Tag Archives: Tactics

What Bronze Quill judges can teach you about communication

In our shop, we’re getting geared up for entering the Kansas City IABC chapter’s Bronze Quill Awards.

And as we’ve been going through the annual procrastination that postpones actually writing our entries until the last minute, we’ve been discussing strategies for winning judge attention to and appreciation of  the full brilliance of our work.

In a moment of pontifical self-importance, I penned (electroned?) the following guidance based on my experience as a communication awards judge and my observations of other judges.

It strikes me that the counsel here – assuming you find it persuasive – also generally applies to any situation in which you’re trying to communicate complex information to people who are interested in a topic, but by no means necessarily experts in the specifics you’re trying to convey. Where the word “judge” appears, just think audience or stakeholder or whomever is the target of your communication affection.

So, for your use or toss:

“As you are preparing your Bronze Quill entries or future communication competition entries, here’s my perspective on what plays well based on judging a lot of these competitions and hearing other judges beef and moan about things they are reading.

It is just one person’s perspective, however; so take it with that grain of salt.

  1. Judges are looking for significance. Why is this project important? What did it accomplish? What and how did the effort and its results help the sponsoring organization achieve? It’s hard to answer those questions too often or too thoroughly to turn off a judge.
  2. Keep in mind that your judges are looking at dozens of entries. It’s at the end of the day, they’re tired and preoccupied reviewers. They most likely are skilled communicators who know very little about you, your client or the subject matter involved. Anything you can do to help them understand and remember you and the project is a good thing – including repetition.
  3. Judges often are looking for easy-to-spot (and sometimes trivial) reasons to hammer or elevate entries. So here’s my list of things that may keep your entry in contention.
    • Judges usually are experienced communicators (i.e. many like me are in bifocals and/or are suffering from computer eye fry).  If they have to look at fonts that are intricate or smaller than 11 points, they will hate you. Likewise, they will be seriously peevish if they have to read some dense river of text. Simplify and open up text by:
      • Using simple, direct language.
      • Highlighting by position, formatting and other techniques what is important about the material you are presenting.
      • Scrutinizing every sentence that has a comma in it to see if the sentence should be broken up into two or more sentences or edited down to one simpler sentence.
      • Using bulleted or numbered lists wherever possible.
      • Moving complex or lengthy material to appendices if rules allow it.
    • As experienced communicators and smart humans, they likely have seen or shoveled more professional manure than you, so will disdain your use of adjectives but praise your reliance on facts and analysis to make your case.
  4. Bottom line, what’s story have you told.  A judge judges by mentally recounting to herself or himself the abbreviated, cocktail party version of the story you’ve presented and then assesses whether that story is true, important and compelling.  Have you told such a story in the project summary – which sets or at least frames the judge’s perception of everything that follows?  And have you then constructed your entry to support and extend that simplified understanding?”

Without Comment: Seven ways to get what you want

7 Ways to Get What You Want: “Influence is the key to any leadership role. Some folks do not like talking about it, but power and influence are natural phenomena in organizations and in leadership roles. People who want power and influence often try not to appear as if they are seeking it, and some people who have power and influence are reticent about how they actually got it.

Research into the area of power and influence is fascinating. In one notable study, 165 managers were asked to write short descriptions of occasions when they influenced their bosses, co-workers, or employees. (See Kipnis, Schmidt, Swaffin-Smith, and Wilkinson, ‘Patterns of Managerial Influence,’ Organizational Dynamics.) The responses from these 165 managers were condensed and rewritten into a 58-item questionnaire that was then administered to over 750 managers. In this questionnaire, the managers were asked both how and why they influenced people in the workplace.

This research identified seven key influence tactics:

(1) Reason: Using facts and data to bolster your request.

(2) Assertiveness: Using a direct and forceful approach, such as demanding compliance, ordering others to do what is asked, and pointing out rules that must be followed.

(3) Friendliness: Creating goodwill by being affable and acting humble prior to making your request.

(4) Sanctions: Doling out punishments or distributing rewards.

(5) Coalition: Getting the support of others to back your idea, proposal, or request.

(6) Bargaining: Negotiating with others for the exchange of benefits or favors.

(7) Higher authority: Gaining the support of others at higher levels in the organization to back up your idea, proposal, or request.

