birch Society website writes about the UN’s Agenda 21, describing it in conspiracy-theory terms as part of a secret agenda for global government operating in the shadows. In fact, Agenda 21 is more of a wishful-thinking document that urges national governments to pay attention to the environment when planning for the future.

In the case of this particular story, a Tea Party activist uses the JBS negative reframing of Agenda 21 to make her case against a Virginia local government’s plan for adapting to future sea level rise in the Chesapeake Bay. You would think this kind of foresight a no-brainer, but this particular activist actually has the local officials worried about their own re-election.

What we can learn here is that in a highly politicized environment, neutral language can be easily abused. The name “Agenda 21” easily feeds the fears of those prone to conspiracy theories and fear of “global government.” Would a name like “Using our Resources while Protecting the Planet” have been more difficult to subvert?

Scientists and Policy makers – please keep this in mind – neutral language does not long remain neutral in the Darwinian marketplace of ideas!

Tim Ward

Virginia residents oppose preparations for climate-related sea-level rise


By Darryl Fears, Published: December 17, 2011

Over his long career as a public planner, Lewis L. Lawrence grew
accustomed to the bland formalities of planning commission meetings in Virginia’s
Middle Peninsula, where forgetting to cover one’s mouth while yawning through
a lecture was about as rude as people got.
But lately, the meetings have gotten far more exciting — in a bad way,
said Lawrence, acting executive director of the Middle Peninsula Planning
District Commission. A well-organized and vocal group of residents has taken a
keen interest in municipal preparations for sea-level rise caused by
climate change, often shouting their opposition, sometimes while planners and
politicians are talking.

The residents’ opposition has focused on a central point: They don’t
think climate change is accelerated by human activity, as most climate
scientists conclude. When planners proposed to rezone land for use as a dike
against rising water, these residents, or “new activists,” as Lawrence calls
them, saw a trick to take their property.
“Environmentalists have always had an agenda to put nature above man,”
said Donna Holt, leader of the Virginia Campaign for Liberty, a tea party
affiliate with 7,000 members. “If they can find an end to their means, they don
’t care how it happens. If they can do it under the guise of global
warming and climate change, they will do it.”
Outside of greater New Orleans, Hampton Roads is at the biggest risk from
sea-level rise of any area its size in the United States, according to the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The water has risen so
much that Naval Station Norfolk is replacing 14 piers at $60 million each to
keep ship-repair facilities high and dry.
The area has historic geological issues. A meteor landed nearby 35 million
years ago, creating the Chesapeake Bay Impact Crater. And a
downward-pressing glacial formation was created during the Ice Age. These ancient events
are causing the land to sink, accounting for about one-third of the
sea-level change, scientists say.
This geology is lost in local meetings, where distrust of the local and
federal governments is at center stage.
When planners redesignated property as a future flood zone, activists said
officials were acting on a hoax. They argued in meetings and on Web sites
that local planners are unwitting agents of Agenda 21, a United Nations
environmental action plan adopted in 1992 that the activists see as a shadowy
global conspiracy to grab land and redistribute wealth in the United
“My professional credentials have been challenged,” said Lawrence, who
holds degrees in municipal planning and provides professional and technical
planning advice to municipalities throughout the peninsula. He said he has
heard whispers behind his back after meetings: “I’ve been brainwashed. I’ve
been called a dupe for the U.N.”
The uprising began at a February meeting about starting a business park
for farming oysters in Mathews County, Lawrence and other planners recalled.
The program to help restore the Chesapeake Bay oyster population was slated
for land owned by the county, but it was shouted down as a useless federal
program that would expand the national debt. The proposal was tabled.
As the opposition grew over the summer, confrontations became so heated
that some planners posted uniformed police officers at meetings and others
hired consultants to help calm audiences and manage the indoor environment,
several planners said.
In James City County, speakers were shouted away from a podium. In Page
County, angry farmers forced commissioners to stop a meeting. In Gloucester
County, planners sat stone-faced as activists took turns reading portions of
the 500-page Agenda 21 text, delaying a meeting for more than an hour.

