A Ten-year-old Offers A Lesson In Persuasion

When I studied screenwriting a decade ago, one of the most important concepts I learned was specificity. When writing a story, push hard for the telling detail, said my teacher, the incomparable Nika Rylski. Don’t say it is a late model sedan. Say it is a midnight blue Lexus with a broken right headlight. Don’t tell us it’s a Sunday. Let us feel the Sunday morning drizzle.

Why is specificity so important? Because it gives immediacy and meaning and context; and by doing so, it makes the story real.

Specificity is equally important in business communication. “Abstractions don’t bring in $6 million a year for the Neediest Cases Fund; stories of real people do”, says Carmine Gallo, an expert on persuasion, in an article on the power of specificity entitled “Ten Year-Old Fund Managers Daughter Offers a Lesson in Persuasion.” The daughter’s remarkable ability to be specific broke down her CEO father’s resistance and convinced him to change his ways.

If a ten year old can use specifics to force change, think what CEOs could do if they were specific and personal and real when communicating their story to the outside world, or when telling a story internally to their workforce about the need for a change in the way they do business.

Here are some excerpts from Gallo’s article:

You can learn a lot from a 10-year-old, especially when it comes to getting what you want. Earlier this year you might have heard the story of former [bond fund] Pimco co-CEO, Mohamed El-Erian, who resigned after his daughter confronted him with a list of events he missed because he spent too much time at work. 

The girl’s argument was persuasive because it was specific, concrete, and tangible. She didn’t say, “Dad, you need work-life balance.” El-Erian’s daughter never took a communication course, but she intuitively understands that abstract concepts like ‘work-life’ are not as persuasive as specific examples. She created a 22-point list to make her case. “Talk about a wake-up call,” El-Erian wrote in an essay explaining his decision. “The list contained 22 items, from her first day at school and first soccer match of the season to a parent-teacher meeting and a Halloween parade. And the school year wasn’t yet over.”  

Abstractions don’t bring in $6 million a year for the Neediest Cases Fund; stories of real people do. It’s well established in the neuroscience literature that our brains do not  process abstractions very well. Persuasion requires specificity. […] Consumers don’t buy ‘better;’ they buy products that will improve their lives in a very specific way. Donors don’t contribute to “needy cases;” they give money to help specific people to attain specific goals. And little girls don’t give their dads a generic list; they’re very specific about what they want and very often get it.

We are inundated with facts. In the video (above), University of Chicago Professor Craig Wortmann explains why story has the power to persuade when facts alone don’t. Stories so something that facts don’t: they provide context and they connect to emotion. His story is only 4 minutes long, so the inundation factor is minimal.

What’s your story? If you’re frustrated at your inability to change people’s minds, perhaps you need to change the way you’re telling it.

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