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Simple Jury Persuasion: Should you communicate the details or the big picture?

Friday, July 18, 2014
posted by Rita Handrich

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communicateWe are used to the idea that when speaking, some of us focus more on details and others focus more on the big picture. That preference may communicate more about us to the listener than we are aware. Newly published research says powerful people focus on the big picture rather than on the details. The authors give this example:

“A speaker discussing a massive earthquake might either state that 120 people died and 400 were injured (a concrete statement conveying specific details), or that the earthquake is a national tragedy (an abstract statement conveying higher-level meaning.”

The researchers conducted 6 separate studies with online participants and each study found the same results. It did not matter if the speaker was discussing “a person, a societal issue, or a product; describing something negative or positive; or saying a few words or several sentences”. Those that focus on the “big picture” were simply more powerful in the eyes of the listener/receiver.

The findings are mainly discussed in terms of political leadership where there is danger of being labeled a “policy wonk” (and thus written off as an egghead who does not understand the people) if you speak concretely to show off your knowledge about an area.

On the other hand, politicians who focus on the big picture will communicate more abstractly and often with appeal to the emotion–and will be seen as smarter, more “in touch” and competent.

The researchers offer the example of the 2004 election characterization of John Kerry as a flip-flopper in an ad for the George W. Bush campaign. The ad intimated that a lack of consistency (as seen in John Kerry’s flip-flopping on specific issues) was a negative trait for a leader. The researchers say the power of the flip-flopper label could also be seen as indicative of concrete communication sending a “low-power signal”.

On the other hand, say the researchers, if you only communicate abstractly, you could be seen as having insufficient knowledge about an issue. It’s a tricky balance. The researchers also question the idea of order effects–should you start with concrete communication or with abstract communication? Do you talk about the individual trees (demonstrating concrete knowledge), about the forest (demonstrating a grasp of the big picture), or both?

Effective litigation advocacy requires both approaches to communication. At the start of your interactions with the jurors, you have little standing and no credibility. Your task is to both advocate for your client and to build and maintain rapport with them, for which initially relying on abstract or high-level characterizations may be more effective. It communicates best the answer to “why should I care about this dispute?” To be seen as credible and substantive requires facts, knowledge, and support for the high-level statements, which addresses “Is this a person I can rely on for accurate information?”. While some people tend to think in details while others are more comfortable with the big picture, ultimately both are required, in just the right balance.

Wakslak CJ, Smith PK, & Han A (2014). Using abstract language signals power. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107 (1), 41-55 PMID: 24956313

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