Agenda 21 is an agenda in name only, environmentalists say. The document
encourages world governments to consider environmental impacts before
developing land or slashing rain forests for resources, said Patty Glick, senior
climate-change specialist for the National Wildlife Federation.
“Agenda 21 is the least thing they should be worried about,” said Glick,
who like other environmentalists contacted by The Washington Post was
surprised at the attention being given the document. “It has no legal or policy
implication for local governments in the United States.”
Holt, who began scrutinizing public planning when her interior design
business failed after the housing bubble popped, begs to differ. She sees the
document as evidence of a global agenda that threatens property rights.
Her suspicions echo those of Tom DeWeese, president of the conservative
American Policy Center, who wrote an essay opposing “smart growth” titled “
Fight Agenda 21 or Lose Your Freedom.” The ultra-conservative John Birch
Society cautions adherents through its Web site that the “Agenda 21 program
may already be in your local community, through your home town or city’s
membership in . . . Local Governments for Sustainability.”
“I don’t try to shove this down anybody’s throat. I’ve been able to
connect the dots,” said Holt, who added that she has spoken against
sustainability plans at meetings but doesn’t condone shouting and interrupting
speakers. “They’re just doing their jobs.”
Lawrence and other planners have asked counselors for advice on how to
control testy audiences. They were told to better explain their plans and
recognize people who speak up but also to get rid of standing microphones where
angry speakers line up.
“Let them talk, and let them vent,” planner Bruce Peshoff advised. “
Sometimes planners . . . are their own worst enemy. They think they have to
adhere to a schedule. That just lends to the feeling of oppression.”
In Carroll County planning commission meetings, Agenda 21 kept coming up,
said Peshoff, a Kansas planner who was called on to help the county manage
its meetings because his firm, Planning Works, emphasizes
consensus-building. If the talk took a few extra minutes, “we would go with the flow,” he
said. “That way, we didn’t monopolize a meeting.”
In time, a plan that preserved farms by prohibiting economic development
that could have enriched some farmers passed, Peshoff said. At the same
time, an interstate corridor was designated as an economic generator.
Shereen Hughes, a former planning commissioner in James City County,
worried that some officials are giving ground to fearmongers. The uprising
against smart growth “is ridiculous” and “a conspiracy theory,” she said.
But it’s effective. Planners aren’t saying this is wrong, Hughes said,
because “most are afraid they won’t have a job if they’re too vocal about
this issue.” Tea party members have political allies who “might stand up”
against planners who complain, Hughes said.
Lawrence, a native of Gloucester County, bristled at being accused of
undermining the constitutional rights of Virginians.
“It’s driving public policy sideways,” Lawrence said. “It’s not
advancing it. It’s not going backward. The voice of a minority is trying to assert
itself as the voice of the majority.”
Nonetheless, he said he has to give a little to get a little. “I welcome
them every time,” Lawrence said.

Tweets replace press releases: fad or future?

The NYT on Sept. 9 published an insightful story on the demise of the standard corporate press release, which is being replaced with clever tweets. Is this a fad or the future? (also reprinted below)

I think it’s the future, and I say good riddance to the “standard” press release. Most of them either over-hype their announcements or make them so bland and technical it’s hard to discern the true news value.  And those quotes from the president that have become standard fare?  Everyone knows these are manufactured by the PR department. So let this dinosaur die in the tar pit of its own irrelevance.

 What many organizations already do is send a tweet that’s like a news headline with a link to a page on their website. That page contains a short few paragraphs that reads like a news article about the announcement (what press releases were intended to be). It should include photos and contact info for media interviews, plus links to more in-depth information, so that journalists, bloggers, or interested readers can access it all with a click. Including a short in-house video or Q&A on the topic is a good idea.

The goal is to help followers go from the enticing tweet to the hard information as quickly as possible.

While slick and hip companies can go for the joke, the challenge for more conservative organizations will be to grab attention with their straight news value.  No news value, no tweet. Cutting the puffery and the fluffery from the old press release format will be a service to us all.

