Being Famous Means Never Saying You're Sorry.

Why are public figures so bad at apologizing?

It has to do with belittlement: an audience’s feeling of being dissed, and its desire to see the culprit shrink. The problem is, big stars don’t want to become little planets. 

So how does a bigshot—or you, for that matter—apologize without shrinking? Follow these steps:

  1. Own up to the mistake. Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
  2. Focus on your emotions, not how you hurt someone else. Say how bad you feel about screwing up.
  3. Show how your mistake was an exception to the rule. You’re a great, thoughtful person who temporarily lapsed.
  4. Promise improvement and show what you’re going to do to fix any remaining problems.

Here’s a video I did with details.

Define Lines

When your opponent starts talking about jobs, ask: What is a job?

When your opponent starts talking about jobs, ask: What is a job?

A reader of Thank You for Arguing wrote saying he had been tongue-tied during an argument over the minimum wage. "My opponent, whom I had only just met, claimed 7 million Americans would lose their jobs if we raised the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, while I said that number wasn't supported by the data. We both claimed the same CBO study as our reference point, which made for a "yes it will/no it won't" farce. Attempts to move the argument along kept being brought back to the fanciful job loss number. It wasn't fun, or convincing, for anyone. And now I think my colleague's wife hates me."

When a spouse is nearby, the best thing to do is simply to pour more wine and ask about the kids. But if you really want to argue in a situation like this, try skipping the statistics. One technique the Greek sophists used--it helped get Socrates a death sentence, mind you--is to seek definitions.  I sent the reader the following suggested dialogue. Let me know what you think.

Opponent: Raising the minimum wage would cost 7 million jobs.

You: 7 million! That's a lot of jobs.

Opponent: Right.

You: So what do you mean by "jobs," exactly? What defines a job in your view? And is a job always a good thing to have?

Opponent: What kind of question is that? A job, obviously, is work that earns a paycheck.

You: So work that doesn't earn a paycheck isn't a job? I have a friend who runs a hospital. She works seventy hours a week for a dollar a year; she doesn't need the money. Yet she works really hard running an important institution. She doesn't have a job?

Opponent: You're splitting hairs. Most people work for a paycheck.

You: My friend gets a paycheck. It's one dollar.

Opponent: Your friend is a volunteer.

You: So if she made $50 a year, would that make her employed? Would her work count as a job?

Opponent: Not really. What's she going to do with $50?

You: I guess what I'm trying to establish is how much money counts as a paycheck that defines a job.

Opponent: That depends on the work, of course. A kid in Bangladesh might be happy to earn $3 a day in a sweatshop.

You: So that kid would, by your definition, have a job.

Opponent: Sure. 

You: My son is 12 years old. He doesn't work in a sweatshop. In fact, he doesn't have a job at all, by your definition. He just goes to school.

Opponent: So?

You: If given a choice between going working in a sweat shop and going to school, I would guess he'd prefer school.

Opponent: Of course he would.

You: So in his case, not having a job is better than having a job.

Opponent: Well, that's different. He's a kid. He's a student.

You: My parents are retired. They don't have a job either.

Opponent: Well, they earned their retirement.

You: The Koch brothers don't have a job either. They just invest.

Opponent: What's your point?

You: I'm wondering why jobs are so important to you. 

Opponent: Without jobs we wouldn't have an economy.

You: But the economy has risen above pre-recession levels, while jobs haven't. So the health the economy doesn't necessarily depend on jobs.

Opponent: OK, not entirely.

You: And if people get money in other ways--from parents, or investments, or retirement income, or the government...

Opponent: The government shouldn't pay people not to work!

You: Including my parents? Half their income comes from Social Security, and their health care is almost entirely paid for by the government.

Opponent: That's different.

You: OK. You said that raising the minimum wage would cost 7 million jobs. But you never fully defined a job. Is a job work for a paycheck someone could live off? And if the person can't live off it, what' the point of the job? And if the economy doesn't depend simply on the number of people employed...tell me again why jobs are the highest priority.

Opponent: So people can work.

You: Whether they want to or not? 

Opponent: Every able-bodied person should be required to make a living.

You: Except for my able-bodied son and my able-bodied parents, presumably. OK. But we still haven't established the definition of a job. If a job is nothing but work, then millions of slaves lost their jobs after the Civil War. Most of them didn't seem to mind.

Opponent: I said that a job is work for a paycheck! We're not talking slavery!

You: But when I mentioned my friend's one-dollar paycheck, you said that wasn't a job. You mentioned the sweatshop pay. Is $3 a day the minimum that defines a job?

Opponent: I don't like talking about minimums at all!

You: Well, then you need to do better in defining what a job is. You still haven't, you know. And while you're at it, you might define what a job is for. Is it because you're offended by able-bodied people--certain able-bodied people--not working? Why does that offend you?

Probably, you'd drive him crazy. So there's that.

You're Not Sorry Enough

Joe Francis, the sleazebag behind "Girls Gone Wild," said awful things about the jury that convicted him of false imprisonment. He didn't make things any better with this apology (which may have been written by his lawyer). 

