When Does Communication Become Manipulation?

June 29, 2012


One of my executive students at HEC Paris asked me this week at what point communication becomes manipulation. After all, many of the rhetorical devices and storytelling techniques used in speechwriting and presentation design are similar to those used by a hypnotist, advertiser or salesperson.

This assumes there is a continuum, with communication at one end, and manipulation at the other end – and the more devices of influence you use, the more you move towards the ‘manipulation’ end of the scale.

I disagree. Purely and simply, all communication is an attempt to influence the audience, and if you’re going to do that, you might as well do so effectively. For me, the choice of how few or how many tools of influence you use is only part of the picture, and that scale is not between communication and manipulation, but between ineffective and effective communication.

An entrepreneur pitching an investor is aiming to influence that investor. Is that manipulation? The entrepreneur is doing everything possible to make an investor part with some cash, while at the beginning of the pitch the investor’s wallet is firmly closed.

A salesperson is always aiming to influence customers’ thoughts. Not only do they make you want their product or service where previously you perhaps didn’t want it (or didn’t realise you wanted it), but they also make you want their exact offering, and not those of your competitors. Is that manipulation? Or is it only manipulation if it is done well?

Let’s bring in a dictionary definition of manipulation. Dictionary.com defines ‘manipulate’ as:

to manage or influence skillfully, especially in an unfair manner: to manipulate people’s feelings.

My Chambers English Dictionary defines ‘manipulate’ as:

to turn to one’s own purpose or advantage

So the key factor is not the number of influence techniques used, but the intention of the speaker. Influencing the audience for your own selfish interests is considered manipulation, and has a negative connotation.

Political speeches are mostly about manipulation. Politicians try to influence voters, journalists and often each other, usually for their own selfish desires. (Sadly, selfless politicians like Vaclav Havel are the exception, not the rule.)

Advertising is all about manipulation, of course. Advertisers use every technique in the book to influence our thoughts, almost always for their own interests.

However, not everyone has selfish intentions. Take parents, for example.

Once, when I was a boy, I was flicking elastic bands around, and my father asked me to stop. He told me that once he had seen someone flick an elastic band which took someone’s eye out, i.e. it was very dangerous and I shouldn’t do it. The story was far stronger than just saying “stop doing that, son” – it certainly stopped me from flicking elastic bands, and I still remember the story over 30 years later. My father was using a storytelling technique to influence me – but for my benefit, so I would avoid a dangerous activity.

Now I am a father, and I use stories all the time to influence my children – for their benefit. This is far from new. Humans have been using stories for millennia to transfer knowledge and influence younger generations into avoiding the mistakes of their ancestors. The fable about the boy who cried ‘wolf’ is far more effective than just telling kids not to lie.

So while you can indeed have a continuum between ineffective and effective communication, there is another which is equally important: between altruism at one end of the scale – communicating purely for the audience’s benefit – and selfishness at the other end.

We can’t all be altruistic all the time. But we can at least aim for the middle of the scale: mutual interest.

Let’s take a look at what this means, in the Communication Influence Matrix above. In the bottom-left, you have ineffective and selfish communication – which is what poor salespeople dish out to long-suffering buyers. In the top-left, you have ineffective but altruistic communication, an example of which would be most teaching, which is for the benefit of the audience but far too often fails to be effective due to poor use of influencing techniques.

Then, in the bottom-right, you have effective and selfish communication – which could be good advertisements, or a powerful political speech for example. In the middle on the right, you have effective communication for mutual interest, which is what good salespeople will aim for. A good salesperson sincerely believes her customer will benefit from buying her product or service, and focuses on those benefits, while communicating effectively – and without forgetting her own company’s interests. Think of any Steve Jobs product launch.

And in the top-right, you have effective altruistic communication, and while I could have put public-service advertisements there, I’m proud to put my dad and his stories in that corner. One day, I hope my own children will put me there too.

Takeaways for presenters

As a presenter, work out how you can help your audience. If you are a salesperson, make your presentation not about your product or service, but about your customer’s problem and how it can be solved. You may succeed in making them want to buy your latest widget, but it will be in their interest to do so.

If you are an entrepreneur, talk about why your start-up offers a great opportunity for the investor. You’re not just going to them asking for money: you are offering them the chance to make a large pile of cash. You’re trying to influence them, of course, but in their interest as well as yours.

The trick is simply to ensure that their interests coincide with yours. If the customer is happy to solve their problem, that’s good for you because they’re using your widget to do so. If the investor is happy to invest because it’s a great opportunity, that’s also good for you because it means you have the cash to expand your company.

The audience’s own interest is the magical ingredient of any presentation. If you can always clearly act in the audience’s interest, you will never be accused of manipulation, no matter how many influence techniques you use. And if you can find a way to meet their needs while also meeting yours, then everybody wins.

How to win over ‘floating voters’

May 7, 2010

In the aftermath of the UK General Election, here is a topical post about the importance of winning over ‘floating voters’ – those people who have not yet made up their mind and are open to influence.  While this is important for politicians, it is also important for any communicator trying to get their message across.

In any forum where one person is attempting to communicate to many people, it is possible to divide the audience by two criteria: their level of support for the speaker and his/her message before the communication, and the degree to which they can be influenced.

You will find this easier to understand via a simple chart (one of those times when a slide can be a very helpful visual aid):

Imagining this as a graph, the vertical axis represents how influenceable somebody is; the horizontal axis represents their level of support for the speaker and his/her message before the communication.  For a politician, the dependable supporters will therefore be on the bottom-right, and the bitter opponents on the bottom-left.  The floating voters are at the top and especially those who are neither strong supporters nor strong opponents.  In effect, the challenge is particularly in the middle at the top: to move as many floating voters as possible from the left to the right, i.e. increasing your number of supporters, while avoiding pushing too many from the right to the left.  Of course, at the same time your opponents will be trying to move your influenceable supporters in the other direction.

Politicians and communicators need to adopt different styles depending on their audience.

  • When talking to solid supporters, motivate them to spread the message.
  • When talking to influenceable supporters, reassure them that they are right to support me.
  • When talking to influenceable opponents, show understanding of their concerns, and gently convince them that you have something better to offer.
  • There’s not much point in talking to solid opponents, unless you cannot avoid it, in which case you need to do what you can to neutralize their arguments, marginalize them and reduce their influence on the floating voters.

A key point to bear in mind was illuminated by the UK election, as well as the last US presidential election. During the UK party leaders’ debates, the BBC continually polled a focus group on their feelings about each leader, second by second. Every time one of the leaders attacked another in an attempt to win the argument and win popularity, their ratings dropped – having the complete opposite effect.

This follows the Obama-McCain election, where McCain was wrongly advised to go on the attack, and Sarah Palin did the same and more. What did this achieve? Imagine the feelings of a floating voter, an influenceable supporter of Obama – exactly the kind of voter McCain needed to win over – when hearing a strong attack on their preferred candidate. Rather than agreeing and coming over to the McCain camp, their natural behaviour is to resent the attack on ‘their’ candidate, dislike the attacking opponent more than they did before, and get even further behind their attacked candidate. McCain and Palin pushed people from the top-left of the chart (their influenceable opponents) down to the bottom-left (their solid opponents).

This simply shows how vital it is for any speaker, presenter or politician to understand their audience, work out who they are talking to, and identify a suitable strategy for each segment.  Sadly, in the UK election, none of the major candidates was able to do this much better than the others, but it was noticeable that the big loser in terms of votes and seats (Labour and its leader Gordon Brown) was the one which most consistently campaigned by attacking its opponents rather than by proposing anything positive.

Will politicians never learn?

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