Tim Ward

New-Form Press Release, in Blog, Tweet and Haiku

Press releases were created to break news, not make it.
But in an era when buttoned-up corporate culture is giving way to hoodie-clad executives and job titles like “chief happiness officer,” some companies are finding that nuts-and-bolts announcements with arcane financials and canned quotes don’t send the right message.

Increasingly, corporate releases about acquisitions or important hires are filled with puns, jokes and witticism — the best examples of which can be buzz-worthy items themselves.
When Google announced its acquisition of the restaurant ratings guide Zagat on Thursday, the Internet company posted a blog item that read, “Google Just Got Zagat-Rated!” Zagat told visitors to its Web site about the sale via a mock review of Google, assessing the search engine giant using its 30-point system and quote-heavy style. Google got high marks in all four categories.
“This ‘dynamic duo’ plans to optimize the potential of the Zagat brand while offering ‘new ways’ for consumers to ‘express their opinions’ and ‘make informed decisions,’ ” the review read.
Groupon, a daily deals site on the forefront of corporate wackiness, said in a press release earlier this year that it had raised “like, a billion dollars” in its latest financing round. The actual total was $950 million. Zynga, the maker of popular Internet games like FarmVille and CityVille, announced that it had appointed Jeffrey Katzenberg, the chief executive of DreamWorks Animation, to its board, with a release that began: “What do Shrek and FarmVille have in common (besides donkeys and onions)?”
The offbeat press release has its advantages. In some cases, it can help businesses cut through the clutter in reporters’ inboxes and earn plaudits for creativity.
”The old news release format died a couple of years ago, and business can now reach audiences directly, without babble or corporate-speak,” said Jeff Domansky, public relations consultant and editor of the PR Coach blog.
Marissa Mayer, Google’s top executive for local and location services, initially wrote a more traditional Twitter message and Google+ post about the Zagat acquisition, jotting it down after a flight from California to New York. But when she ran the ideas past Gabriel Stricker, a Google spokesman, they got panned as boring. He recommended a more poetic approach, like a haiku.
“We were slogged in traffic, so I had just enough time to write a rhyming haiku,” said Ms. Mayer, whose eventual Twitter post read:
Acquisition announcement haiku: Delightful deal done; Zagat and Google now one; foodies have more fun! #gogooglelocal Thu Sep 08 15:28:19 via web  marissamayer
Clever corporate communications can also backfire. When HubSpot, a social media analytics company, bought its competitor OneForty in August, the company announced its acquisition in a series of 13 Twitter messages, each no more than 140 characters long. While the news got attention and praise among the social networking crowd, some Twitter users complained that the company didn’t have a longer, more standard release. One user wrote that it was the “most annoying press release format ever.”
So far, the trend of nonstandard press releases has been most concentrated among Silicon Valley start-ups and has not seeped into deals involving banks, utility companies or other industries where a more sober style prevails. For many companies, taking a chance on a nonstandard press release isn’t worth it.
“It’s nice if you can be irreverent and get away with wearing jeans and a vintage tee, but most companies should be measured and staid in their corporate announcements,” said Richard Dukas, chief executive of Dukas Public Relations. “Kind of like wearing a navy blazer. You can’t go wrong.”

Story telling we can believe in

Drew Westen of Emory University gets it just right in his NYT article today about Obama’s failure as a story teller.  On the campaign trail, his personal story translated well into hope for national transformation. But once elected, he fell into the trap of many Democrats: selling convoluted policy with conceptual language and theoretical allusions, assuming the facts speak for themselves.  That doesn’t work. The cornerstone of our training for leaders and experts is this: the facts do not speak for themselves, they need to be set within compelling narratives that fit the mental frameworks of the audience. Since the election, Obama has not done this.

Westen reminds us that for 100,000 years or so, humankind  told stories to transmit values and information.  We need stories to frame what is happening in our world.  If anything, the role of President is to be “story-teller-in-chief.”

