Archive for October, 2010

My Opponent is Hitler – Why Negative Ads Work

October 25, 2010 2 comments

Negative Ads in Election Campaigns“I am a Christian war hero charity donor who will create jobs, lower taxes, increase Medicare and make the sun shine every day. My opponent dresses in women’s clothes to perform Satan-worshiping ceremonies, when he’s not luring small children into his unmarked van.”

Please take a look at these two example TV spots from candidates running against each other fr the vacant U.S. Senate seat in Illinois:

Here is the first, from the Kirk campaign against Democrat Alexi Giannoulias:

Now here’s the “Alexi for Illinois” ad about Republican Mark Kirk

Crazy from Negative AdsAs negative ads go, these are two of the less colorful of the 2010 midterm election cycle. No one is portrayed as a demonic sheep, for example. I see these ads multiple times a day, particularly on Sunday mornings when the talk shows are on.

I’m sure that like me, they both make you roll your eyes. One candidate is a military intelligence veteran who’s here to save us from a mobbed-up failed banker, and the other is a family business owner and staple of the community who is here to save us from a corporate elitist who takes away money from laid-off workers, and eats his young.

We know that both are obviously disingenuous. And they paint a picture of two candidates who are basically equal in everything but voting record: equal in cynicism, equal in lack of class, equal in hackery, equal in personal agenda, etc.

Yet, these ads work. They work even though we think they don’t. They work even though we believe ourselves better people than those who would be affected by such obvious hyperbole. They just work. They’ve always worked.

Here’s why negative advertising works, even though we believe ourselves to be unaffected by such classless tactics. Read more…


Demanding High Status at the Top of a Presentation

October 24, 2010 1 comment

Corporate PresentationsI hear a common complaint about internal company presentations. Internal presentations are apt to be less formal, and therefore audience members commonly to interrupt with questions, tangents, challenges and typing out emails on their Blackberries. Most times its the higher-ranked employees who do this, even though you’d think more senior people would want to set a respectful example.

The reason why is obvious if you understand the Status Transaction: more senior employees carry more status, and therefore feel entitled to distract from your show.

It’s the same reason that people heckle comedians. You’ve gone to all the trouble of creating a “spotlight” of attention in the room, and someone in your audience wants to grab it and put it on them for a while. It’s more than an annoyance; in terms of what’s going on in the room it actually diminishes you and makes you seem smaller than you are.

In fairness, the reason most employees – and high level employees in particular – feel so disposed is that ninety-nine out of every hundred presenters they see waste their time in some way. They plod through slide after tedious slide, dragging their audience through their minutiae without succinct points, message flow, or word efficiency. Therefore most corporate audiences feel no duty to presentation etiquette, and instead prefer to assert themselves over you or tune out.

Next time you have to give an internal presentation to an audience you fear might not stay with you, do this:

Read more…

How To Use Body Rhythms to Captivate People

October 21, 2010 Leave a comment

This comes from a book that my friend clued me into, called Winning Body Language, by Mark Bowden.

One of his chapters talks about using body language to take advantage of the way our minds deal with predictability and interruption.


Results from an fMRI experiment in which peopl...

Image via Wikipedia


Pattern interruption is a fascinating topic, and this isn’t the first context where I’ve bumped into it. Here’s a brief bit of background on the concept:

Our world contains much more observable data than the brain can handle, so we take in and process far less information than is available to us. Most of our reactions to the world are based familiar patterns that our subconscious mind has been conditioned to deal with while our conscious mind tunes out.

For example, when you greet someone and shake their hand, it is entirely possible you will never remember shaking their hand at all. Handshakes are so automatic and predictable that we do it without really ever consciously acknowledging what’s going on. We have an internal model for repeated behavior based on how handshakes work, and we assume that handshakes will work identically. Our body just does it, and the rest of our mind can tune it out. We are certain about our situation, and comfortable in that certainty.

We go through the same tune-out process when commercials come on, or when we see banner ads on web sites. That’s why advertisers love the concept of pattern interruption.

Obviously, advertisers don’t want you to be doing any “tuning-out” when their ads are presented. But more than that, there are special psychological implications if you can snap someone back into conscious focus at the moment that their brain is accessing a pattern. If you create uncertainty right at that moment, your subconscious mind gets cut off in the middle of what it was doing, and that creates a couple seconds of hyper-awareness and disorientation. Read more…

Five Behaviors That Communicate High or Low Status

October 15, 2010 6 comments

Previously, I have remarked on an area of interpersonal dynamics called the Status Transaction. This concept comes from one of the fathers of improv theatre. It says that humans, just like other pack animals, communicate in subtle behaviors that convey where they stand with regard to each other.  We establish an unconscious structure of deference and social value in order to keep our relations mostly harmonious. As Johnstone remarks, “In the park we’ll notice the ducks squabbling, but not how carefully they keep their distances when they are not.”

