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Objectively Speaking PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Steve Cuno   

If you happen to write a book, the unwary may mistake you for an expert. This explains how I end up being invited to speak at marketing convention.

I make it a point to weave a bit of critical thinking into my remarks. Witness the subtitle of one of my presentations: “Six Irrational Leaps Marketers Make, and How to Avoid Them.” Exposing the leaps provides an opportunity to define evidence, and to show how a convergence of it strengthens a conclusion. Before applying the principle to marketing, I use the Theory of Evolution to illustrate.

So, perhaps you can imagine how my Inner Brat rubbed its hands in mischievous, conspiratorial anticipation when I was invited to speak in Houston, Texas. The State of Texas is a bastion of not separating church from state, and the Texas State Board of Education has a history of championing creationism-as-science. There would likely be a good number of creationists in my audience. Wielding the authority of microphone and stage, I would be able to force-feed them a few facts about evolution and then circle back to the subject of marketing before anyone knew what had hit them. Bwah-ha-ha.

I was enjoying playing out the scene in my mind when my Inner Adult chose to make one of its rare and generally unwelcome appearances. It asked, “What is the first thing you ask a client at the outset of a project?”

At the outset of a marketing project, Question One is this: What is the objective? That way, the client and I can evaluate creative ideas in terms of their potential to attain the objective, regardless of how cool we may think they are.

“And,” my Inner Adult continued, “your objective for this speech is…?”

It was to show the process and benefits of an evidence-based approach to marketing. That’s what the folks in Houston understood they were signing up for when they agreed to cover my honorarium, flight and hotel.

“Hmm,” said my Inner Adult.

I hate it when my Inner Adult says “hmm.” It signals an imminent moment of self-honesty. I don’t know about you, but I am far more comfortable wallowing in delusions of inerrant rectitude.

The Theory of Evolution had served as an apt introduction to evidence-based thinking in other cities. But I knew perfectly well — damn that self-honesty — that Houston wasn’t “other cities.” The moment the word evolution passed my lips, there was a danger that many in this audience would fixate on it and hear nothing else thereafter. This I knew from my own testing, and from studies like those that Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons describe in their wonderful book The Invisible Gorilla. If I allowed my audience to fixate on an illustration at the expense of the larger point, so much for the objective that I had a fiduciary responsibility to do my best to fulfill.

I also had to admit that it’s one thing to interject food for thought, and quite another to slap your audience across the face. I tried denying that what I had in mind constituted pre-meditated slappage, but maintaining denial isn’t easy when your Inner Brat is right there hopping up and down with maniacal glee. And though I am no Emily Post, even I know that slapping is not the most gracious way to repay people who have treated you with the utmost professional courtesy, as my hosts in Texas had treated me.

Don’t get me wrong. Slaps have their place. But this wasn’t the forum for that. What my Houston attendees had signed up for — and what I had promised to deliver — was a marketing speech.

But wait. I had a personal objective. I hoped or at least fantasized that a few people in the room might try applying evidence-based thinking outside of marketing. Like, say, to creationism, acupuncture or stuff they hear on Oprah.

“Nothing wrong with that,” conceded my Inner Adult, “provided you don’t compromise the business objective you agreed upon with your hosts.”

My Inner Brat began sighing in petulant resignation.

“May I suggest,” my Inner Adult continued, “finding a less confrontational way to illustrate an evidence-based approach. One that could still lead people to challenge their thinking in other areas. Those are the objectives, no?” Those were the objectives, yes. Without resorting to ad hoc retrofitting, there was no arguing that my original objectives had anything to do with slapping my audience, inciting them to march on the State Board of Education, or even selling them the Theory of Evolution. Even though such could make worthy objectives under other circumstances.

I worried aloud to my Inner Adult that some randi.org readers might call me a wimp for not damning the torpedoes and socking evolution to Texas when I had the chance.

“They may,” said my Inner Adult. “You’ll find out when you read the Comments. But whether or not readers agree with your decision, hopefully they will concede the importance of going to the trouble of considering ultimate objectives before engaging, of choosing tactics most likely to attain those objectives, and of pruning any that might interfere — even if they look like they might be fun. In the same way it’s important not to mistake a cool creative idea for an on-target ad, it’s important not to mistake a good fight for promoting skepticism. Sometimes they are one and the same. Sometimes they are not.”

Grudgingly, my Inner Brat suggested that I might attain both my business objective and my personal objective by replacing the Theory of Evolution with the Germ Theory of Disease.

My Inner Adult liked the idea. “Most in attendance are likely to accept the Germ Theory,” it said, “which means you’ll be able to illustrate evidence-based thinking without risk of losing your audience or insulting your generous hosts.”

“But,” my now newly, uncharacteristically sensitized Inner Brat said, “what if there happens to be an orthodox chiropractor or two in the crowd?”

My Inner Adult smiled. “Chances are there won’t be more than one or two. If you make them mad, it’s OK to enjoy that much.”

My Inner Brat rubbed its hands in mischievous, conspiratorial anticipation.

 

Steve Cuno, a three-time TAM speaker, is founder of the RESPONSE Agency in Salt Lake City. His presentation in Houston, Texas went over well. Attendees stayed unusually late and asked lots of good questions. We are Steve’s Inner Adult and Inner Brat, and we approved this message.