The researchers discovered that the managers did not rely equally on the seven influence tactics. When the managers were interacting with their superiors, the most commonly used tactics (in order of frequency) were reason, coalition, friendliness, and bargaining. When the managers were interacting with their subordinates, the most commonly used tactics (in order of frequency) were reason, assertiveness, friendliness, and coalition. Interestingly, the use of sanctions was the least popular influence tactic by the managers. What’s more, the managers who controlled resources valued by others, or who were perceived to have more power than others, used a greater variety of influence tactics and employed assertiveness more often than did managers with less power.

To be an effective leader, you need to know which influence tactic to use in which situation. This leadership skill often separates the great leaders from the rest.

So, what influence tactics do you use?

Scott Derrick is the Director of Professional Development at the Senior Executives Association, a nonprofit professional association of career federal executives. Scott is also an executive coach and leadership consultant with the Federal Executive Development Group LLC, a consulting company specializing in leadership development in the federal sector. The views expressed here are his own.

(Via GovLoop.)

Nudging people to find the middle path

Since finding compromises is often the hallmark of a good coalitionist, I thought this from The Frontal Cortex might be of interest…

“I found this minor anecdote, from Peter Baker’s authoritative NY Times article on Obama’s decision-making process for Afghanistan, to be quite fascinating:

On Oct. 9, Mr. Obama and his team reviewed General McChrystal’s troop proposals for the first time. Some in the White House were surprised by the numbers, assuming there would be a middle ground between 10,000 and 40,000.

‘Why wasn’t there a 25 number?’ one senior administration official asked in an interview. He then answered his own question: ‘It would have been too tempting.’

General McChrystal, it turns out, is a shrewd student of decision-making. He realized that the introduction of a compromise option – say, a troop buildup of 25,000 soldiers – would have been irrationally attractive. This is known as the compromise effect, and it was first documented by Amos Tversky and Itamar Simonson.

Here’s an example of the compromise bias in action: A group of sixty undergraduates received descriptions and pictures of microwave ovens taken from an actual catalog. They were asked to choose between an Emerson oven priced at $110 and a Panasonic priced at $180, which had a few more features. Both items were on sale, a third off the regular price. In this scenario, 57 percent of subjects chose the Emerson and 43 percent chose the Panasonic.

Now let’s consider a second scenario, faced by another group of undergraduates. They were presented with the same two microwave options, but given a third choice as well: a $200 Panasonic oven at a 10 percent discount. Of course, this Panasonic oven is a clearly inferior choice, since it comes with a much smaller discount; it’s mere presence in the catalog shouldn’t influence our decision. Nevertheless, the introduction of this new alternative dramatically increased the attractiveness of the other Panasonic oven, so that 60 percent of subjects new chose it.

Retail stores have long manipulated this bias, as they constantly present consumers with deliberately mediocre and expensive options, just so other options seem more reasonable. (The easiest way to make a $50 T-shirt seem like a good deal is to surround it with $100 T-shirts.) When it comes to decision-making, context is everything.

The point is that most of us are natural compromisers, eager to find a middle-way. (There’s some suggestive evidence that the tendency to pursue the compromise option is mediated by culture, with East Asians more likely than Westerners to show the compromise effect.) Furthermore, our compromising tendencies can be skewed by the audience: when American subjects were told that they might have to defend their choice in front of a whole classroom, they shifted towards the safety of the middle option. Obama, of course, needed to justify his decision to an entire planet.

Read the comments on this post…

(Via The Frontal Cortex.)

Do coalitionists lose the “big game” in high school gyms?

People believe cheap is bad – see the discussion buried below in the post from the Frontal Cortex as well as the previous one on wine expertise.

Bad quality, bad service, bad process; these are the attributes that you and I see when we know or suspect that we’re dealing with cheaper goods.

So what do public involvement and other coalition practitioners frequently do as they launch and manage initiatives that require public judgments of the quality and success of processes used and outcomes achieved.

Pick the cheapest engagement options.

We reduce communication frequency. Use the cheapest materials. Host meetings in high school gyms and other free or inexpensive locations.

We do it out of habit. Out of a desire to be good financial stewards. To cope with tight budgets. To fit in with our organizations’ cultures.

All good reasons. Likely there are many more.

But is it all a false economy when the trappings used prime our stakeholders to expect substandard experiences yielding inferior results?

And are we distorting the results in ways that harm the discussion – and the reputations and effectiveness of our organizations – with the basic engagement ethos of simpler, cheaper?

Dopamine and Future Forecasting:

Ed Yong has a typically excellent post on a new paper that looks at how manipulating dopamine levels in the brain can change our predictions of future pleasure:

Tali Sharot from University College London found that if volunteers had more dopamine in their brains as they thought about events in their future, they would imagine those events to be more gratifying. It’s the first direct evidence that dopamine influences how happy we expect ourselves to be.

