Headlines: June 4th, 2001

New research could help politicians to tell their audiences unpalatable truths without losing their vote.Existing research shows that most politicians already know that to maintain audience support for their messages they need to use presentation techniques that generate applause.In a new study, researchers Dr Tim Clark and Dr David Greatbatch, of King’s College London, have analysed the techniques that business gurus such as Tom Peters, Rosabeth Moss Kanter and Gary Hamil employ to keep their managerial audiences ‘on-side’ when being told unpalatable facts.

The study reveals that gurus avoid offending their audience by evoking laughter and by telling stories. ‘Basically, whenever the guru says anything potentially uncomfortable to audiences of managers they use humour and wrap it up as a joke,’ said Dr Greatbatch. Researchers discovered that gurus use a series of specific techniques to invite laughter. And they found that such laughter was not spontaneous, but cued by presenters who indicated when it was appropriate for the audience members to laugh.

The methods used to invite laughter included the speaker laughing himself, using exaggerated, ironic or comic gestures or showing his teeth in a ‘laughing’ smile. Shared laughter was used by the gurus to indicate a common viewpoint. Through laughter, the audience begins to feel part of an ‘in group’ that is joined in opposition to whatever management practice the guru is criticising.

Over two-thirds of the cases of audience laughter studied occurred in the context of stories. In addition to making messages more entertaining and memorable, story telling was used by gurus to establish the authority of their knowledge. Their stories constantly referenced well-known and highly regarded managers and organisations that the guru had come into contact with. When interviewed, audience members consistently declared the speakers who developed their arguments through humorous stories to be the most memorable.

A point politicians might like to note – the researchers said that because they package their ideas in this non-offensive way, business gurus are not only remembered, but never booed from the stage.

The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Link: www.esrc.ac.uk