When content is irrelevant

By June 6, 2011Presentation Skills

My critique of Busting the Mehrabian Myth last week prompted an interesting Twitter discussion with Martin Shovel, its author, where he summed up his view thus: “It’s a simple point: quality content matters more than performance”.

As a loyal Arsenal fan, I’ll eschew the tap-in and try something a bit fancier. I could easily show the many times when performance matters more. But I will extend myself to those occasions where the “content matters” score is a big round zero – when content is irrelevant or even counter-productive.

Hard to picture?

He looks like Wallace from Wallace and Gromit and we can’t picture him on the steps of Downing Street. So the public describes Ed Miliband, according to new polling data cited by Tim Montgomerie, editor of Conservative Home. This visual problem is not cosmetic. A messenger perceived as unserious cannot get across a serious message. Good content becomes counter-productive. Under Ian Duncan Smith and Michael Howard, pollsters consistently found that people liked a given idea less once they were told it was Conservative policy. Neil Kinnock’s histrionics at the Sheffield rally in 1992 didn’t change a word of the Labour manifesto, but put enough people off to help swing a tight election. What people see matters more than what they will get.

Drew Westen, author of the fabulous 2006 book The Political Brain, conducted studies of brain activity in the politically partisan when confronted with contradictory statements by George W Bush and John Kerry. He found that people failed to spot obvious contradictions when it came to their candidate. “None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged”, Westen found; “what we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up”.

Our biases lead us to discount content without being aware that we are doing it. We welcome information that fits our beliefs and fail to notice the rest. As Westen put it, “the result is that partisan beliefs are calcified, and the person can learn very little from new data”. Content enters our understanding through an emotional filter.

Ed Miliband cannot be saved by a speechwriter. Many British people do not believe he looks and sounds like a leader. Those judgements – primeval, hard-wired short-cuts to interpreting the world – cannot be overcome by the content of his words. People have to want to listen before they can be persuaded.

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