Is emotional manipulation a crime?
I had to smile the other day at a news story from Luxembourg. Apparently some cybercriminals who were trying to scam ordinary citizens accidentally tried to scam the police instead.
The best part: the scammers were so inept they let their phone number show up on caller ID.
These particular scammers pretended to be representatives of Microsoft. They first told unsuspecting computer owners they’d been hacked, then offered to undo the damage.
This technique, called phishing, is interesting from a communications perspective. As humans, we have a “radar” that looks for possible signs of untruth. So for phishing to work, the scammer needs to deal with that radar.
Phishing scammers don’t so much fly under the radar as short-circuit it. They start by playing to one of our most powerful emotions: fear. Having plunged us into a state of panic, they then offer to “rescue” us.
When phishing works, it’s because the victim never gets as far as examining the message for things that don’t seem right (ask yourself: when was the last time you got a customer service call from Microsoft?). The victim’s emotional response overwhelms and outmaneuvers their judgment. It’s both more powerful and faster.
Phishing is a crime, and it is emotional manipulation that makes it possible. But is emotional manipulation a crime in itself? It’s tempting to say yes – that it is at least a moral or social crime, whether any actual law is broken or not.
But it’s not as easy as that. Communications of every type have an emotional component, and much of it is frankly manipulative. Advertising and politics are easy examples, but who among us has never chosen our words with the specific intention of playing to someone’s emotions (either to trigger certain ones or avoid triggering others)?
Even texts that seem to be entirely unemotional can be emotionally manipulative. Their very ordinariness can be designed to induce feelings of comfort or complacency.
Scams like phishing work not because they violate the rules of effective communication, but because they follow them. Something fun to think about the next time “Microsoft” rings you up.
Click to see this column in the November 2015 issue of Discover Benelux.
Want to learn how to take drugs in Amsterdam?
It’s a trick question. I’m talking about the boring kind of drug: prescriptions, and about the new drug-instruction icons from the KNMP, the Dutch pharmacists’ association.
According to the KNMP, a quarter of Dutch residents have difficulty reading and understanding the instructions that come with medicines. So the need for better communication is real.
And icons are an obvious candidate. A good icon not only gets the message across quickly, it transcends language and literacy barriers. Good icons are also eye-catching and space-efficient.
But other icons in the set seem less clear. The first one on the bottom is clearly about heartburn, but is that what the drug treats or is it a possible side effect? The still-life of fruits left me buffaloed: suitable for vegetarians? (Wrong: it’s trying to say the drug contains extra vitamins.)
And the last one is just bizarre. At first I thought I was supposed to hold the phone up to a very odd-looking ear.
That didn’t seem right, but looking closer only yielded the conclusion that I should hold the phone up to a snake drinking out of a bowl. If I saw a snake doing that, I’d hold up my phone all right, but only to take a picture. You don’t see that every day.
Eventually, I figured it out. It means “call your pharmacist”. The snake and bowl are a reference to the famous “Bowl of Hygeia” symbol. (And yeah, I had to look that up.)
So should the KNMP have looked for better icon designers? Not really. The designs themselves are excellent. The problem is with the assignment. There are many concepts, even some very simple ones, that no icon can get across. And some of those concepts were in this assignment.
That, more than anything, reveals the secret of using icons successfully. Always use them for things they do well. The rest of the time, resist them like a plague of bowl-sipping snakes.
Click to see this column in the October 2015 issue of Discover Benelux.
The “Netherlands risk man” — laboring under a misapprehension?
Netherlands has always been big on consumer information. So it’s no surprise that the Netherlandish financial regulators are almost alone in Europe for having tried the most innovative approach to investor protection yet.
The traditional approach, as we all know, is to force companies to slather their communications with impenetrable legal prose. The irony is that all this disclosure has the opposite effect. Instead of feeling informed and protected, we merely feel overwhelmed and alienated.
Working on the premise that investment risk was like a burden, the Netherlands regulators created a simple, graphical device that reflects how much risk an investment involves.
When the risk is light, the little man (and it is a man, to be sure) is able to carry it easily. You can almost see him whistling as he totes his easy burden.
