No sincere speaker is safe
in the art of expressing sincerity. The liar can come through as speaking the truth, and the sincere speaker who delivers a bad performance can lose credibility. It is not that easy to be considered sincere in the eyes of the beholder, but it is one of those ”obvious” truths we may take for granted if we have a sincere message, however it could be just a false scam idea in our human mind. A previous study long time ago told us to be aware but we still listen to the ”obvious” truths.
You may wonder why on earth someone would explain the truth in another way than you would. We all experience the world through the optics of our own experiences and lives. The truth will always be presented in various ways. Some facts however can be traced back as facts, such as a flight ticket on a certain date, a car you rented etc. Some of those facts can be blended in a certain way so that focus is changed in favour of the speaker. It’s called storytelling. Now it is expected that a leader of influence is able to support his own case in favour of his company, himself, or his country. I will not discuss objective ethic values of his actions here, but why on earth would an influential person lie about facts?
People gratify a false opinion
We’re a nation built on trust in my homecountry Denmark. Fake news irritates us a lot, whether they stem from the left or right winged people messing up with the truth. We like systems, but we expect them to deliver what they promise, a tax system pretending to work and then failing has made the government skip the whole organisation and starting from scratch – to rebuild credibility.
But if we dig under the surface of a truth, and ask why people believe in fake news, in the moment, a previous experimental study more than sixty years ago already indicated that people actually do gratify a false opinion as much as a true one, as long as it sounds credible. However if the truth comes from a source with low credibility – as reflected in the attitude of the audience – it may not affect their opinion – as long as the source lying is of a higher credibility in the eyes of the beholder, such as a president speaking to his fan voters.
What makes a person credible
The experiment presented two-minute speeches to the audience, so naturally longer speeches could have another effect. But in today´s lives where short messages on facebook, tv and debates occupy our time, it does make sense to watch out. The experimental study took place in the fifties and found that it is not the truth of a sentence that makes a person look credible. It is the belief that he is speaking the truth according to the opinion of the audience – this is what makes him credible or not credible at first. So literally this means that if a candidate tells a lie, but the audience believes this lie, he is just as sincere a candidate as a candidate that you know speaks the truth.
Credibility – a subject to change
However it is worth noting that the credibility of a source is changing during one single communicative act. Aristotle, 2400 years ago, called this the established ethos – the credibility an audience attributes him. According to rhetoric expert James McCroskey (1997) this ethos – the credibility – is undergoing a dynamic change several times through a communicative act in three cycling steps, the initial (e.g. our attitude of the speaker), the derived (what we perceive in the situation hearing the speaker) and the terminal ethos (adjusting attitudes to the new reality – after hearing the speaker) which will just be noted here as regards to the fact that
“Like other attitudes, ethos is subject to change as a result of experiences the receiver has with the source. It will often change markedly in the course of a single communicative act”, says James McCroskey.
(NIXON – WHITTIER MUSEUM)
One must almost always consider the terminal ethos before one starts his act. Where do you want this situation to go? When Nixon held a press conference calling the press the lowest kind of humans, with few proofs, people considered him a weak loser, and he was remembered indeed when the press later wrote about Watergate. So even though lying can work for a certain moment towards fans, followers and newcomers, the long term effect can turn out very bad, but not always.
“Apparent” sincerity makes a difference
James McCroskey remarks that people have a tendency to believe the obvious, e.g. that a sincere source should be more credible than an insincere one. This, according to McCroskey, is “another of those “obvious” results we come to expect”. Research reported by Hildreth suggested, in 1953, however, that sincerity does not make a difference but appararent sincerity does.”
Hildred found that people in his study couldn´t distinguish between sincere and insincere sources, but those people perceived as sincere received significantly higher ratings for effectiveness than those perceived as insincere.
Hildreth’s study makes it difficult to generalize from his findings to other communication events, but his results are quite easily explained according to McCroskey.
“We all know that actors can portray characters quite unlike themselves and yet be very convincing,“ says McCroskey, noting that naturally it is easier to appear sincere if one is sincere. But even the most sincere source must take care that a message and the presentation of the message also make her or him appear sincere.
”You can play the game, you can act out the part, but you know it wasn´t written for you”, sings James Taylor in his song ”Shower the People”.
Any coach know the subjectivity of the human mind, and this may be why they want their clients to write their own new true story version, changing the client’s part to become a succesful one. Truth is a subjective criterion in the coaching field, and maybe as well in the case of winning the political game. After all dreams do come true.
R.A. Hildreth, ”An Experimental Study of Audiences’ Ability to Distinguish between sincere and Insincere Speeches,” Phd diss., University of Southern California, 1953.
James McCroskey in “An Introduction to Rhetorical Communication”, 7th ed. 1997. Allyn and Bacon.