Sharot recruited 61 volunteers and asked them to say how happy they’d feel if they visited one of 80 holiday destinations, from Greece to Thailand. All of the recruits were given a vitamin C supplement as a placebo and 40 minutes later, they had to imagine themselves on holiday at half of the possible locations. After this bout of fanciful daydreaming, they had to take another pill but this time, half of them were given L-DOPA instead of the placebo. Again, they had to imagine themselves in various holiday spots.

The next day, Sharot brought the volunteers back. By this time, they would have broken down all the L-DOPA in their system. She asked them to choose which of two destinations they’d like to go to, from the set that they had thought about the day before. Finally, they rated each destination again.

By the end of the experiments, they perceived their imaginary holidays to be more enjoyable if they had previously thought about the locations under the influence of L-DOPA (while vitamin C, as predicted, had no effect). The implication is clear: think about the future with more dopamine in the noggin and you’ll imagine that you have a better time.

As I’ve noted before, the popular caricature of dopamine – it’s the hedonistic molecule in the brain, activated by sex, drugs and rock and roll – is slightly misleading. Dopamine neurons, it turns out, don’t care about pleasure per se – they’re much more interested in predicting pleasure, and then comparing our predictions to the actual event. The transactions of dopamine are largely about learning – finding a way to maximize our rewards – and not about mere decadence.

What I find so interesting about this experiment is that it neatly confirmed this theory of computational neuroscience. After all, the subjects didn’t feel happier after popping a pill of L-DOPA – boosting dopamine levels didn’t lead to instant gratification, like Huxley’s soma. Instead, it merely altered their predictions of future happiness.

But here’s the funny thing about those predictions: they tend to correlate pretty accurately with our actual experience. If you think you’re going to have a good time on vacation, then you probably will, just as we tend to enjoy foods and beverages and products that we expect to enjoy. (This is the consumer version of the placebo effect.) Here’s how I described similar phenomena in How We Decide:

Baba Shiv, a neuroeconomist at Stanford, supplied a group of people with Sobe Adrenaline Rush, an ‘energy’ drink that was supposed to make them feel more alert and energetic. (The drink contained a potent brew of sugar and caffeine which, the bottle promised, would impart ‘superior functionality’). Some participants paid full price for the drinks, while others were offered a discount. The participants were then asked to solve a series of word puzzles. Shiv found that people who paid discounted prices consistently solved about thirty percent fewer puzzles than the people who paid full price for the drinks. The subjects were convinced that the stuff on sale was much less potent, even though all the drinks were identical. ‘We ran the study again and again, not sure if what we got had happened by chance or fluke,’ Shiv says. ‘But every time we ran it we got the same results.’

Why did the cheaper energy drink prove less effective? According to Shiv, consumers typically suffer from a version of the placebo effect. Since we expect cheaper goods to be less effective, they generally are less effective, even if they are identical to more expensive products. This is why brand-name aspirin works better than generic aspirin, or why Coke tastes better than cheaper colas, even if most consumers can’t tell the difference in blind taste tests. ‘We have these general beliefs about the world⎯for example, that cheaper products are of lower quality⎯and they translate into specific expectations about specific products,’ said Shiv. ‘Then, once these expectations are activated, they start to really impact our behavior.

So the next time you buy something on sale, pop a pill of L-DOPA. It will increase your pleasure, if only because you expect it to.

Read the comments on this post…

(Via The Frontal Cortex.)

Visualizations help stakeholders understand complex issues

Seeing is believing.

A picture is worth a thousand words.

All true when it comes to helping stakeholders and potential coalition members, allies and partners understand the importance of a complex issue.

Here’s a good example.  As the Missouri Dept. of Transportation wrestles with how to rejuvenate Interstate 70, it found that its efforts to keep traffic moving smoothly on America’s Main Street complicated its communication about the dire state of the highway. 

Specifically, resurfacing in recent years had smoothed the ride enough to hide the structural issues underlying the highway – and perhaps mute public interest in fixing the long-term problems with the Interstate. 

So MoDOT developed a clever simulation that enables stakeholders to see how pavement begins decaying almost as soon as it is poured and, more importantly, how there are limits to how many times you can replace existing pavement.

They made an interesting – and thoroughly understandable – visual that helps their audiences get a better grip on an important technical issue: http://www.youtube.com/user/modotvideo

How To: Poynter Shares Ideas for How to Make Commenting Systems Work Better

Here’s an interesting conversation on how to add value to the comment sections of websites.