This principal is the key link between acting performance, marketing, and social psychology. It is the subtext of human life. It represents the unvarnished, true meaning of people’s communication. It is, either consciously or unconsciously, a crucial factor in honest and authentic acting portrayals, because it factors into a character’s key attitudes. It also factors into how we feel attraction to one another. Also, it has repercussions in group psychology, and therefore also in marketing messaging. People arrange their little worlds in ways that cultivate and communicate status. Status, recognition and validation play a central role in most people’s secret dreams and ideals.

We tend to associate high status with certain favorable traits, like wealth or physical attractiveness. People speculate that correlation came from evolution; in order to survive, we will tend to associate ourselves with those who have means, and signs of healthy DNA. Our conspicuous consumption is an example of a status-driven tendency.


Maximum status gaps make for some of the best comedy


What people may not know is that most status communications are conveyed through ordinary, everyday behavior. Johnstone discovered this through improv exercises. He started with large-gap status differences, like king and butler. He then reversed behaviors so that the butler behaved in a high-status manner, and the king deferring to the butler. And, improv comedy was born.

In real life, most status-communicating behaviors are hard to fake. That’s why we get the creeps when someone who has the appearance of status (e.g. wealth) behaves in a way that seems incongruent. Most people who try and put on a short-term game persona usually fail at it. Their insecurities “peek out” through the cracks.

Based on the search keywords that lead into People-triggers, there are a lot of people searching for a discussion on which behaviors communicate high status, and which communicate low status. Johnstone talks at length about this in his book, Impro, and there are many other status discussions around the blogosphere. One blog that shows a lot of insight into this subject is appropriately named, The Statustician, and I would recommend checking it out for a more in-depth discussion.

So, for your experiments in interaction on stage and in life, here is my list of the top five behaviors that communicate interpersonal status. Read more…

Shakespeare, Without Wailing or Gesticulating

October 13, 2010 49 comments

Romeo and Juliet, at the Chicago Shakespeare TheatreLast week, I saw the Chicago Shakespeare Company’s newest staging of Romeo and Juliet. It reminded me that It’s been about ten years or so since I saw a staging of R&J featuring actual chemistry between the two leads. I’m still on the lookout for it.

Shakespeare, like any long-lived, evolving phenomenon, is subject to trends. They keep things interesting. For example, as the director cited in the program, Romeo and Juliet was used as a female star vehicle throughout the late 20th century. As a result, the role of Juliet would be played by actresses inappropriately old for the role.

The director also notes that in the last 20 years or so, Shakespeare stagings have re-emphasized the bawdy humor. The plays have always contained sex jokes, included originally to appeal to the cheap-ticket audience. Until recently this humor was downplayed or cut out entirely. Now it’s played up so much that I must have counted five or six pantomimed pelvic thrusts at this most recent performance.

Trends are good. It’s important to look at classics in new, interesting ways. This most recent staging, interesting though it was, signaled to me that it’s time for the trend to shift again. Read more…

The Biggest Pitfall in Work Presentations, and How To Avoid It

October 12, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s been a little while since I last posted an entry. I’m coming to the end of a double-loaded term in MBA school, and that’s where most of my time has been going recently. Also, I think I’ve been putting too much effort into writing seminal entries: 1,200- to 1,500-word articles that are establishing broad principles. So I’m going to shorten up the posts for a little while, and kick out some more practical, useful content.

Here’s one very practical piece of information, based on a discussion from one of my classes on making presentations in the workplace:


Presentations: Why Should They Care?


The discussion started with the obligatory question. “Why do we make presentations?” It then posed a few potential answers:

  • To persuade
  • To generate buy-in
  • To inform
  • To announce
  • To motivate
  • Etc.

Most of those words would make for pretty good presentations. They imply action and intent. I want to focus on the one that doesn’t: “to inform.”

In freshman scene study class at Wesleyan, most of the beginning acting work came out wretchedly. That was because we neophyte actors had very little understanding of what was actually going on between the people in the scene. Dr. Ficca would ask an actor, “What are you doing up there?”, and the actor would respond, “Well, I’m telling this person so-and-so. I’m informing them. I’m giving exposition.” Then, Dr. Ficca would (lovingly) tell the actor that no one on stage ever, ever simply informs, and that the actor was doing a depressingly bad job with the scene because he wasn’t actually doing anything. Read more…