Terms of Persuasion
Language is one of our most civil means of persuasion; we are exposed to persuasion every day. You will find more alluring ‘a sleek, sassy, sexy car’ than ‘a boxy bubblebug’, even though it’s the same vehicle. In the 1920’s, the Studebaker Corporation made a series of automobiles called the President, the Commander, and the Dictator. Persuasive names created marvellous visions. In-house, the Dictator was Model GE, which wouldn’t have sold nearly as well.
When someone hires me as a consultant, I am clear about what I will do; I clarify the purpose of my engagement. I do not talk down to people, or over their heads. I earn their trust and respect; if I make them feel helpless or stupid, I deserve neither their trust nor their respect. I try my best to avoid ‘conning’ my clients.
During the last year, I attended three or four really top-drawer workshops, given by presenters who excited and informed me. I knew more when I left than I had when I arrived. Each presenter had something to say, said it in plain language, and then stopped talking. My confidence and admiration for these professionals were, and remain, boundless. They clearly knew more than I, and I was comfortable with that—that’s why I went!
In the same time frame, I also attended a series of workshops about establishing oneself on the job market, establishing a business, networking, and self-promoting. It’s disheartening that so many of these workshops seemed more like classes in ‘The Art of the Con’.
Language must evolve; else would we yet speak the speech that spake Shakespeare (or words to that effect). But is it necessary to invent terms? Sometimes an expression will evolve from a particular situation, but when taken out of its original context, can develop the opposite meaning. The term ‘red herring’ for example, referred to the training of fox-hunt hounds to stick to the fox’s trail and not be distracted. Now it means a false clue.
The very first orientation speech I attended in this series was full of clichés and effete language; I had little confidence in the presenter or her services—she didn’t have much to say, but we weren’t to know that. On the surface she appeared professional and impressive. On the surface, that is.
A ‘rule of the con’: the less you have to say, the more you must talk. It prevents people from thinking, or at least, understanding. Therefore, they will need you more.
Many other workshops I attended drowned in ‘specialized language’. We were being talked to from On High by Those Who Had Already Succeeded; somehow, we were communicating (if you could call it that) across a vast chasm with a Supreme Intellect. These were meant to be ‘peer presentations’, but it felt more like the handing down of the Ten Commandments. Moses may have felt this way, but when God said, ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ there was no ambiguity.
Another presenter talked about networking and informational interviews. He explained that when he’d acquired the information he needed, he sent out ‘asks’ (not requests for an interview). That was silly and annoying, and it made him seem corny. (The baby’s pacifier is now called a ‘binky’, but no one I know can explain why. Would you not feel foolish asking for a ‘binky’?)
Still another presenter spoke of ‘value statements’, her version of the term ‘elevator speech’. Both are an oblique way of saying, ‘tell me about yourself and what you want,’ which seems to me a better, clearer way of putting it.
In fairness, none of these presenters meant any harm, and probably were unaware of a secondary effect they were having. While they were sounding dazzling and impressive, because they wanted to help, they were also creating a potential for distrust. This is called Mutual Arising, and is described in the second verse of the Tao Teh Ching. Loosely translated: When all see beauty as beauty, ugliness arises. If you identify a specific group within a population, for example, everyone else becomes ‘non-group.’ You have two groups, when you only meant to have one. In this instance, ‘you may lead me to trust you, or to distrust you.’
There is a reason for this approach. You, the prospective client, need be persuaded that these professionals function on a level that’s over your head. (Or, to put it another way, the professional needs you to be persuaded.) If they succeed, you will see them as credible and lofty; you’ll be more likely to give them your time/money/attention.
Another ‘rule of the con’: a confused person is easier to handle. Elitist language can be very confusing. Vague language and an air of superiority are guaranteed to produce a rich level of befuddlement.
When people spout effete language, my confidence in them wavers. Why don’t they speak plainly and say what they mean! When I hear cliché after cliché, or language I’ve never heard before, I wonder what I’m not supposed to know. Perhaps Lewis Carroll’s King, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland put it best: ‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said, very gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’
The chief virtue that language can have is clearness, and nothing detracts from it so much as the use of unfamiliar words.