Get Your Staging Right to Get Your Expertise Heeded

Forrest ChristianChange 1 Comment

Presentation matters. A lot. Whether you are trying to get a job, sell a point, or get some respect in your house of worship, you need to spend some time on how the “you” you present to other people makes it easier or harder for them to believe in you.

We co-create social realities. The “presentation of self”, as Erving Goffman put it, involves creating meaning often via props and stage setting.

Props and staging are vital for technical experts. Non-experts have no way of judging between experts’ opinions so they listen to the one who most resembles an authority to them. This is why the idiot programmer is so often made the manager: the other managers, who are technical idiots, like his style because it resembles theirs, whereas yours does not.

We always talk about the props of spiritual life, such as incantations, incense or robes. Westerners, of course, have created non-sacred spaces that act like sacred spaces, such as courts, museums, funeral homes, etc. Our minds control what happens in this socially created world. “Facts” don’t really matter to us. And you who are now saying “Facts are all I care about” are great, because you are the easiest to take advantage of through the clever use of props and staging.

Medical facilities are the best examples of “sacredized” non-sacred spaces, though, and it’s here where you can really see the importance of props and staging to getting things done. A doctor dons the sacred white robe of his profession. Acolytes (nurses) prepare you to speak with the sacred one, who through communing with strange instruments to consult the augurs, arrives at often bewildering statements. You are given instructions written on sacred paper, often difficult to decipher, to present to another sacred gatekeeper who provides you with “food” which must be taken at just the right time and in the right way, without fail, even to the last pill.

All of this sounds hokey when you say it but researchers keep on showing how important all this ritual and staging is to getting us to believe in the myth of medicine and lets us be healed. We believe in the myth of medicine and need the symbols of that mythical power to help us heal ourselves. This effect is so great that many drugs work almost entirely on this “placebo” effect.

And, it turns out, you can get much better results by having a more complex, involved ritual:

As reported by the British Medical Journal, of the 133 subjects with chronic arm pain taking blue cornstarch pills (that looked like an antidepressant prescribed for repetitive strain injury) 31 percent experienced side effects such as dry mouth and dizziness; of the 133 given acupuncture with trick, nonpuncturing needles, 25 percent had pain and red skin. After a few months, the fake-pill group reported a pain decrease of 1.5 points on a 10-point scale; the fake-acupuncture group, a drop of 2.6. “In other words, not receiving acupuncture reduces pain more than not taking drugs.”

[Researcher Ted] Kaptchuk says the rituals of medicine explain the difference. Performing fake acupuncture is more elaborate than prescribing fake medicine. Being checked in by the secretary, plus the professional attention, uniforms, even the paintings on the wall — “careful manipulation of such rituals could make all types of treatment more effective.”

[from “(Strange But True) The first cut ws the deepest”, Bill Sones and Rich Sones, The Oklahoman, Aug. 8, 2006, pp. 2E. Hyperlinks added.]

Much of this coincides with the research on signaling, which I haven’t talked much about, but which was created in an article on — you won’t believe this — job markets. It’s an amazingly useful model.

Very little of success in influencing people has to do with being right or even the best. Almost no one can judge the best of executive coaches, potential hires, even possible dates. Back when we were going to move the business to the Pacific Northwest, which failed miserably, I recall going to a church where these things were actually said explicitly. “You know that we judge people by what they’re wearing,” the pastor said. “People who don’t have the right clothes or the right style don’t fit in.” Lots of nods. He was making a bigger point, but really just pointing out that this goes on. I was dressed like someone from a small city in Indiana, with clear implications.

If you want the part, you have to look the part. We all know this.

The more interesting part is how you need to create lengthy “rituals” in order to get your clients, whether internal or external, to cooperate with getting things done. It’s no good to be right but have your client screw up doing the work to get there.

Some of this is the Naaman Principle. Naaman (“The Syrian”) was the military leader for Ben-Hadad II of Aram Damascus who came down with a really nasty skin disease. The Jewish Bible tells that he went to see a Hebrew prophet, Elisha, who supposedly could cure him. Dissed at the door and told to go “wash seven times in the Jordan River”, Naaman storms back off to Syria until his slaves say, more or less, “What do you have to lose?” So he does it, gets cured and hilarity ensues.

Elisha illustrates that making something more complex or difficult can be highly successful in engaging the client. Even when the complexities are banal and profane.

Most of what we believe works in business we believe by faith, not evidence. The actual work of business is so complex, with so many variables that most of what we do we simply do because we have blind faith, as Peter Block has observed. It’s one of the reasons why getting business people to behave differently, even when there is strong evidence that doing so is in their best interest, is so difficult. Businessmen and -women work through superstitions, faith, signs and wonders.

Hence your need to create rituals that create and/or enhance the social meaning of the work you do and your expertise.

What do you do to create an atmosphere of expertise? What do you do to create signals of success? Have you created rituals around your prescriptions to enhance their “magic”?

Further Reading

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