Recently, I read an interesting critique of Influence by Cialdini... by Xan. Some background: Cialdini rails against laughter tracks (the canned laugher in the background of sitcoms) for manipulating us by telling the audience what is supposed to be funny. From that perspective, we are being manipulated, but Xan offers an interesting counterpoint.
Isn't it a good thing if people find a show funnier? The entire point of a show is to entertain us. If we enjoy it more with canned laughter, what's wrong with that?
And besides, there's a symmetry here. A sitcom with laugh track is funnier, a sitcom without one is less funny. Which one is "correct"? Neither --- they are just different. The former is more like being in a theater with a bunch of other people, the latter is more like being at home alone. Yes, you truly are at home alone, but the whole point of television is to simulate events that aren't actually happening in your home. It's all just pixels and machine-made sound waves.
Social laughter, even simulated, increases our enjoyment because we are social animals. And that's nothing to scoff at.
Throughout the post, I find it interesting how Xan walks the line between manipulation and entertainment.
In somewhat related news, Jeff Ely recently wrote a post on how to organize a talk. Starting with the premise that you cannot hope to have your audience's full attention. He argues that an effective talk is one that gives your audience a sign to coordinate when they should be paying attention.
Now you probably won’t be bringing that sign with you. But you can achieve the same effect by using the way that you stand, the way that you talk, and the style of your slides. When you are saying something important you speak slowly and loudly and you walk up and down the room and make eye contact and your slides have just one or two things on them so that they are easy to read and process.
You are telling them with your demeanor that now is the time to listen. Later, when you are saying something less important you lower your voice, go faster, stand still and read off your busy slides. You are doing these things to tell your audience that now is the time to think, talk or doodle and rest up for the next important moment.
Taking a cue from Xan's post, perhaps seminar speakers could do one better by adding the seminar equivalent of a laughter track (friends in the audience who ask scintillating questions throughout the talk).
Ely's post deals with the intensive margin: Given a fixed amount of audience attention, how do I make the most of it? Effective speakers should also pay attention to the extensive margin: how do I engage my audience to increase how much attention is paid to my talk? Effectively wielding social cues and signs can improve a talk along both margins. From the perspective of an audience member, this is rational. If the speaker begins a talk by grabbing my attention with something important to say, I tend to reward the speaker with greater than average attention throughout the rest of the talk.