Talk needn't be cheap

"Everyone is practicing Oratory on others thro the whole of his life" Adam Smith

Economists can be a gloomy bunch. Humans, they say, are simple units of consumption whose behaviour can be manipulated by the application of incentives and disincentives. And then there’s Deirdre McCloskey. Until 2015, she was a professor of economics at the University of Chicago Illinois where she also taught history, English, and rhetoric. One of her great contributions to economic theory was her description of something called The Great Enrichment, “the most important secular event since the invention of agriculture”. In sum, the last 200 years was a period in which the number of goods and services available to the average person expanded by some 10 000 percent. The Great Enrichment heralded an exponential improvement in global living standards; not just for the upper classes but for the lower ones too. But it brought other things as well. Unprecedented workplace complexity. A shattering of long-held leadership orthodoxies. In days of yore, a manager could get away with being a tyrant. Today, he is compelled to be a teacher, facilitator, and coach. Inspired by the conviction that humans are not the mindless drones many economists take them for, McCloskey embarked on an intriguing line of inquiry. How much of the American GDP was driven by persuasion, rhetoric or, to put it simply, the art of changing people’s minds? The question also intrigued Dan Pink, a Clinton era presidential speechwriter. In his book “To Sell is Human”, Pink recalled the day he reviewed his email outbox and found that of the 40 or so emails sent during the previous week, more than 50% were efforts to influence or cajole people into doing something. It was a pivotal moment: “a sizable portion of my job had become ‘non-sales selling’” wrote Pink. Surely this was also true for other occupations? After all, a dietician sells a patient on a new eating plan. A lawyer sells a verdict to a jury. An entrepreneur sells an idea to a venture capitalist. The marketing manager sells a growth plan to her board. And so on... Persuasion and the economy Until McCloskey and Pink began their respective lines of inquiry, persuasion (a.k.a. non-sales selling) was not accounted for in the official economic data. But In 1995 McCloskey’s seminal research found that persuasion was responsible for generating one-quarter of America’s national income. Moreover, she projected this contribution to rise to 40% in the next two decades. “The economy”, concluded McCloskey, “is a field of persuasion and judgment, speakers and audiences. Nothing happens voluntarily in an economy or society unless someone changes your mind. Behaviour can be changed by compulsion, but minds cannot”. In 2008, Pink picked up where McCloskey left off. Following his outbox epiphany, he initiated a global poll of 10 000 office workers. The results were startling: respondents were spending about 40% of their working hours persuading and influencing others. That’s roughly 24 minutes out of every hour. He concluded that “non-sales selling” was a critical skill in a world where, according to a McKinsey study, the modern office worker hears and reads more than 100 000 words a day. That’s in the region of 120 A4 pages of printed 12-point text! Pink also found that there was more to non-sales selling than met the eye: it also involved the strenuous and time-consuming battle of separating signal from the noise of data that threatens to swamp us. A few of Pink’s respondents felt they were doing it well. Most found themselves wanting. All were unanimous that non-sales selling was a critical skill for the modern office worker. And therein lies the rub: modern managers outsource much of their non-sales selling to Powerpoint. We’ve all seen it – slides that have been cut and pasted at the last minute into the semblance of an argument with little or no obvious empathy for the audience. “If companies had as little respect for profits as they have for presentations” chides scientist Dr. John Medina, “the majority would be bankrupt". While it’s a great scapegoat, not all the blame can be laid on Powerpoint’s doorstep. The real issue is that we are reactive communicators, not proactive ones. Because of our frenetic schedules, we make precious little time to do anything but repurpose those slides, update that chart - lob the deck out there and let the chips fall where they may. We are not intentionally planning for the long game, crafting messages and narratives that really move people and kick-start change. But talk needn't be cheap. Even a few simple adjustments can go a long way towards re-setting the bone. If you want to get better at non-sales selling, I'm keen to help you. To find out more about iNCiTE! online learning, my one-day accelerators and other services click here. In one way or another, I'll help turn your idea, strategy or keynote into something that will move your audience.

References: Dan Pink: To Sell is Human Five Stars: Carmine Gallo Deirdre McCloskey: One quarter of GDP is persuasion

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