Business Irish

Sunday 23 July 2017

Style is more important than substance

Paul Lanigan

What happens when Joshua Bell, one of the world's finest musicians, goes incognito in a busy subway in Washington DC's business district?

What happens when a musician -- who can command $1,000 per minute -- takes his priceless Stradivari violin, dons a baseball cap, occupies a corner in the busy subway and puts on a virtuoso performance for people who would normally think nothing of paying $150 a ticket to see him perform in a tuxedo?

You can watch this secretly recorded video on YouTube, but you probably suspect what happened next. Nothing. That's right!

Here's this world-renowned musical genius, playing masterpieces on a priceless Stradivari and he might as well have been a street busker improvising with a fiddle.

You're probably thinking that it was a busy subway station and the travellers were under pressure to get to work and therefore paid little attention to the music. Perhaps that's true. Read on and you might find yourself thinking again.

Consider for a moment, the process that scientists go though to have their papers published in their relevant journals (eg 'The Scientific Journal', 'The Lancet', etc).

Typically a paper is submitted to a panel of scientists who are chosen because of their expertise in a specific field.

The editor of the 'Scientific Journal' then decides whether or not to publish based on the recommendations of the panel.

In 1982 two psychologists had a suspicion about how papers were chosen; so they selected from each of 12 well-known psychology journals an article that had already been published by them.

Furthermore, each of the chosen articles had been penned by psychologists from one of 10 of the most prestigious psychology departments in the US (Harvard, Princeton, Yale, etc).

Here comes the interesting bit. They changed the names of the authors to entirely fictitious ones. Furthermore, they changed the affiliation of these fictitious authors to lesser known universities.

After combing through the articles to alter any references to the original author or their affiliated university, they retyped the papers and submitted them for publication in the exact same 12 journals that had originally published them.

Of the 12 journals, only three spotted that they had previously published the article. Of the remaining nine publications, eight rejected the articles (88pc).

Furthermore, of the panel members (16 experts and eight editors) who examined the submissions, every single one stated that the paper they reviewed did not merit publication.

It suggests that in deciding whether or not an article deserves to be published or not, the decision makers pay more attention to the author and the standing of the institution to which they belong than they do to the content.

The most plausible explanation is that both the original acceptance and subsequent rejection were down to inference.

The first thing the reviewer reads is the name of the author and institution he or she belongs to. If the reader regards them highly, then he or she will be biased to look at the paper in the best light possible.

Positive points are highlighted and negative elements (organisations, statistics used, etc) are discounted.

On the other hand, if the reader is not biased positively, or worse still, biased negatively, before reviewing the paper, he or she is more likely to look for flaws and be more sensitive to what is bad than to what is good.

In 1969, Jerry Kosinsky's novel 'Steps' won the prestigious American National Book Award for fiction. Some time later, a prankster retyped the contents and submitted the manuscript, sans title and under a pseudonym, to 14 different publishers, including the one that had originally published it!

Not only did none of the 27 so-called professionals it was sent to not recognise the content, all 27 rejected it.

What can we learn from this? People favour the familiar and there's comfort in certainty, even if certainty promises mediocrity.

As Malcolm Gladwell highlighted in his bestseller 'Blink', when faced with choices and decisions, we tend to make assumptions.

We do this by what Gladwell refers to as Thin Slicing, a subconscious process of taking small amounts of information (brand, recommendation by a friend, your body language, your tone, etc) and we extract meaning that helps form our decisions.

In doing so, the medium becomes the message. If you tell me that you published an article in your local newspaper, what meaning do I derive from that? If you tell me that your article was published in the 'Harvard Business Review', do I make different inferences about its merit?

The ugly truth is that perception matters more than content. Style is more important than substance.

If, in the words of David Sandler, selling is a Broadway show put on by a psychiatrist, then perception is the warm up act.

As for Joshua Bell, well he's still giving sellout concerts but listen closely the next time you hear a metro busker strum his six-string, you never know who it might be.

Paul Lanigan is a sales trainer, speaker and author of 'Story Telling for Selling Success'.

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