A Story of Persuasion and the Gunning Fog Index

Last blog post, we talked about the Gunning Fox Index. As a refresher, the Gunning Fog index is a measure of how well the written word will be understood by its intended audience.

We've also talked about the Psychology of Persuasion in the past: The long and short of it being--people are persuaded in different ways (social proof, data, experience, etc.) so one specific style of argument won't necessarily sway everyone in your audience.

This is the tale of a client, a presentation, a Wharton MBA, and how we used the Gunning Fog Index to make a case for simplicity.


Several years ago, we were helping a client (a major international Fortune-50 hospitality company) with their executive presentations. The presentations were written out and would be read off a TelePrompTer. Each executive wrote their own presentation and our job was to vet each one, suggest improvements, etc. One particular client was the VP of marketing.

She was delivering her marketing plans for the year at their annual event. Since they were going in a new direction the material was going to be very relevant for the audience (made up of Hotel Managers with only a cursory understanding of marketing and marketing terminology).

The first draft she gave us was a highly detailed examination of their marketing plan. It was well written...

... if it had been designed to appear in the Harvard Business Review.

But it didn't hit the mark for the audience. It was full of jargon, and was designed for READING not for spoken comprehension. (The brain can process reading material more rapidly than spoken material--we read faster than we can speak.) We've seen our share of presentations and are pretty savvy at understanding marketing speak and strategy--but even we had to re-read the presentation several times before we fully understood the gist of the material. Clearly there needed to be a re-write.

We highlighted key areas that should be simplified (the document had more yellow than white) and returned it. The second draft was slightly better--but only slightly. Some of the jargon was removed but it was still thick with content, huge words, and complex strategies (and sentences). It was a challenge to read and it was going to be a bear to listen to.

We sat down and had a heart-to-heart discussion with the client, but she didn't seem to grasp the need for simplicity. She stated: "Well, this is awfully clear to me... I think we're okay... I really do."

We were discussing the issue with her administrative assistant, who empathized with our plight, and she was also trying to help her boss "see the light".

Clearly, the way we were presenting our feedback wasn't persuading her. We asked her admin to tell us more about her. She explained that her boss is very bright (MBA from Wharton), very passionate about her job (that was evident in her presentation), and that she is very statistics-oriented. Statistics helped drive her decision making. Looking at her presentation, you could tell this was true. There was an abundance of data and charts. Clearly, numbers ruled for her.

Ah-ha! That's when the light bulb went on for us. We needed a way to communicate how her complex presentation was making it difficult for the audience to understand her message.

Enter the Gunning Fog Index. For someone statistically-minded, it the simple tool (and equation) used to illustrate how difficult her speech actually was to understand helped her overcome her own familiarity with the topic and look at the presentation with more objective eyes.

For the record, her first REVISED draft was so high on the Gunning Fog Index that it was at the comprehension level of a 4th year COLLEGE student--not at the level of a 7th or 8th grade HIGH SCHOOL student, like it needed to be.

By presenting her with a way to measure the result she was able to simplify the presentation and communicated the key points in a very clear manner.
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Part 2: Persuasion for People Who Don't Want Change

We attend this event every year that is dedicated to showing internal event planners the latest and greatest in the industry. The audience leaves the event totally psyched about all the new possibilities they can bring back to their event in large and small ways.

And what we hear--time after time--is that they return to their team brimming with ideas and innovation and... are hit with the death-knell for creativity: "But we don't NEED to change anything. What you're proposing sounds risky. What we're doing now is fine. I mean...it's okay...not too many people complain. Why risk it?"

Some people are strongly motivated by security and a lack of risk--especially when it comes to putting on an event with, say, 3000 of their biggest clients. NOT EVER changing your event--even if what you're doing is working--leads to a stale event. There are tons of new technologies, creative ideas, presentation formats, etc., that are improving events every day. To reject them all summarily is madness--and yet we hear it all the time.

So how does one take brilliant new ideas back to their team and get them to adopt some of those ideas in the face of such aversion? We don't promise miracles, but here is some advice:

Provide examples
Give examples of other companies or events that have employed the same tactics with success. More than that, though, provide examples of exactly how what you're proposing will work; where it comes into play, what it looks like in the event, how it could be used outside of the event, etc.

