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Laughing gurus

Amended 29 April 2006 - The use of humour is one key to the success of management gurus. Researchers Dr Tim Clark and Dr David Greatbatch, authors of Management Speak: Why We Listen to What Management Gurus Tell Us, analysed the techniques used by world-famous gurus such as Tom Peters, Rosabeth Moss Kanter and Gary Hamel. They found that successful gurus employ skilful communication techniques, especially humour, to promote their sometimes uncomfortable messages. Filling a lecture theatre or conference venue with laughter avoids alienating their audiences and brings people 'on-side.'

"Examining live and video recorded performances of leading international gurus enabled us to analyse the presentational techniques they use to disseminate their ideas during live presentations," said Dr Greatbatch.

Gurus are faced with the problem of advocating unorthodox organizational practices - which their audiences are probably not using - and disparaging the practices they are using. This is a delicate task with an inherent risk of alienating their audience members. So how do they do it?

Dr Clark argues: "These gurus remain highly regarded on the world speaking stage and we wanted to discover their grammar of persuasion - in other words the communication techniques which underpin their frequently charismatic and persuasive public speaking performances."

The study shows that gurus avoid offence by evoking laughter and telling stories. "Basically, whenever the guru says anything potentially uncomfortable to audiences of managers they use humour and wrap it up as a joke," said Dr Greatbatch. The researchers found that gurus used a number of specific techniques to 'invite' laughter. "Collective audience laughter is not simply a spontaneous reaction to humour or jokes," argued David Greatbatch. "Rather the gurus invite laughter by indicating when it is appropriate for the audience members to do so."

Gurus used verbal and non-verbal actions to invite laughter, including:

  • laughing themselves
  • using exaggerated, ironic or comedic gestures
  • showing their teeth in a 'laughing' smile

Having achieved laughter from the audience, the gurus played on this bonding to encourage the audience to feel part of an 'in group' sharing a common viewpoint with the gurus. The audience then began to turn against the management practice(s) being criticised by the guru.

Story telling seemed to be particularly important in the two processes of evoking laughter and deflecting criticism. The researchers found that more than two-thirds of audience laughter studied occurred within the context of stories. Stories make the gurus' messages more entertaining and memorable and also reinforce the authority of the gurus' knowledge. So their stories make constant references to famous and respected managers and organizations, personally known to the gurus. Audience research confirms that those speakers who use funny stories to develop their arguments are those who are most remembered.

"Our research clearly shows that gurus deploy humour at those points in their presentation where they face possible dissent," asserts Dr Greatbatch. "Because they package their ideas in a non-offensive way, the world's leading gurus are never booed from the stage and typically generate very positive audience reaction and a high feel-good factor. Anyone can learn the techniques which they use and public speakers ranging from politicians to trainers could benefit from having a greater range of presentation techniques to deploy when necessary."

David Greatbatch and Timothy Clark have written an account of their research in Management Speak: Why We Listen to What Management Gurus Tell Us, published by Routledge.


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