The Persuasive Power of … Uncertainty?

I recently listened to a fascinating, but somewhat counterintuitive, interview on the powers of persuasion via the Harvard Business Review podcast. In it, Stanford marketing researcher Zakary Tormala details findings of his recent study on influence and persuasion from experts and non-experts. What was of particular note was this eye- (and ear-) catching finding: experts who offer a degree of well-timed uncertainty when trying to persuade or influence others are often more successful in their impact than those who bloviate or come across as all-knowing.

Interesting . . .

As Tormala explains it, when someone who is considered an expert, whether that be a newspaper movie critic, a restaurant reviewer or even a CEO, displays a degree of uncertainty or humility in their speech or writings, people often listen to them more. It’s part of the surprise factor, Tormala notes, and it works, despite being counterintuitive to almost everything we think about persuasion.

The most surprising part of the research was its potential implications for businesses, particularly CEOs. Asked by the HBR interviewer if this research had any practical use for CEOs, whom are often thought of — and expected to be — the foremost experts of their businesses and their industries, Tormala noted that when used sparingly and at an appropriate moment, uncertainty can be a powerful persuasive tactic for executives.

And that’s precisely because whenever someone expresses doubt about their own expertise, people tend to perk up. They listen to what you have to say. The fact is, very few of the CEOs we counsel are going to be on the level of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates — CEOs that have people hanging on their every word. Our jobs are often to help our clients become more persuasive and influential as industry thought-leaders, and this knowledge could be an interesting new tool in our arsenal.

It also parallels some of the key findings of the 2011 Edelman Trust Barometer, which was released last week. The report found that trust in American businesses has dropped significantly, to 40 percent, slightly above last-place Russia. Conversely, trust in CEOs, both in America and globally, is on the rise — up to more than 50 percent in global markets.

In a comment I left on the excellent management blog, Stefan Stern on Management, I reflected on what the key findings of the Trust Barometer mean for businesses and CEO influence:

To me, much of [the reason for a global rise in trust in CEOs] comes down to a greater focus and emphasis from executives on transparent communications and, quite frankly, a time of refreshing humility from some of the world’s biggest industry leaders.

That, in turn, has quite clearly engendered a greater level of trust and respect among the public for the role of the CEO and for some of them, their earnest efforts to communicate transparently and with the public’s best interest in mind.

Could it be that humility, and a bit of unexpected uncertainty from CEOs, will lead to a new era of greater influence for executives? Maybe. Maybe not. But the research and recent survey findings indicate that is the path – at least for the time being.

Taking a page from the Stanford study, I’m a little uncertain what all this means for PR and the CEOs we counsel. What do you think?

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  • Mckwessling

    Any time someone in a position of great power/influence, they make themselves seem more human. It’s the reason why celebrity gossip is so popular–their flaws and drama bring them down to a human level and people can more easily relate to them (or feel slightly superior, even). I can see easily why people would be more willing to listen to someone they feel is a real human being than just an all-knowing authority figure. However, I think the positive effects would be short-lived. A CEO should know their stuff–display uncertainty too much, too often, or at the wrong time, and pay some heavy consequences.

    • It’s interesting you note that the positive effects of, say, a CEO displaying uncertainty would be short-lived. I have to agree with you on that, and from what I gathered in the HBR podcast, the researcher notes that there is a certain point where this strategy might backfire. And that very well could be when it is overused or used at an inappropriate time. For example, I remember the researcher saying that a CEO certainly would not want to display uncertainty when speaking with market analysts on an earnings call, or during a tense and trying discussion with employees regarding the future of the company.

      • McKenzie Wessling

        Absolutely–I would venture to say that uncertainty displayed on a more personal level (in light of some kind of tragedy or national development) or in very general and rather positively-slanting terms regarding company innovations or developments would be more well-received than outright uncertainty about the future of the company or the quality of work being done as a direct result of the CEOs performance. When/in what context might it be more appropriate?

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