Obama used to quote Martin Luther King Jr. , saying that the arc of history bends towards justice. Writes Westen:

“But the arc of history does not bend toward justice through capitulation cast as compromise. It does not bend when 400 people control more of the wealth than 150 million of their fellow Americans. It does not bend when the average middle-class family has seen its income stagnate over the last 30 years while the richest 1 percent has seen its income rise astronomically. It does not bend when we cut the fixed incomes of our parents and grandparents so hedge fund managers can keep their 15 percent tax rates. It does not bend when only one side in negotiations between workers and their bosses is allowed representation. And it does not bend when, as political scientists have shown, it is not public opinion but the opinions of the wealthy that predict the votes of the Senate. The arc of history can bend only so far before it breaks. “

Mr. President, Tell us a story we can believe in.

Tim Ward

What we need from the experts on the debt ceiling crisis.

“Obama just interrupted the Bachelorette! This debt crisis thingy is all over Twitter. I don’t even know what it is. Who cares?”

— 19 year old college sophomore, overheard this week

Economists, Business executives, and financial experts seem pretty much united in their dire warnings of an economic mess if the US defaults on its debt. What’s curious is how little impact this seems to have on the legislators who are fighting over the issue… and ordinary Americans of all ages.

The political process is apparently not governed, or even guided, by the facts. Many “Tea Party” Republicans claim they just don’t believe there will be a default if the debt ceiling is not raised, while others think a default would actually be a good thing. These politicians are successful in keeping out new information that might compel them to re-evaluate their stance.

The experts themselves have in part contributed to the confusion by their lack of clarity on what a default would actually mean for the markets and for the economy. One can take it as a given that what will happen always has a degree of uncertainty. Even so, the experts have let down the public and policy makers by not providing a clearer and more coherent picture of what is at stake. As a result, the public is left with a hazy sense that something bad might happen – but if it’s really so bad, the government certainly will just fix it. In addition, most people have no idea how the default will directly affect them.

Lack of certainty and clarity erode the motivation to resolve the issue–and this in turn enables the politicians to play out this dangerous game that has taken us to the brink.

So what lessons could experts learn from this?

1. Many diverse opinions leave the impression no one knows anything for certain.

2. In the absence of certainty, doing nothing seems a viable option.

3. Unless something connects directly to our daily lives, we tend to ignore it.

What could experts do to make themselves better heard?

1. Have a simple, concrete main message that’s easily repeat-able.

2. Speak with one voice. Petitions signed by hundreds of economic experts can help to bring focus to a specific problem. Even in the absence of certainty, large numbers of experts can agree on the probability of certain outcomes. That creates a ‘fact” the media and public can focus on.

3. Connect abstract events with people’s daily lives. A Huff Post blog gets this right today, quoting a ratings agency expert’s prediction that borrowing costs could rise .60 to .70 points – which would translate into a raise in lending rates, mortgages, student loans, corporate debt and other types of loans. “Mortgage interest rates, which have hovered around 4.5 percent for the last several weeks, could rise by at least that amount, to more than 5.1 percent” says the blog (

Expert opinion matters. Yet experts act as if their duty is fulfilled by just saying their piece, rather than strategically communicating so that their message has impact.

Gender and Leadership

In a recent Washington Post article, French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde sets a new precedent as she makes her pitch for the top job at the IMF. She says:

“If I’m elected, I will bring all my expertise as a lawyer, a minister, a manager and a woman.” (Lagarde bids for top job at IMF, A16).

For the first time we have a serious candidate stating that one of her top assets is the fact she’s a woman. Before this moment, women, even presidential candidates, tended to treat their femininity as something they should distance themselves from. Thatcher was a steely “Iron Lady”. Clinton was tough, even under supposed sniper fire. Palin could hunt and skin a moose.

Instead Lagarde says bluntly “Gender dominated environments are not good…particularly in the financial sector, where there are too few women…Men have a tendency to…show how hairy-chested they are, compared to the man whose sitting next to them. I honestly think there should never be too much testosterone in the room.”

We at MessageCraft cheer for this attitude that better decisions are made when both men and women have equal places at the table. We would like to add our perspective on how the communications styles of men and women differ.

