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And what if it was manipulation?

The more we advance in the field of public speaking, in oratory techniques and narrative building, the more the question about manipulation arises.  During our consulting sessions, we’re constantly looking for a better narrative strategy, one that will permanently change someone’s feelings, opinions and behavior. When we propose an effective way to express an idea, it is not uncommon that our advice elicits two opposite reactions:

  • Excitement, when you realize that narrating a story is indeed powerful, and that this power is already in your hands to change things.
  • Embarrassment, when you suddenly realize you can turn a past situation, perceived as negative, into an opportunity, just by telling the story in a different manner.

These two reactions are perfectly natural because it is undeniable that presentation skills give power to those who have them and that any new power acquired requires questioning ethics and morals. Ethics are respected when manipulation is applied if the goal is commendable. The end justifies the means; it is not unusual to accept a questionable mission in favor of a good cause. But the moral question still remains.

It’s no wonder that storytelling often gets bad press. “Spin doctors” appear as such to represent the perfect con artists who use storytelling to twist the facts in order to increase their capacity the influence people for whom they work. If the ethical problem is treated in finding an answer to the question “why use these techniques?” The moral problem instead invites us to reflect on “how do we use them?”

So, how can we avoid falling into the trap of cynicism and manipulation?

First, it is necessary to learn manipulation techniques in order to understand and identify them. From the moment you’ll know how to be an observer of these techniques, you will no longer be a victim. The first technique to rid yourself of a manipulation is being able to formulate what’s happening.

It’s important to remember that speaking techniques have for primary objective to serve your own sincerity. Indeed many of us have the feeling that we’re not ourselves when facing an audience, that we’re awkward and unnatural. Speaking techniques (body, voice, structure of remarks) were primarily intended to enable us to fully express our personalities, especially when we are stressed in front of a large audience.

But it is undeniable that when we increase both our knowledge and ability to put these techniques into practice, we change the way we see people and situations. This is the moment when the skill becomes a power. A good moral rule would be not to use these techniques without your audience’s knowledge. The boundary of cynicism is crossed as soon as you think you can get something at the expense of others. Optimize the building of your messages to optimize their assimilation by your audience and you will demonstrate your expertise and credibility. The key is to use these techniques as if everyone already knows them or as if you could explain at any time what you are doing and for what purpose.

In the excellent “Little treaty of manipulation for honest people,” an experiment takes place on a beach. A student places herself in the middle of a group of people. After awhile she goes away, leaving behind a radio clearly displayed on her beach towel. A few moments later, another student has the task of approaching, taking the radio, ostensibly using it, and quietly walking away with it. In the first scenario, the woman rises, exchanges small talk with her closest neighbors before walking away. In the second scenario, the woman asks the group to keep an eye on her things. While the situation is exactly the same, the people who felt committed intervened in 95% of the cases, whereas only 20% intervened when it was not explicitly requested. This experience illustrates a manipulation technique called “voluntary submission.”

Now that you know this, you know that the risk of being robbed decreases fivefold… the next time you leave your belongings on the train, on a terrace of a café or on the beach…will you be tempted to manipulate the people around you?