Friday, February 18, 2005

it's all rhetoric...

An entertaining look at arguing by not arguing from Stageleft. Thanks to Crawford Kilian for this.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

he’s right but wrong: blogging vs. journalism

A bias disclosure: I’m a huge fan of journalists and journalism and believe a courageous press has on many occasions helped preserve our democracy. I often wish I’d been quick enough of mind and dedicated enough of spirit to be a journalist. Still…

Eric Engberg’s rant against bloggers on, Blogging As Typing, Not Journalism (thanks to Doc Searls for this), simply misses the point. His complaint that bloggers blew it by discussing unreliable pro-Kerry exit poll numbers is valid. But his anger-packed jab that the blog reporting was reminiscent of a school paper or CB radio chatter, and his unsupported claim that a blogger’s “concern is for controversy and ‘hits,’” not the veracity of the story, reveals more emotion than thought in his opinion. He goes on (and on) about how much better a job “professional journalists” do and concludes: “One of the verdicts rendered by election night 2004 is that, given their lack of expertise, standards and, yes, humility, the chances of the bloggers replacing mainstream journalism are about as good as the parasite replacing the dog it fastens on.”

OK, some bloggers blew it. They are new at this. They are excited about the power they suddenly have and don’t have a lot of processes and safeguards in place. And most don’t have editors to tell them they’re way off base or to help them clarify their ideas. But some will get better at it. Some won't. Some will fade away. New stars will constantly emerge. Some will be obnoxious, biased screamers that maintain a large following. Sounds like TV news today.

So why such fear and anger from Engberg? Professional journalists, despite all their training, safeguards, and editors, often get it wrong (Florida in 2000, for one) and often act in bad taste. Getting at the truth is a messy business, and surely we’re better off with more voices chiming in than having a handful of news organizations -- under their own ratings and advertising revenue pressures -- deciding what the truth is. No, blogging won’t replace news organizations anytime soon, but it’s a great complement to them.

Engberg writes: “The public is now assaulted by news and pretend-news from many directions, thanks to the now infamous ‘information superhighway.’ But the ability to transmit words, we learned during the Citizens Band radio fad of the 70’s, does not mean that any knowledge is being passed along.”

Yes, we did learn this lesson. Mood swings of the stock market notwithstanding, as smart consumers, we have learned to test the truth of news as we do advertising claims and scientific research. We know that all news is not created equal (CNN vs FOX News), and the more sources of news we examine, the better opportunity we have to separate fact from bias and develop a working model of what’s really going on. Perhaps Engberg lacks confidence in the public’s ability to process information – and he might have a point here – but less information distributed by fewer people is certainly not the answer.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

the inefficiency of the human mind?

In Debunking Miller's Magic, Bryan Eisenberg challenges George A. Miller’s circa 1956 research hypothesis that human working memory can hold seven bits of information at once – well, seven plus or minus two. Dubbed “Miller's Magic 7,” the theory has, according to Eisenberg, informed many communication guidelines, including web design (maximum number of links on a page, maximum number of items in a menu bar, etc.) Miller shows, however, that the most successful sites (e.g. Amazon, eBay) have ignored this research. Miller concludes: If visitors “can easily see, find, and use the site to accomplish their goals, they’ll efficiently ignore the other available choices.” He adds, “The number and depth of these elements should be determined by their relevance to the visitors themselves.”

Eisenberg’s common sense conclusion – essentially, “if it works, it works” – would seem obvious in any context except having to debunk “scientific” research – an often valuable exercise. Which brings me to the true dilemma of persuasion. It’s an art that we desperately want to turn into a science. I like Anthony Garcia’s label, "persuasion architect," suggesting both art and science, but for all the psychology, physiology, neurology, and even mathematics that can go into the study of persuasion, finding a way to persuade a specific audience will always come down to “if it works, it works.” No building will ever appeal to everyone.

Painting is more than a study of light and color. It can inform the art but isn’t the source of it. To become better at being persuasive, we can look at communication theory, we can brush up on writing, speaking, and design techniques, but if we focus on these instead of listening to and connecting with the audience – in a way that works for that particular audience – we will likely fail to be convincing.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

hearts of persuasion

I'm raising my kids to think, to make their own decisions. Which means I can't force my seven-year-old daughter to try new foods by screaming at her or threatening punishment, two tried-and-true forms of persuasion. So I've tried every other psychological gambit I've learned during nearly three decades of adulthood -- all to no avail. Before I get a call from Dr. Phil, I'm not worried about my daughter's health, just her palate. She eats far better than I did at her age. My concern is how much time we spend – without really paying attention – on one end or the other of the persuasion tug of war. For those of us who live with families and work with others, we play this tug of war with the regularity and frequency of breathing.

My interest here is in what works, what doesn’t, and why. Including why we're so often persuaded to act in ways that are not in the best interest of ourselves, our families, and society. As a persuader by trade -- I'm a PR writer -- I want to explore what really makes us tick -- or tricked, or tricky -- these days and to note when powerful persuasion butts heads with our sense of right and wrong.

Contributions please! If you spot a peculiar tug, report on it. As I write this, I’m tempted to walk through the house and list how many things I possess that don’t contribute to a life well lived. But I just persuaded myself not to do that.