At first glance, little appears to differentiate Berkshire Hathaway annual stockholders reports from other major corporations’. (Except perhaps the results – a $1000 investment in Berkshire stock in 1965 is worth around $200,000 today).
A closer look reveals something almost hidden in plain sight in the letter to the stockholders, trading commentary, and other financial information. Even in years in which Berkshire has been more successful than imaginable, often the first few pages of Warren Buffet’s Chairman’s report will draw the shareholders’ attention to a snag, strain or shortcoming that has occurred that past year.
In a reputation-obsessed world, too often we present only positive attributes and strengths while sweeping flops and failures under the rug. Mr. Buffet, instead, draws attention to a downside early in his address. Does he have it wrong?
Hardly! Persuasion scientists know that the impact of a communicator’s message can be increased by first presenting a small drawback or weakness in their case. Surprisingly, this sequence produces a higher level of trust. The error here is not Mr. Buffet’s, who recognizes the advantages to be had by admitting weaknesses upfront. Instead it is the rest of us who are making the error, by too often not recognizing how powerful this approach can be in determining the way people think about us.
Of course it would be simplistic to suggest that the early admission of a weakness will, by itself, be enough to change the way people think of you. People also need to be assured that you have the necessary expertise and experience in order to fully open themselves up to you. After all, a trustworthy idiot is still an idiot! This, of course, can present problems. You want people to see you as a credible and knowledgeable individual, yet recounting a list of your accomplishments, successes and triumphs, however impressive, will likely do little to endear you to others. But it turns out that arranging for someone else to do it can be a remarkably efficient strategy.
Take, for example, a set of studies led by Stanford University’s Jeffrey Pfeffer, who found that arranging for an intermediary to toot your horn can be pretty effective. In one of Pfeffer’s studies, participants were asked to play the role of a book publisher dealing with an experienced and successful author. Half of these “publishers” read excerpts from a book negotiation touting the author’s accomplishments spoken by an agent. Whereas the other “publishers” read identical comments made by the author himself. The results were clear. The “publishers” rated the author more favorably on nearly every dimension—especially likeability—when the author’s agent sang his praises compared to author himself. What’s especially remarkable is that the “publishers”, were well aware that book agents have a strong financial interest in the authors’ success and therefore should be biased, yet they hardly take this potential bias into account.
So, arranging for someone else to introduce your background, experience, and expertise, rather than doing so yourself, can change the way people think of you. It can also serve to make potentially big differences to your commercial success too. In one study conducted with realtors, we measured the impact of a receptionist presenting a colleague’s credentials and expertise before putting through a call from a prospective customer. For example, customers calling because they were interested in selling a property were honestly told, “I’m going to put you through to Peter. He is our head of sales and has 20 years of experience selling properties in this area.” The impact of this third-party expert introduction was both immediate and impressive. As a result, we measured a 19.6 percent rise in the number of face-to-face appointments arranged. Additionally, there was almost a16 percent rise in the number of callers who contracted with this real estate company.
Embracing minor mistakes initially, and arranging for your expertise and experiences to be introduced by others can both significantly alter the way people think about you…for the better. This is something small with a big ROI.
1. What expertise do you have that someone else could communicate before you interact with others?
2. Who would be communicating your “positive attributes” instead of you?
3. What are some ways to get positive information out about you without you having to be that messenger?