We are all spin doctors now
I wonder what your first thought was when you opened this email and realized it was offering something for free. Chances are it was some version of ‘what’s he after?’ I’m the cyberspace equivalent of the cold caller who rings you just as you’re sitting down to eat, saying “Is that the homeowner? I’m not trying to sell you anything...” I’m the letter promising a free holiday, which you will only receive after you spend a day at a gloomy motel, letting me grind you down till you agree to a 30th share in a timeshare in Bratislava. Is it any wonder we all twitch when the phone rings, the daily post thuds onto the mat, or the PC announces a new email with a gentle ‘ding’ (or for Apple users, the sound of a Tibetan monk going “Aummmm…”)? Cold callers like me clearly can’t be trusted. But who can?
When Sir Robert Armstrong used the notorious phrase ‘economical with the truth’ in the Spycatcher trial, spin doctoring (or what the Americans engagingly call ‘Candor flexibility’) came out of the closet. We are becoming accustomed to the idea that nothing is what it seems to be. Many of us are now bilingual, switching between English and Spinnish with ease. A lifetime spent holding on the phone, for example, has taught us that “Your call is important to us” really means “We can’t be bothered to employ enough call centre staff to deal with all the complaints caused by the appalling way we treat customers”; and that “Why not try our online booking service?” means “We’re planning to cut costs by sacking our telephone booking staff”.
As a result, we’ve become obsessed with the idea that no one is telling us The Truth. But pause a moment: is that really what you want? Politicians know very well that when the public asks for the truth it is like asking: ‘Does this outfit make me look fat?’ It's no accident that the word ‘truth’ is so often preceded by words like ‘painful’, ‘hard’ and ‘raw’. Many of us choose to spin the truth rather than tell it like it is, not because we are inherently dishonest, but because we fear the consequences of truth-telling.
This is why organizations that choose Honesty as one of their Core Values run into trouble very quickly; usually it all comes crashing around their ears the first time a client asks how much profit margin they’re making. Just think what would happen if consultants like me started being open and honest:
Client: “Phil, we were interested in the part of your proposal which dealt with synergizing our core competencies into an integrated, matrix-driven global performance management process to enhance shareholder value”
Me: “That’s a shame, because I haven’t got a clue what it means; I just put it in to impress you. But I’m keen to partner you on this project, because I've got no work next month and I need to put a deposit on a holiday. And by the way, how long's this meeting going to last? I want to get home in time for The Simpsons”
Surely this quest for truth is all a bit of a red herring. What the evolutionary supremacy of ‘spin’ really teaches us is that each of us can create the truth we want, which is actually a tremendously empowering thought. In other words, spin doesn’t have to be bad. This is not rocket science: if you’ve ever worn a smart suit to a job interview you are already a spin doctor. Our own needs and interests mean nothing if we can’t present them in a format that appeals to those whom we wish to influence. The consultant who talks gibberish to a potential client is most likely doing so because it is what the client expects to hear: to talk in plain English would be the equivalent of turning up in pyjamas. It’s a credibility thing.
All of which is quite different from a recorded voice on the phone telling me how important my call is. In that case it is the needs of the company I’m calling that are being met, at the expense of my own. If at a meeting I choose to present myself in a way which will allow me to build rapport with the person across the desk, with the ultimate aim of meeting both our needs, how might this be classified? Is it honest? Technically, maybe not. Is it authentic? That’s a better question. If you’re ever considering being economical with the truth, why not ask yourself: “If the other person found out, what would be the long-term effect on our relationship?”
So, let’s not get too hung up on searching for the ultimate truth - let’s worry instead about getting messages across in a way that builds relationships. And the next time a consultant offers to synergise you, get your chequebook out and agree enthusiastically – on condition you can go back to their place to watch The Simpsons.
Copyright (c) Phil Lowe, 2003. All rights reserved.