On the Campaign couch
A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign couch

Dear Jeremy, How can I improve my persuasive skills?

By improving your ability to read other people’s minds.

Jean Aitchison is a professor of language and communication at the University of Oxford. In 1996, she delivered the Reith Lectures for the BBC. In her second lecture, called "A Web Of Deceit", she said: "Humans… use language to influence and persuade one another. An effective persuader must be able to imagine events from another person’s point of view.

In fashionable jargon, he or she must have a ‘theory of mind’. Without it, persuasion is a hit-and-miss affair."

You may not be familiar with "theory of mind". I certainly wasn’t. But it means exactly what Aitchison says it means: the ability "to imagine events from another person’s point of view". ("Empathy" means something very close to this, or should do. But because we use empathy to mean a sort of supersized sympathy, it’s lost most of its usefulness.)

We’re not born with this ability.

Imagine you’re talking to a three-year-old child on the telephone. "What are you doing?" you ask. "I’m playing." "What are you playing with?" "I’m playing with this." "What’s this?" you ask. "This, this," the child says, increasingly irritated that you should be so slow.

The understanding that different people have different perspectives comes later in life – and sometimes never. You know the old joke about the two Irishmen (or blondes or Poles or whoever you want to be politically incorrect about) on opposite sides of a canal. "How do I get to the other side?" one calls. "You are on the other side," the other shouts, entirely correctly.

Theory of mind means not only using your imagination to picture what things look like through the eyes of other people but also, and vitally, how to use that understanding in any communication with them.

The best test I know is the "asking for directions" test. If you stop to ask the way and are told to turn left where the phone box used to be, the information, although accurate, won’t help you very much.

When asked for directions, the excellent communicator makes a series of lightning calculations and assumptions: the enquirer is clearly unfamiliar with the neighbourhood; so any instruction that relies on prior knowledge will be worthless; so only landmarks that are clearly identifiable to a stranger have any value. The excellent communicator mentally puts himself behind the wheel of the stranger’s car and visualises the way ahead – not as he knows it to be but as the stranger will see it – and bases his directions entirely on that perception. So he doesn’t say turn right into Calow Street. He says turn right at the traffic lights.

Every time you have to present an idea, deliver a credentials presentation or create an advertisement, you should quite consciously follow the example of that person by the roadside who gives the most immaculate directions. Put yourself in the place of your audience; imagine what things look like through their eyes – what are their preoccupations, their preconceptions, their fears, their priorities; and use only images, analogies, examples and vocabulary with which they can identify.

Then resist the temptation to do all the work. The art of persuasion is like the art of humour; it works best when your audience "sees the point" for themselves. So leave gaps open for completion; but gaps that you know, from your understanding of the minds of others, from theory of mind, that they are fully capable of filling in. And because they’ve been not just a passive recipient but an active participant, they will, of course, be the more completely persuaded.

Dear Jeremy, Is native advertising just a jazzed-up online version of advertorials?

When you see a poster, even if it’s a snazzy digital poster, you’re pretty sure it’s what we call an ad. And since the death of the admag in 1963, the distinction between television programmes (or "content", for younger readers) and advertisements remains clear and unambiguous. After that, it gets a bit greyer. But the world should know this: an advertorial, under whatever name, is not a hybrid. It’s not half-editorial and half-advertisement. It’s all advertisement – even if too coy to come clean about it.

‘Ask Jeremy’, a collection of Jeremy Bullmore’s Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10.Telephone (020) 8267 4919
Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, Teddington Studios, Broom Road, Teddington, TW11 9BE