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The Secret to Great Communication: Be Like Aristotle

As a best-selling author, Harvard instructor, keynote speaker and brand adviser, Carmine Gallo has spent his career focused on communication skills. He believes the ancient art of persuasion has been lost in the modern business world, and he wants to help workers bring it back. His latest book is titled Five Stars: The Communication Secrets to Get From Good to Great.

He visited the Knowledge@Wharton radio show on SiriusXM to explain why he doesn’t consider good communication a soft skill.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: Why has the importance of good communication skills come into such sharp focus in the last few years?

Carmine Gallo: Great persuaders are irresistible throughout all of history. But at no time in our historical record have interpersonal communication skills been as important as they are today, which is somewhat counterintuitive. That’s what caught my interest, and that’s why I wrote the book. Because today, anyone, anywhere in the world who is better at expressing their ideas can see a sudden massive increase in wealth that is unprecedented in human history.

In the agrarian age, a farmer who plowed the field a little better than their neighbor cannot acquire significantly more wealth. In the industrial age, a factory worker who assembled widgets faster than the person next to them would not acquire significantly more wealth. But the historians, economists, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists I talked to for the book all profess the same theme: In this age of artificial intelligence, globalization, automation — the one skill that can separate you not only from the technology that we create but from your peers is mastering the ancient art of persuasion. Combining words and ideas to ignite people’s imagination.

“At no time in our historical record have interpersonal communication skills been as important as they are today.”

Knowledge@Wharton: So many of us communicate now through text or email instead of a phone call or a letter. Have we lost the ability to persuade through communication because of our reliance on technology?

Gallo: The tools we use to communicate to one another have changed. Let’s also include the digital presentation tools we use, like PowerPoint. We’re not drawing pictures on cave walls as we did thousands of years ago. But what’s fascinating, and the competitive advantage that I talk about, is the ancient brain, the primitive brain, has not changed. The way we like to communicate, the way we process information through the vehicle of story, through emotions, through empathy — those things have not changed since the beginning of time. That’s why I call “mastering the ancient art of persuasion” a competitive skill. It is an ancient art; we just need to bring it back into the business fold.

Knowledge@Wharton: How much do you think companies are aware of this and factor it into the hiring process?

Gallo: Much more than you think. Again, this is something that prompted this book. I don’t just write these books out of nowhere. I feel what’s going on. I talk to executives, talk to CEOs. What’s happening out there in the industry? For example, SAP, a giant business software company that’s global, just hired a relatively new marketing manager in the last year, but her title is chief storyteller. Storytelling goes back 2,000 years ago to Aristotle. This is not new. But what they’re finding is that they cannot compete by giving you engineering terms and talking to you about business software that is so complex that it’s hard for the average person to understand. They use the vehicle of story, of narrative to better sell those products.

I also found this at Google. I interviewed Avinash Kaushik, one of the top executives at Google who’s also the leading web analytics expert in the world. He said, “Carmine, we can have all the data in the world. We can have better data than anyone else. But if we cannot communicate that data to a customer and show them how it applies to their world and makes their business better, then we have failed. Then all that data doesn’t matter to our company.”

That’s why he and others within Google are transforming their entire culture into being better storytellers, better communicators, more persuasive and packaging information in a way that is clear and understandable and memorable. But when you look at how they’re doing it, they’re not using new skills. They’re using skills that were handed down to us thousands of years ago.

Knowledge@Wharton: In the book, you talk about Virgin CEO Richard Branson’s love of storytelling. He thinks it’s a key component in business.

Gallo: He said that storytelling can be used to drive change. But then he said, “I do not believe you could be a great leader today without being a good storyteller.” How does Richard Branson and his team use storytelling? The same way we did thousands of years ago. He gathers his team around a fire pit at his home on Necker Island. He said, “The best ideas for our company have come around a campfire.”

“You cannot persuade another person to change their mind without pathos, which is emotion.”

That was a critical conversation for me because that’s when I realized we haven’t changed that much. The human brain has not changed. The more you understand how the brain processes information and how your listener wants to receive that information, that’s where I believe there’s that competitive advantage to stand out.

Knowledge@Wharton: But what about people who say they just want to get to the point and get the facts?

Gallo: This is why I focus very much on Aristotle’s three-part formula for persuasion. Aristotle gave us the formula that all persuaders use, from the Founding Fathers to today’s great business leaders to Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. If you look at great speeches or presentations, all fall under a three-part formula.