Peer testimonials
Get testimonials not only from your own peers in the event industry, but also from the peers of the people you're trying to win over. How have other VPs been impressed by the same thing you're suggesting? What impact has it had on their event? Were they skeptical at first but saw how amazing the concept was once it played out? 

Put them in the moment
Try to immerse your team in the moment of the event through demonstration and examples. If you want to use a new social media platform, for instance, start trying it out during your planning meetings. If you can get them to attend an event employing a similar strategy--do it. Seeing is truly believing.

Make a bargain
You can provide the best examples, testimonials, and illustrations and there are still some people who will say, "That's fine, but that's THEIR group, not our group." The truth of the matter is that--despite huge demographic differences--all audiences have some pretty basic needs. They want to be entertained and engaged. They want to be interested. They want to play along (even if it takes some good pre-framing). To get the event strategy that you want, you may have to bargain. Baby-steps are better than no-steps-at-all, and if they agree to employing something for the first day (knowing that if it doesn't work it can be redacted completely on the second day) may make them more willing to try something different.

Click to see all parts of this 8-part series.
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The elephants showed up to your event too.

Companies have elephants. The metaphorical kind, of course, not usually the zoo-kind.

Rarely is everything exactly perfect in company-land going into an event and sometimes there are major, major issues.

It may seem like getting on a plane and traveling to a 3-day conference/meeting/event would be enough to at least shrink those elephants a bit; but the elephants travel with the audience.

The bottom line? If there's a Big Company Issue, it's going to be hanging out in the event room--in the brain space of each and every attendee--until it's addressed. You can't ignore the elephant, and attendees can't move on with the mindset of tackling the future until the past is brought to light.

We're not saying that every concern or complaint or issue has to be addressed head on--especially if they're minor--but large issues (pending mergers, layoffs, product quality issues, delivery issues, management shakeups, etc.) have to be addressed.

Attendees can't move forward until you've addressed the past.  

Getting everyone pumped up about the coming year and ready to tackle the goals set for the next few quarters is a huge task. It's even harder when morale is low from the previous year. Maybe results were sub-par or maybe the attendees feel they didn't--and still don't--have the tools to be successful. No matter how great the goal looks and how wonderful it will be for all of them to achieve it, if they have the same doubts from the year before plaguing them in the future...you get the same results.

Attendees won't accept promises in the face of unacknowledged shortcomings. 

We know of NO company that always delivers everything on time or as promised. It's the business of companies to be agile and deal with things as they come. Sometimes this means that a new product isn't ready in time or a new training program that was rolled out has to be scrapped. Acknowledge these shortcomings, provide a brief reason (not excuse) for the shortcomings, and the audience will be more likely to accept that the next deadline is going to be met (if it actually IS--companies also have to be realistic in their goals) or that the next training program really IS going to stick around.

Attendees will disregard beneficial information until their worries have been directly dealt with. 

You may be giving the attendees the key to the castle, but if they are stuck back at the moat--what good is a key? You have an amazing new product that will increase their sales, but your attendees are worried that a new manager is going to clean house? Their primary concern isn't going to be the features and benefits of that product until the other issue has been addressed.

Attendees will turn an elephant into a mountain if it isn't managed.  

Occasionally when we bring up getting elephant-type issues out in the open, a client will interject: "But we don't want this to turn into a gripe session!" We don't either. An issue in the general session, however, is much easier to manage than an issue that runs wild (and possibly inaccurately) around the rumor mill/gripe-enabler social hours and networking sessions.

Attendees respect a company that knows where they're coming from--even if they don't agree with the issue. 

Showing the attendees that you actually know what's going on with them; that you know what their life is like and that it's hard having to deal with a particular issue can go a long way. You may still have to enact the measure, but at least the attendees can get closer to understanding why--and that they were taken into account when the decision was made.

Events are a great opportunity to address Elephant-type issues in a controlled way; you have everyone together, you can carefully pre-frame and support new messaging over a number of days, and you can leave with a team more united and on-board than when they left for the event. Don't miss the opportunity by letting the big things hang out in the corner of the room.
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