Monday, March 02, 2009

Deceptive use of language in conference advertisement [and on the difference between communication and manipulation]

[This was originally written for a community of science fiction con runners, which is why it has that clear theme. I altered it to fit the subject I ended up with.]

I just came across a blog post (linked at the bottom of my post), where the author discusses an email he received, advertising a conference in a deceptively persuasive fashion.

While I use the "scarcity" "trick" myself, I make sure and use it only when seats really are running out, and once at the beginning--Alerting people to how many seats we have as they all already know we will run out very quickly.

That of course refers to another "trick" the author mentions--social proof. Looking back at my "spam" emails I don't abuse it beyond the mentioning the seats available, in any advertisement. But I do make use of it, I know people who go to the con enjoy themselves, and discuss it amongst themselves and with their peers. I enjoy the back-lash email bombardment of "I really wanted to make it" as it helps me help others make it next time.

There is a downside to understanding persuasion. Our knowledge of it.

After being exposed to quite a bit of manipulation, especially in corporate environments and around Washington DC, I became _aware_ (apologies for use of new age terminology) that it "exists". Later on I was disturbed by finding out the same tools in my repertoire (or weapons in my arsenal if you like) I've used in good communication are used in manipulation as well. This made me think quite a bit if others, and myself, are acting in a manipulative fashion.

The difference between communication and manipulation is tricky at best. It is in Intent (of attacker) and Perspective (of victim), and we can add a third category of examination, the X, or Asimov "Mule", factor--Specific incident--which might change our normal understanding in specific odd-ball cases. Both in the decent meaning of influence, in good communication, and in the "evil" one, manipulation, noticing that I, or others, say or do something which answers to one of these possible "tricks" of influence immediately puts it under scrutiny of self-awareness (apologies for new-agey term) if it makes use of any of these "tricks".

Robert Cialdini in his book "Influence: Psychology of Persuasion" takes apart a sub-set of the world of influence and helpfully puts it into clearly defined and named categories by the use of terminology. That, not the text, is the greatest asset of the book.

He often mentions how all these tools of persuasion are really normal tools humans use to avoid over-loading with needless, indeed countless, decisions that spam our daily lives, and to make better decisions to boot (everybody buys an iphone, it *must* be better! it sure is cool, though). Knowing about how these work though, means the con artists, sales people, etc. will use them against us.

But as people who run conventions and conferences, how do we both use, and abuse, these "tricks" of influence? How can we make better use of them, and avoid being deceptive?

Notice yourself using it in your advertisement? Feeling left out as you are not a convention/conference manager? Have any anecdote from your position.. or daily life?

You can view the discussed blog which inspired this post, here:
http://www.changingminds.org/blog/0902blog/090227blog.htm

Gadi Evron,
ge@linuxbox.org.

Follow me on twitter! http://twitter.com/gadievron

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