Commenting is going to grow in importance as more and more stakeholder engagement clients lose their squeamishness about unfettered public discussion of agencies and their actions.

And the truth of the matter is, it does takes pretty vigorous oversight and technology to manage out the dreck that sometimes overfills comment sections.

Ideas for How to Make Commenting Systems Work Better: “Many journalists complain that comment threads to their news stories represent the worst of online media. But it doesn’t have to be that way.”

(Via E-Media Tidbits.)

Without comment: Choice for coalition builders is (a) good, (b) bad, (c) confusing


Americans love alternatives. One of the benefits of modern capitalism, after all, is that we’re free to consume products that perfectly match our preferences – if you want to wear skinny jeans with a Black Sabbath t-shirt, flip flops and a fedora (I saw such a person yesterday – he looked very satisfied with himself) then go right ahead. Gail Collins, while bemoaning the difficulty of reforming the college loan system, summarizes the American obsession with choice:

This is why my corner drugstore offers, by my last count, 103 different kinds of body moisturizers. These are not, of course, to be confused with moisturizers for the face, hand, elbow or foot.

We, the informed shoppers, are supposed to scan the crowded shelves and decide whether our needs will best be met by body oil, body butter or firming emulsion. We will, perhaps, mull the ‘udder cream’ whose big selling point is that it was originally developed for use on dairy cows. Then we select the products that will survive and thrive by voting with our pocketbooks.

Personally, I’m always most amazed by the shelves of floss. Only in America could we find a way to market more than 200 different types of waxed thread. (But would you like minty wax? Or wintergreen scented wax? Maybe you’d like to pay extra to have your thread coated in fluoride?)

Of course, we now know that more choice isn’t a universal good. Because the brain is a bounded machine – it can only process so much information at any given moment – people actually find excessive choice repellent. When we’re given too many options and no way of distinguishing between them – the different varieties of floss all seem equivalent – we experience a tremor of anxiety, the mild panic of supermarket uncertainty.

Sheena Iyengar, a psychologist at Columbia University, has done some incredibly interesting work on this subject. Consider her research on 401(k) plans, which looked at employee participation in plans covered by Vanguard, one of the largest mutual fund companies in the country. Iyengar found that, as the number of 401(k) plans increased, people became less likely to opt in. When there were only four different funds to choose from, nearly 75 percent of employees decided to participate. However, when people had to navigate fifty-nine different 401(k) options, only 60 percent of people decided to save for their retirement. In other words, excessive choice was repellent.

As Iyengar notes, these non-choosers probably intended to enroll in a 401(k). They probably took the hefty brochure home with them and planned on doing the relevant research. But then life got in the way and, before long, they’d forgotten to learn about the difference between a growth fund and a conservative fund.

Iyengar then looked at the slight majority of people who participated in the 401(k) plans even when there were fifty-nine different alternatives. Perhaps they made better decisions? Perhaps they were more satisfied with their choice? Alas, that wasn’t the case. Iyengar found that, for every set of ten additional fund options, 2.87 percent more of the participants avoided stocks completely. (This despite the fact that most of the additional funds included stock investments.) Overall, the 401(k) participants in the large choice condition allocated 3.28 percent less of their contributions to stocks, choosing to invest in bonds and money markets instead.

Why is this an irrational choice? A 401(k) is a long-term investment. Given such an extended time frame, it almost always makes sense to include some stocks or mutual funds, since those investments have historically outperformed bonds and money markets by a large margin.

The lesson here is that, in many circumstances, giving people more options has rapidly diminishing returns. When we can’t figure out the difference between our 401(k) options, or we’re too worried about choosing the wrong floss, we end up choosing to not choose at all. Which brings us back to the current student loan program, which is a classic example of useless choice (not to mention a waste of government money). Here’s Collins:

‘We don’t hear students clamoring for choice in lenders. If anything, students and families need simplicity to understand the process and know how to navigate it,’ said Edie Irons, communications director for the Project on Student Debt, a nonprofit dedicated to making college more affordable.

Since the government-guaranteed loans are regulated by Congress, they have virtually identical terms. The main variation comes in customer service: who has the best Web site or staff. Most current and former students do not seem to find this as being all that big a deal. What they need to know is exactly how much it will cost to pay back the loan after graduation, information about which they tend to hear less than the Web-site-quality matter. Besides, the loans often come in pieces, cobbled together from an array of different programs. It would be hard for an accountant to figure out what it all meant, and 19-year-olds are not at the point in life that maximizes attention to detail.

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(Via The Frontal Cortex.)