In order for me to persuade you to change your mind, I need to do three things. I need to have ethos, which is credibility and character. I need to have what Aristotle called Logos, which is a logical structure to my argument. In business, that means the data or the evidence to back up your argument. But the key is that you cannot persuade another person to change their mind without pathos, which is emotion. Everything about human nature — from the stock market to where we invest to how we vote — is based on our emotional narratives that we tell each other as groups and within individuals.

You still need the other two parts. I can’t just appeal to you on emotion. That might work for a limited amount of time, but I’m not going to sell you a multimillion-dollar project if I don’t have a logical evidence to back my results, and if I don’t have some credibility for who I am. So, it’s a three-part formula that has been handed down for generations. We’re just losing sight of it because we want to get across our bullet points, our facts, our information in our pie charts without understanding that people are moved by emotion.

I’ve written several books on communication skills. But a few books ago, I interviewed a molecular biologist named John Medina at the University of Washington. He opened my eyes. He said, “The brain does not pay attention to boring things.” That is why people like TED talks because they have visual presentation. It’s not all text and bullet points. In fact, bullet points are not allowed on a TED stage. They are based in narrative and story and compelling visuals. That takes some creativity. It’s easy to open a PowerPoint slide and just fill out bullet points and text. What we’re talking about is ancient. It’s part of our DNA. It’s what we do naturally. But it does take some creativity.

Knowledge@Wharton: How is the need for better communication skills affecting companies?

Gallo: I call it a communication skills gap. One of the many surveys that I cite is one taken by LinkedIn of recruiters and hiring managers from around the world. Ninety-four percent said that a person with good experience but exceptional communications skills is more likely to be elevated to a position of leadership than someone with better experience but weaker verbal skills.

There is also very real evidence of people, whether they’re millennials or mid-level career professionals or leaders, who not only have been elevated above their peers, but they’re promoted more often. They rise higher in the ranks much more quickly. They’re more successful at selling products, marketing and engaging teams. The difference almost always comes down to the fact that they are better leaders. But what does that mean? They are more persuasive. They’re better communicators. They can connect with people on a much deeper, powerful level.

Knowledge@Wharton: You talked with Navy SEALs, and that’s a very different type of leadership. How do practicing good communication skills have a role in what they do?

“Entrepreneurs and business leaders need to be able to excite people about a vision and bring people into that journey.”

Gallo: The Navy SEALs are interesting because they value leaders and they create leaders who can clearly and concisely communicate the vision behind a strategic mission or an initiative. Some people are just PowerPoint rangers. They give you these 100-slide PowerPoints and everything is very confusing and convoluted, much like what we do in business today. Yet the leaders who are valued, who stand out and who are trained are those who must communicate their vision visually, so they use presentations in a much more visual medium. They have to be very clear, so everybody understands the mission immediately, and they have to do it in a concise fashion. It’s an actual training within the Navy SEAL culture.

It’s not enough just to be able to pass Hell Week. It’s not enough just to pass the physical requirements. You have to be a good communicator leader in order to get the most out of your teams. I have found that not only within the Navy SEALs but also within Special Forces and several other branches of the military. I’ve found it with NASA astronauts. You cannot become an astronaut today just by passing the physicals or just by having a Ph.D. or being a test pilot. Those are the credentials. That’s the ethos we talked about. But if you cannot communicate and collaborate across cultures and across teams on a space station where you’re stationed for one year with a small group of people, they’re still not going to hire you. Those 12 people who are hired out of 18,000 applications are typically good communicators.

Knowledge@Wharton: Getting back to the business side, sometimes we forget how critical communication is to the product or service being offered.

Gallo: That’s why we talk about this idea that it’s the great persuaders who stand out. I have interviewed billionaire venture capitalists behind Google, Airbnb, Uber, PayPal. One person in particular said, “The great persuaders have an unfair competitive advantage.” When you pitch an idea, it’s still an idea, so 90% of what we’re communicating is an expectation of what we hope to achieve. We have to bring you into our vision. Today more than ever, entrepreneurs and business leaders need to be able to excite people about a vision and bring people into that journey. That’s a skill that sets people apart.

I was talking to Geoff Ralston, who is one of the partners of a seed accelerator called Y Combinator in Silicon Valley, and he corrected me. He corrected me, the communication guy. I said, “Geoff, I know we’re talking about a soft skill here.” And he stopped me and said, “What are you talking about?” I said, “Well, public speaking, communication — we call them soft skills.” He said, “You might consider it a soft skill. I consider it fundamental.” He was serious. That’s why I say that at no time in history has interpersonal communication been as important. Let’s get away from calling it a soft skill. The art of persuasion, combining words and ideas to move people to action, is not a soft skill in today’s global environment. It’s fundamental to your success.

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