Improving the Optics

Leadership Communication, PCM
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In 2010 Ben Zimmer published an article in the New York Times called “Optics”, where he described the phenomenon where politicians fret about the public perception of a decision more than the substance of the decision itself. Of course, elected officials have worried about outward appearances since time immemorial, but optics puts a new spin on things, giving a scientific-sounding gloss to P.R. and image-making.

I watch a lot of cable news. I admit, I’m a glutton for punishment. Watching the anchors, the interviews, and the spin factory is a study in personality and drama. It’s also a study in Optics – perception management.

Long before Ben Zimmer and the New York Times, a psychiatrist named Taibi Kahler was researching how human personality influences how we perceive the world around us and filter our experiences. Kahler discovered six distinct perceptual filters that color our optics. He associated these filters with a “currency” of communication – the legal tender that influences how people conduct transactions and influence each other. It’s how they listen and engage with, or tune out and turn against, the message and the messenger. Which currency is your strongest optical lens?


If it’s logical, I’m in. I listen to facts and I’ll fact-check everything. I will listen to you if you can back it up with data. I’ll tune you out if you aren’t rational. It’s not called flip-flopping, it’s called “adjusting based on the information.”


If it connects with my beliefs, I’m in. You had me at “loyalty and patriotism.” If it seems inconsistent, willy nilly, or devoid of strong convictions, I’m out. You lost me at “I changed my mind because of new information.”


If what your saying resonates with my sense of community, family, and care for others, I’ll listen. If you don’t seem to care about the people-impact, I assume you are mean and uncaring. I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.


If it’s clever, funny or grabs my attention, I’m in. If it’s bland or infected with research and moral mumbo-jumbo, I’m outa here. Bright shiny objects, here I come!


Show me you can be reflective and open-minded and I’ll consider your perspective. If you push me to accept simplified black and white interpretations, I’ll check out because it shows me you don’t have the imagination to solve the big, messy problems.


Wow me. Sell me. But don’t manipulate me. If you show me a way to be part of something amazing, I’ll be your agent! If you try to corner me, play me, or take advantage of my insecurities, I’ll be your worst enemy. I might even call Omorosa.

Optics matter more than reality. Often it’s not what you say, but how you say it that makes all the difference. Who are you talking to, and how are they experiencing your message? We have data on what percentage of the population uses each perceptual filter. Happy to share; just give us a call.

Join a Next Element PCM seminar to learn how to recognize you own optical illusions and improve your vision for what’s going on around you. Learn how the strategies used by a past president, a top military general, a Pixar Studios movie director, and a NASA chief psychiatrist can transform how you communicate.

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