Leaders need to be deliberate about making a human connection before presenting information.
A story from the 1992 US Presidential election illustrates what happens when we don’t. The 1992 election was unusual because there were three major candidates instead of two. In addition to the Republican incumbent, George H. W. Bush, and Democrat challenger, Bill Clinton, there was a third candidate, Ross Perot, running as an independent, and in mid-1992 he was leading in the polls and seemed unstoppably popular.
Frank Luntz was Perot’s director of research, and Luntz was running focus groups to test Perot television ads and find out what people liked and what they didn’t like about him.
In the focus groups, Luntz played three short videos. He played a biography of Ross Perot, some testimonials, and a policy speech. Then he would ask people questions and poke around to see how he might be able to influence their opinions.
What he found in every focus group when he played these videos was that people loved Ross Perot, and there was nothing he was able to say to swing people against him.
Until he ran one focus group in Detroit, and the videotapes (they were tapes then) hadn’t been rewound, and so he played them in a different order. He played the testimonials first, then the speech, and then the bio. In this focus group, no one liked Perot. Not at all. And there was nothing Luntz could do to make them like him.
What he found when he experimented with this was that the results were very predictable. Play the bio first, everyone loved Perot. Play the speech before the bio, no one liked him at all.
The lesson, Luntz says, was that “the order in which you give information determines how people think."
The bio let people form a human connection with Perot. Once they liked him as a person, they were receptive to anything he had to say. But without that human connection, they were resistant to his messages.
Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman explains this in his wonderful book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. It’s rare for people to make decisions based on logic. We have to slow down and think very deliberately in order to do this. Almost all of the time, we make rapid decisions based on our intuitions and feelings, and then we manufacture rational-sounding explanations to justify these decisions.
What this means for us as leaders and influencers is that we need to make a human connection with people before we start hitting them with our ideas. If we do this, they’ll be receptive to almost anything we have to say. If we don’t, we’re just asking for resistance.
You can read more about Frank Luntz in 'The Word Lab: The mad science behind what the candidates say’ from The New Yorker, 16 Oct 2000.