Very generally speaking, men more naturally fall into competitive and directive styles of communication, where the goal is to dominate the group, to have everyone agree to do it his (far superior) way. The problem with this style of communication is that speakers to get entrenched in their views when status and power are at stake. Admitting someone else is even partially right means admitting you are partially wrong, which leads to a loss of power and status. That’s where the thumping of hairy chests can short circuit debate.

Very generally speaking, women tend to feel more comfortable with collaborative and connective styles of communication, where the goal is to work together, hear everyone’s perspective, and arrive at a consensus. There’s a sense in this style of communication, that everyone wins when a group decision is finally reached.

I’ve found that many times, when men and women are together in a group meeting, women often find themselves frustrated by men who are trying to dominate a discussion and show no interest in listening to others’ points of view.

Understanding these differences in natural communication styles can help men and women work better together as teams. They can set better ground rules that clarify what kind of a discussion this is going to be–collaborative or competitive? And then reinforce the rules by establishing restrictions on interruptions.

In sum, Largarde wakes us up to an important consideration: We need to have both men and women working together at multilateral institutions like the IMF, and also governments and boardrooms where women executives remain the minority. Different perspectives, a shared goal, and closer teamwork all contribute to better decisions in the long run.

Teresa Erickson
Tim Ward


Why it’s Worth Speaking to State Controlled Media

Is there any point at all in dealing with controlled state media in repressive regimes? A column by Christopher Walker and Robert Orttung in the New York Times does a great job cataloguing the harm done to societies when the state has a stranglehold on the media – and the important role social media, cell phones, citizen journalists and the Internet have played in undermining this control.

However these truths do not mean state-controlled media is not worth interacting with. Representatives of international organizations, UN agencies, NGOs, even foreign government spokerspersons can work with state media to get their message across. You just have to be aware that the rules are different when a journalist can be fired, imprisioned, or killed for reporting something out of line with state propaganda.

How do you do this? Here are some of the tactics we’ve seen that work:

1. Using numbers to get your message across. Instead of saying “the economy is doing poorly compared to last last year,” say: “Last year’s growth rate was 3%. This year we are predicting 1.5%.” Numbers aren’t value judgements, they’re facts.

2. Praise the government for first steps in the right direction. For example: “We are pleased that the government has set up an Oil Fund, which is an important first step in making sure money from the oilfields is accounted for and used to benefit all citizens.”

3. Point out the next steps in a positive light. “In our dialouge with the government we discussed the important next step of having the nation join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative – this ensures propper accounting of all oil revenues. The government has agreed the EITI is an important initiative.”

4. Make positive comparisions with other countries. “By implementing these business regulation reforms, the country has become be number two in the region as a top reformer. The next step is to…”

These positive ways of interacting should be contrasted with what happens if you avoid state controlled media: They will use your image and your visit for propaganda purposes, making up quotes. This comes back to our fundamental principle: If you don’t speak to the media -even state controlled media – then you have no control whatsoever in shaping the news.

Finally, remember it is worthwhile cultivating contacts with journalists even in repressive regimes. We’ve had many fascinating conservations with journalists in state controlled media environments who are incredibly well informed and know exactly what is going on in the government. These journalists will often tell you things they cannot put into print. They may have sympathies with reformers you don’t know about, and if the old regime loosens its hold, they may be the first to speak out – as in the case of Syrian journalist Maher Deeb, who has quit his state TV job and is now courageously writing on Facebook about the government, as the NYT article reports.

I remember when I was a young man teaching a newspaper reading class in Yunnan China during a preiod of political upheaval. One day, I could take the lies no more, and I started railing at the class about the propaganda in an article in the China Daily.

“No. no,” my students replied. “You just don’t know how to read it. You see here at the end, the writer uses ‘would’ instead of ‘should.’ This reveals to us his displeasure. It tells us everything we need to know about what is really going on in Beijing.”

This was one of the best lessons my class taught me.

Tim Ward
Teresa Erickson