Creepy robots and how not to turn people off when telling business stories

On the right is the face of one of the most sophisticated androids on the planet. Nevertheless, the face isn't quite right is it?... In fact it's kind of creepy.

So! It looks like authenticity is going to be one of the new trends in presentation for 2011. Hallelujah! (See Nancy Duarte's other predictions here.)

I once had a mentor of mine tell me:
"Greg, listen very carefully and remember this: Intent (he said,) counts more than technique."

And he was right. It's a saying that has stuck with me for a lot of years. What he meant was that you can learn all the clever people-influencing techniques you like (You know the ones:
  • conversations for rapport through common ground,
  • mirroring and matching body language and breathing pattern,
  • benefit-focussed solution selling, or
  • S.P.I.N. selling,
  • etc... etc...)
But if your intentions aren't in the right place, it shows. You just somehow know when someone is 'techniquing' you. You can see right through it can't you? On one hand, your friend waxes lyrical with puppy dog-like enthusiasm about why you should switch from your boring old PC to a super-cool Mac like she has, and even if you don't want to switch, you don't really mind her (neverending) insistence. But if some cheesy, over-slick salesperson tries to 'sell' you on one, it just leaves a bad taste in your mouth from the second they sidle up to you and come out with their first over-friendly greeting.

The truth leaks out the sides
The difference is about where they're genuinely coming from. No matter what 'technique' the super-slick salesperson may be using, there's something - some subtle combination of non-verbal cues that leaks their real intent (to 'sell' you) out the side and gives you a feeling in your gut - one way or another.

Of course nobody wants to be presented to by a "hey-there, hi-there, ho-there" cheesy salesperson type, but I read a very interesting analogy from robot design of all things that puts some science behind at least one reason authenticity counts.

It's from my friend Shawn Callahan
(one of my Clarity Heroes) over at Anecdote. He found a great parallel between the feeling we get looking at different kinds of robots and the difference between what he calls 'Big-S' storytelling and 'Little-S' storytelling at work. What am I talking about - you ask? Read on.

This is from Shawn's post:
Imagine a spectrum of storytelling. At one end is Big 'S' Storytelling which includes those beautifully crafted stories we see in movies, novels, plays and even the latest Playstation games. Big 'S' Storytellers understand plot structures, character development, scene design and a myriad of other storytelling principles and practices. At the other end of the spectrum is Small 's' Storytelling where we find the stories we tell on a daily basis in conversations, anecdotes, recounts and examples.
Slipping into 'story mode'
Big-S storytelling techniques can be very useful to help with clarity - to help get your point across in a more vivid, engaging way. However, like the cheesy sales techniques, they can also be a trap. If you're trying hard with techniques like voice modulation and vivid imagery, even slightly missing the mark screams that you've stopped talking normally and have slipped into 'story mode'. Ever been having coffee with someone who recently started a new job? Often, if the conversation drifts to how they got it, you can tell the moment they've switched from just talking to you and started giving you the resume answers they used in their interviews. They've slipped into 'story mode'. And unless they're world-class seriously good at it, without meaning to, anybody talking in 'story-mode' risks being distractingly, eye-rollingly cringe-worthy.

So how do creepy robots fit in to all this?
In his post, Shawn introduces the findings of Japanese robot maker Mashahiro Mori, who found in his research that we only like our robots to be human-like up to a point, after which they fall into the creepy-zone he calls the Uncanny Valley - where they wallow in creepiness - until they become perfect and pop out the other side as likeable again.


Source: Crossing the uncanny valley, The Economist, Nov 18th 2010.

With this analogy, Shawn is saying that like making a too-close-to-human android face, using Big-S storytelling techniques to get close to delivering a Big-S story experience can be a dangerous thing, and risks alienating your listeners by propelling you into the creepy-zone of story-mode.

Like all things Anecdote, it's a post worth reading - see the full text here.

Clarity rule:
Sometimes an unvarnished recounting of an experience is better than a carefully prepared "the-moral-of-this-story" story. To get a point across at work, it's a million times better to be clumsy and authentic than it is to be too much of a storytelling technique try-hard.

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