Thursday, May 03, 2007

Describe, Don't Evaluate

“Superlatives belong to the marketplace,” says David Ogilvy, founder of the Ogilvy and Mather advertising agency, not in “serious advertisement; they lead readers to discount the realism of every claim.” The same could be said about praise given to others: superlatives should come from the recipient of the compliment.

What Ogilvy means is that describing what a product can do for the customer, that is, explaining its benefits, is the essential requirement of good advertising copy. Hyping a product with evaluative “s-t” words—best, greatest, most wonderful thing since sliced bread—is seller’s puff and is devoid of the information prospects need to help them make a purchase decision. (Puffery is extravagant praise, a combination of exaggeration and evaluation.) If a “we” is included in the copy—we are the best, most wonderful, etc.—the advertising is called “brag and boast.” Evaluation, preferably of the positive superlative type, should come from the customer after product use.

This principle—describe, don’t evaluate—has broad application and includes relationships not just of sellers to customers, but also of parents to children, teachers to students, and employers to employees, among others. The principle is recommended as a replacement for negative criticism: “The milk spilled!” (describe) as opposed to “I don’t believe you did it again! How could you!” (evaluate). Name-calling, sarcasm, threats, berating, and the like, undercut self-esteem and cause defensiveness by attacking the other person’s character or personality.

Factually describing the incident helps the other person (child or student or employee) avoid drawing negative conclusions about him- or herself. The recipient of the criticism is then allowed to regroup and correct the situation. “Constructive criticism,” child psychologist Haim Ginott in Between Parent and Child says, “confines itself to pointing out what has to be done, entirely omitting negative remarks about the personality of the child” (or, by extension, student or employee).

Ginott goes on to apply this principle to the extravagant praise that is often heaped on children, such as the ubiquitous “Good job” or “We’re so proud of you.” Says Ginott, “Direct praise of personality, like direct sunlight, is uncomfortable and blinding. It is embarrassing for a person to be told that he is wonderful, angelic, generous, and humble. He feels called upon to deny at least part of the praise. . . . [and he] may have some second thoughts about those who have praised him: ‘If they find me so great, they cannot be so smart.’”

The same applies to the puffery heaped on students and employees. The Wall Street Journal* said as much recently when it chronicled the current praise-inflated culture of schools and employers. One such employer, said the article, dishes out praise every twenty seconds. Concerning the praise mania, the article quotes education critic John Holt**, who asks, “Is not most praise of children a kind of self-praise?” Certainly the schools that issue bumper stickers saying “My child is an honor student at XYZ school” are bragging and boasting about themselves.

So what is the proper way to express compliments to another person? For Ginott the principle remains: describe effort, accomplishment, or effect on you; let the other person draw the evaluative conclusion. “Thank you for washing the car, it looks new again.” is one of Ginott’s examples of what he calls helpful praise; “I did a good job; my work is appreciated” is the child’s possible conclusion. “You’re an angel,” says Ginott, is not helpful. Note that it is the child who concludes “good job,” not the adult who says it.

The phrase “effect on you” must be qualified and used carefully. “We’re so proud of you,” for example, can be an appropriate emotional response to a child’s accomplishments, but it often is heard as an evaluation, meaning “You are worthy of us.” To a child this is worse than direct sunlight, because the implication is that sometimes the child is not worthy. Properly described accomplishments should produce pride in the recipient.

“Thank you” is an appropriate expression of effect, when used in moderation. Some companies in today’s age of excess apparently overdose on thank you notes, according to the Wall Street Journal article mentioned above. Unfortunately, the WSJ confusingly lumped accolades and thank yous together. The bitter irony of the praise culture is that strokes are supposed to promote self-esteem, but disbelief and the perception of being manipulated, as well as a defensive need for more praise, are often the result.

Now the praise culture of superlatives poured on a product is not quite the same as extravagant praise gushed on a person, but those “s-t” words have the same effect on the prospect, as does praise on a child, student, or employee. Superlatives produce a big “why?” in the mind of the prospect. “Why do you say that? Why should I believe you? The sunlight is so blinding,” to use Ginott’s analogy, “that I can’t see the product or its features in order properly to evaluate it.”

Just as prospects need the space to pronounce for themselves that a product is “the best, greatest, most wonderful thing since sliced bread,” children, students, and employees must be given the freedom to judge themselves as someone who is doing good work and as someone who is good.

*Jeffrey Zaslow, "The Most Praised Generation Goes to Work" (p. W1) and "The Art of Constructive Compliments" (p. W7), April 20, 2007, eastern edition.

**John Holt is author of many books, including How Children Learn, How Children Fail, and The Underachieving School. The WSJ article did not provide the source of Holt’s quote.