Dear CMO:

You’ve spent some time getting the messaging right, haven’t you? I certainly hope so. We’ve talked about this enough. At this point, it’s fair to say we’ve pretty much exhausted the topic. And after all this work, we’ve brought the team together, invited the field in to HQ, and collected our far flung dealers from Anchorage to Andalusia to hear the word.

And we’ve done this over and over. And they still don’t seem to get it. Sure, they nod their heads and even parrot back some of what we’ve given them during role playing in the break-outs and a few have managed to repeat a bit of our carefully constructed phraseology over cocktails by the pool after the meetings. A month later, when you’re out in the field talking to them, you see no evidence of all that good will and Power Point laid out earlier. And it’s driving you nuts.

This is a big point, so let’s spend a few moments on it. Knowledge transfer in companies is an uneven art form. Very few do it well. The complexity of your industry only compounds the problem. You don’t need Power Point. You need influence. So let’s study a darker chapter — the deliberate coersion and manipulation of how a person thinks — and try to extract a positive, ethical lesson from it.

American psychologists had the opportunity to interview American POW’s from the Korean War who were held by the Chinese. The findings, captured in an article from The Journal of Psychology from 1956 (not available on the web), described a systematic and incremental process of moving a person’s frame of reference using the basic principles of influence, namely social proof and consistency (thank you again, Dr. Robert Cialdini, for capturing this case study and laying out a framework for the science of influence). The game goes like this.I’ll ask you, as your interrogator to make a token gesture of compliance. Share a pack of cigarettes. Maybe just have a conversation with me. Then I’ll then ask you to do something I want in an understandable context: “Tell me, comrade — may I call you comrade? — since we’re having our monthly camp essay contest shortly, would you write me a short essay on all the good things about, say, communism? You don’t have to say anything you don’t want to say. Just what you think is good.” You say sure, you’ll do it — and you’re going to really stick it to him with your essay. You’ll write that people may not be starving for food, but their starving for law, justice and freedom, baby. Take that!

At the camp essay contest, however, things won’t go the way you thought. I’ll congratulate you publicly for your essay and ask you to read the one statement I like aloud: “I’d like to single out an absolutely exemplary essay from Comrade CMO… could you read your first sentence? Here it is in your own writing. Go ahead.” And you find yourself standing up in front of your fellow countrymen telling them you think communism is good because no one is starving. “Thank you, Comrade. Please sit down. Have a cigarette — have a whole pack! Now, everyone, let’s discuss what Comrade CMO has said. Can we all agree that no one is starving under the benificent guidance of world Communism?”

Two things have just happened. First, you will vehemenly defend your statement because you don’t want to be accused of being a communist sympathizer. “I didn’t say it was good! I said it was bad! But no one is starving, and that’s a true statement!” You’ve just fallen into a consistency trap. You won’t budge off of it, either. Your next assignment will likely be to expand upon this point, later including how people might actually be starving in the decadent economies of America, and then to point out the inequalities of racial discrimination and how they exacerbate the suffering of the masses. Inch by inch, you’ll start moving away from your deeply held convictions and towards a very sympathetic pro-communist stance. In a few months, you’ll be making videos. Or, if you serve in the British forces, in a few minutes. Sorry, had to say it.

The other thing is that those who hear you say this will, at some level, agree with you. They’ll say, “You know, I think CMO is basically a good guy… can’t believe he’s on their side… and frankly, I didn’t want to say it, but he’s right. People aren’t starving here…” And you’ve just moved someone else an inch towards radicalism.

* * *
Key Takeaways:

> Knowledge transfer is the difference between Power Point and a learning organization. The former is a kind of purgatory. The latter is a successful IPO.

> People need to assimilate information in a context that makes sense to them, in a time frame that allows for information to be absorbed meaningfully and completely, and in a way that allows them to re-interpret it in a completely unique and personal manner. It can’t be forced. You can’t put three doctors on the case and have the baby in three months no matter where you are in your revenue projections.

* * *

Put this in your framework now. When we seek to create those subtle, internal changes in our listener’s perceptions of our messages — particularly those who might not want to be “trained”, like your channel partners — we need to focus on finding common ground:

“The Chairman of Acme Corporation is quoted as saying that he intends to eliminate all intermediaries within the next two years… the US sales office has denied this, of course, but here’s the link to the original non-English website… so tell me, in your own words, what would competing against your supplier mean to you in terms of your ability to achieve your sales forecasts? How about your ability to recruit and retain your key employees? Give me a few lines on that, if you will…”

Slowly, slowly, you build your point. It isn’t just about Power Point anymore, is it? Good luck!


Copyright (c) 2007 Stephen Denny