I deeply regret the remarks attributed to me in the interview with the Hollywood Reporter. They were hurtful and do not reflect my true feelings. While I disagree with the jury's verdict as I am completely innocent of the charges and intend to appeal, I was afforded a fair trial, and if I lose at the appellate level, I will reluctantly but fully accept the jury's verdict. ... My comments are appalling, but anyone who has ever been wrongfully convicted of a crime that they did NOT commit would be as frustrated as I am. I want to apologize to all the jurors, the court, the city attorney, and my attorneys for my comments that were manipulated by the media, and please know I am truly ashamed of my conduct. I am truly, truly sorry. I hope everyone will understand I was not being serious and that I fully and deeply apologize for my remarks.

So what should he have done? What I advise my clients to do: speak of your high standards and values and how you temporarily lapsed. A mistake can actually be an opportunity to stand up for something and show yourself to be larger than your recent actions.

Of course, Francis may not have any standards, and I wouldn't get near his values without a gas mask. But the rest of us may learn something here: (a) Speak of your standards. (b) Shift quickly to the future and how you're going to fix things. (c) Speaking of the future, find a line of work that doesn't involve drunk women.

Persuade by Shutting Up

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"My theory has an opinion. I don't have an opinion," says Harvard B-school prof Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator's Dilemma. He's employing a great rhetorical strategy. Want someone to agree with your opinion? Take yourself out of the picture. It makes you sound objective and disinterested--free of special interests. Those who have read my book or heard me speak know that appearing disinterested helps make an audience trust your opinion. So how do you take yourself out of your own point of view? 

1. The Reluctant Conclusion.

"I used to agree with the other side. But the facts (or changing circumstances) forced me to change my mind." Christensen doesn't exactly do this. But he does say Listen to the theory, not to me. That takes personality out of the picture. How does the audience know whether to believe the theory? By looking at the facts. Not at Christensen.

2. The Passive Voice.

Writing coaches tell you to stick to the active voice. But scientists (and B-school profs like Christensen) use the passive voice in most of their academic papers. "The mouse was placed into the maze," not "My hot young research assistant placed the mouse into the maze." Again, this takes the personality out of the picture, making the author seem disinterested.

3. Shutting Up.

I call this tool Stalin's Timing Secret. Before he became the Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin would sit mute until the very end of meetings. Finally, if there was any disagreement, he would weigh in on one side or the other and settle the issue. He did this so often that comrades would look at him toward the end of every meeting, waiting for his judgment. It works. Wait until late in a meeting, then say, "This is what I'm hearing." Then spin it in a way that favors your point of view.

Shutting up. Consider it the new eloquence.

Why Facebook Pix Beat Pure Words

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Do you get the feeling that Facebook is turning into one big motivational poster? Rhetorical theory offers a reason: Those pictures with words embedded in them count as gestures. When you speak, your gestures emphasize and illustrate words. More importantly, they make a connection between your character and that of the audience.Same thing with inspirational pictures.

Gestures make connections between people. That's why we make "gestures" by giving gifts, and why nations gesture with military training exercises and diplomatic missions.The  moral of the story: Before we get too excited about all the changes social media are making to society, look at the rhetorical roots. Despite the Web, we're still not that different from the ancient Greeks.

I'll be experimenting with posters in the weeks to come, and will report back on what I find. One big question: How will Facebook's new design affect the popularity of posters? I mean, all pictures are looking like posters. Will my gestures actually stand out? What do you think?

Making Your Character Count

I like to ask audiences for a show of hands: How many wish arguments were purely logical? Almost everyone's hand, including mine, goes up. But Aristotle--the guy who invented logic as we know it--says that logic isn't the biggest persuader. Nope. The biggest persuader is character. (Aristotle called it Ethos, but he was speaking in Greek.)

Watch this amazing TED talk by the great ecologist Allan Savory and pay close attention to the character he projects.

You can persuade people much more easily if they like and trust you. The three tools to get yourself liked and trusted: Craft, Caring, and Cause. (Aristotle: phonesis, eunoia, and arete, all Greek to me.)

Craft means showing you know what you're talking about and knowing how to apply that knowledge to specific problems. Savory does this in spades, showing deep knowledge and applying it innovatively.

Caring has to do with convincing your audience that you're willing to sacrifice yourself for their interest--that you're not after money or power. In short, that you care. Savory's soft-spoken approach and modest dress convey a someone who's there just to deliver an urgent message, not to get rich or famous.

Cause: This is the biggest tool of all. When you pitch a product or service, or argue an issue, ask yourself: What's your cause? What does your argument do for humanity? 

It's the cause that wins the standing ovation. How do you think Savory did? Let me know what your own cause is. How does it relate to your work? Do you serve a larger cause in what you do to earn a living?

I'll tell you mine: It's to teach people how to argue without anger and persuade without fear. Our democracy depends on it. I quit my job to promote it. That doesn't make me a saint. But I hope it makes me more persuasive.