When the risk is heavy, it’s a different story. Poor Meneer Risicometer is bent over by all the weight. He doesn’t look very happy. Which is exactly the point.
So the risicometer is an innovative approach that communicates quickly and clearly. The one problem: the analogy of risk to weight is not really accurate. Greater risk, in investing, isn’t just more dead weight. It generally comes with the potential of greater reward. Otherwise, no one would invest in higher-risk investments.
The newer risicometer addresses that. It’s a numerical scale, from 1 to 7, with a notation that ties the level of risk to potential reward.
Is it less graphical? Yes. Does that generally mean we would expect it to be a less effective communication? Yes. Yet overall, it’s much better.
That’s the thing about communications. Like cooking, it’s not how good the recipe looks, it’s how the end result tastes. There are things that are more likely to work, or less likely. But in the end, the only thing that matters is what actually works in the situation at hand.
Ever wondered why communications is so complicated? Now you know.
Click to see this column in the September 2015 issue of Discover Benelux.
Are lawyers terrible writers? Depends on how you measure.
We all know that lawyers write long, convoluted, jargon-packed documents just to confuse the rest of us, right?
Well, not quite. We non-lawyers may find legal documents confusing all right, but that’s generally just an unintended consequence.
For most lawyers, job #1 is protecting the interests of the client. The documents they write are essentially just tools for accomplishing that goal. Whether any non-experts understand the document is not so important.
But what if lawyers did write in plainer language? Would it help their business? Might it even make life easier for them in certain ways?
Tialda Sikkema believes the answer is yes. A faculty member at the Utrecht University of Applied Sciences, she trains budding law students how to design, structure and write legal documents.
Netherlands has long been a leader in plain language, in part because it sees accessibility of the law as a civil right. Thus it is one of the few places where you will find someone like Sikkema: a non-lawyer with the job of helping law students think like lawyers but write like regular humans.
It’s an approach that is both idealistic and practical. While it is hard for anyone who learned traditional legal drafting to re-learn how to draft in plain language, new students can learn Sikkema’s way just as easily as the traditional way.
Two features stand out in Sikkema’s approach. One is that students’ drafts are reviewed in class, meaning that identifying issues and possible solutions becomes a group exercise.The second feature is that the training doesn’t end with feedback. Students polish their drafts until they’re readable. As Sikkema notes, the process of writing always involves rewriting.
And how do her students like the idea of being taught plain language? “That’s hard to say, since we don’t tell them that’s what they learning,” says Sikkema, with a sly smile. “We just present it as good legal drafting practices. But the more time they spend dealing with old-style legalese, the more they come to appreciate the advantages of the new approach.”
Click to see this column in the August 2015 issue of Discover Benelux.
How paying a parking ticket became my all-time best customer experience.
Not long ago, in the tiny French town of Marmoutier, I got a 13 euro parking ticket. There wasn’t even a no-parking sign.
Since it was a rental car, and I don’t live in France, my first thought was to tear up the ticket. But rental car companies can hunt you down for unpaid tickets, and when they do, the cost is far higher. So I decided to pay.
There was just one problem. Marmoutier wanted a check for euro. My checking account is in US dollars. And getting a check in euro would cost more than the amount of the check.
Did I really think this would work? Of course not. If the cash even survived its overseas journey, some chiseling clerk was sure to pocket it on arrival and destroy the evidence. I was confident I’d be hearing from the car rental company about my unpaid ticket.
Confident, but wrong.
About 6 weeks later, a large envelope with French stamps arrived in my mailbox. Inside was an official-looking form documenting payment of the ticket and a thank-you note from the parking commissioner.
But what got my attention was the third document: a letter from the mayor of Marmoutier himself, complete with seal and signature. In the magnificent flowery style of high French officialdom, he praised me for my honesty, perseverance, and virtue. He fervently hoped I might visit his town again. He practically made me feel as if I’d be greeted by a brass band.
So why do I count this my all-time best customer experience? Because it so far exceeded my expectations.
We usually think of negative expectations as bad, but when you’re communicating, they can be a huge opportunity. My advice? Always take advantage of that opportunity, especially because low expectations are so easy to exceed.
I also have this advice: never park in the town square in Marmoutier.
Click to see this column in the July 2015 issue of Discover Benelux.