The ‘artful dodge’: The danger of a smooth talker
In 1992, Sade sang ‘Smooth Operator’. Almost two decades later we have research confirming that a smooth talker wins the day still. Put more bluntly—style trumps substance (particularly when that substance is delivered poorly). We say we want information, but really we want infotainment.
Todd Rogers and Michael Norton (both at Harvard) showed participants different videos of a political debate. In the videos, candidates either answered questions directly; dodged the question by answering a similar question; or dodged the question by answering a completely different question. In an intriguing finding, the audience members remembered the actual question asked significantly less [only 68%] when the candidate answered a similar question. On the other hand, when the candidate answered a question directly or honestly but ineloquently—84% of the audience remembered the question.
Rogers & Norton labeled the question dodging by answering a similar question—“the artful dodge”. Those politicians who answered completely different questions were penalized heavily and rated as less likeable and less trustworthy. The authors identify Ronald Reagan as a master of this art. And in the 2008 elections, they point to both Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton.
The ‘artful dodge’ ends up rewarding those who deftly sidestep questions more than those who answer honestly but without eloquence. They identify simple ways to reduce the success of the ‘artful dodge’—like having the question spelled out on the screen while the candidate is answering so it is easy to see they are not answering the query.
They also recommend watching for what are called “transition devices”—or the introductory phrase to the ‘artful dodge’. “I’m glad you asked that” or “That’s a good question”. Rogers & Norton think these introductory phrases prime the listener to believe that what comes next is actually relevant to the question. They tell the audience “Listen to what’s coming—it’s important!” It’s a fascinating window into political persuasion and we’ve referenced not only the HBR publication below but also the working paper which is available online.
This is reminiscent of an earlier post we did on highlighting the active choice in front of jurors to stop them from taking the easiest route home. In that instance, you wanted to draw jurors attention to their desire to be seen as good people and thus their willingness to extend themselves in deliberations.
In this instance, you are drawing the witness’ (and ultimately the jury’s) attention to the fact a question was not answered. Pay attention in deposition when witnesses do not answer questions. Get it on tape: “I asked you this but you answered something else. Try again.” You do not have to be nasty. Simply patiently ask for the answer to your actual question. When jurors see taped deposition like this, it can be devastating to witness credibility.
Don’t allow opposing witnesses to be non-responsive. Ask them if they recall the question. Ask them to repeat it. Politely correct their paraphrasing. Make it clear to the jury that they are dodging, and that is not okay. It may seem a simple thing but when we have data showing people forget the actual question posed—the witness’ style may be more important than the substance of a less ‘artful dodger’.
Rogers T, & Norton MI (2010). People often trust eloquence more than honesty. Harvard business review, 88 (11), 36-7 PMID: 21049679
Rogers, Todd, and Michael I. Norton. “The Artful Dodger: Answering the Wrong Question the Right Way.” Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 09-048, September 2008. (Revised September 2010.) http://www.hbs.edu/research/facpubs/workingpapers/papers0809.html#wp09-048
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