Why Risky Conference Speakers Can Lead To Failed Learning


What do well-informed town halls and WWE’s “Friday Night SmackDown” have in common?

A lot more than you would think.

In 2009, both Friday Night SmackDown and healthcare town halls were sold out. Both witnessed a staged, well-rehearsed, public feud that was more about sensationalism than fact.

During those healthcare town halls, two opposing sides gathered to share their views. One side clearly had low trust in public, political officials. Their emotions were high as evidenced by some people carrying loaded weapons and waving emotionally-charged signs.

Trying to have a public dialogue about healthcare was almost nonexistent. One side felt polarized. Due to their low trust and high emotions, they had difficulty participating in adult dialogue. Regardless of the facts, their brains defaulted to fight or flight which resulted in an emotional hijack. They physically and biologically could not participate logically because their perception was reality.

The brain is odd like that…we can’t make sense when our amygdala ambushes logical thought. Our brain’s default system is to protect us from harm and if we feel threatened, discounted or embarrassed, emotions take control.

Some would say those with low trust and high concerns just needed to get their emotions in check. Actually, from a biological process that’s more difficult than it sounds. Here’s why.

Communication And Adult Dialogue

Dr.  Vincent Covello, founder and Director of the Center for Risk Communication and former Columbia University Professor, has researched and studied risk communication. His research shows that when an individual’s trust is low and emotions are high, they cannot participate in a logical and rational conversation. Nor can they learn or listen objectively.

The goal of risk communication is to produce an informed audience that is involved, interested, reasonable, thoughtful and solution-oriented. They are able to have two-way dialogue based on trust and open exchange.

However, when audience members have low trust in the presenters and very high concerns, communication comes to a stalemate.

Three Rules of Risky Communication

According to Covello, there are three key risk communication messages all presenters need to consider.

When trust is low and emotions are high:

1. Perception = Reality (P=R)

Information that is perceived as real will result in real consequences, regardless of the facts. Perceptions form quickly. Beliefs form more slowly.

Effective communication can only occur if the speakers have knowledge and understanding of the stakeholder’s perceptions. Once they have knowledge and understanding of the perceptions, then they must illustrate trust and credibility measures.

2. Goal = Trust + Credibility (G=T+C)

Speakers will not be heard by stakeholders unless those stakeholders trust them and perceive them as credible. Trust and credibility is often initially assessed in as little as thirty seconds by the receiver. In the cases of a well-known speaker like politicians and government officials, if the receiver has pre-conceived negative perceptions about those speakers, trust and credibility is lost. Communication comes to a halt. Learning does not and cannot occur.

According to Covello, once credibility is lost, the most that can be regained is 80 percent. Trust impacts the perception 2,000 times more than credibility.

Establishing trust and credibility only occurs from a long term process.

3. Communication = Skill (C=S)

Effective communication is a skill. Knowledge of risk communication, training, preparation and practice are the key to communicating well.

Increasing Trust And Credibility

In order for an audience to have honest dialogue and become an informed audience, they must be able to trust the speakers. For a speaker to increase trust and credibility, they must demonstrate four factors.

  1. Caring and Empathy – 50% of the receivers’ emphasis is placed on whether the speaker cares for and has empathy for them
  2. Competence and expertise – 15%-20%
  3. Honesty and openness – 15-20%
  4. Dedication and commitment – 15%-20%

As previously stated, these four factors are assessed in the first 30 seconds with the speaker. In the case of well-known political or government speakers, they are assessed before the presentation ever starts.

ASAE’s 2012 OGS Speakers Case Study In Low Trust And High Emotions

Recently, ASAE announced that their 2012 Annual Meeting opening general session speakers are Democratic strategist James Carville and Republican strategist Karl Rove. ASAE’s goal is education about the political process and advocacy.

Immediately upon hearing the announcement, some reacted with emotion. Some are thrilled by the choice of these speakers. Some are frustrated and disheartened.

The decision to use these two speakers is an interesting case study in how some audience members respond with low trust and high emotions. Clearly neither Carville nor Rove are known for demonstrating care and empathy for their listeners. And to increase the audience’s trust, they have to do that. According to Covello’s research, their competence and expertise is negated by their lack of care and empathy. Some people don’t and won’t ever trust them. Without that trust, they can’t be heard.

ASAE’s goal in securing these two speakers is education. According to scientific research, the goal will never occur for some attendees because their trust is low and their concerns are high. Yet, ASAE continues to move forward claiming it’s in the best interest of the majority of their members. That very decision automatically discounts those that feel polarized by the choice of speakers.

Should ASAE do anything, if at all, to acknowledge and increase trust in those members that feel polarized? What would you do in this situation if you were the conference organizers? How does Covello’s research impact your speaker selection in the future?

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  1. […] ASAE’s goal to educate is admirable, the goal will not be achieved for all because it is a low trust, high emotion […]

  2. […] one more day goes by I’d like to point out that Jeff Hurt has done a great job of being mature and scientific with his analysis of the situation and how conflict reduces our ability to learn […]

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