Tuesday, January 8, 2013

When less is more

Here's a little quirk of the human mind we can use to make our writing and speaking more persuasive.

The best way to understand it is with an example. Suppose you're in a job interview, and you've described your impressive degrees, wide-ranging experience and considerable skills. Then, as an after thought, you add, "And I studied Spanish for two years."

So that will just add a bit more to all your qualifications, right?


"You've just fallen victim to a phenomenon that psychologists have recently discovered, called the Presenter's Paradox," says Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., associate director at the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia University Business School. "It's another fascinating example of how our instincts about selling — ourselves, our company, or our products — can be surprisingly bad."
The problem, in a nutshell, is this: We assume when we present someone with a list of our accomplishments (or with a bundle of services or products), that they will see what we're offering additively. If going to Harvard, a prestigious internship, and mad statistical skills are all a "10" on the scale of impressiveness, and two semesters of Spanish is a "2," then we reason that added together, this is a 10 + 10 + 10 + 2, or a "32" in impressiveness. So it makes sense to mention your minimal Spanish skills — they add to the overall picture. More is better. 
Only more is not in fact better to the interviewer (or the client or buyer), because this is not how other people see what we're offering. They don't add up the impressiveness, they average it. They see the Big Picture — looking at the package as a whole, rather than focusing on the individual parts.
More is actually not better, if what you are adding is of lesser quality than the rest of your offerings. Highly favorable or positive things are diminished or diluted in the eye of the beholder when they are presented in the company of only moderately favorable or positive things.
Can you imagine how you  might employ this insight? What about a sales presentation in person or on paper? What about a speech? What about a PowerPoint slide jammed with bullet points?

I think what Halvorson might be saying is that often less is more.

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