Book review: The Language of Trust

The Language of Trust: Selling Ideas in a World of Skeptics

By Michael Maslansky with Scott West, Gary DeMoss and David Saylor

Prentice Hall Press


It’s not what you say. It’s what we hear.

And a lot us aren’t buying what you’re saying and selling.

Not only aren’t we buying it. We don’t believe you. Or trust you.

You give us facts. We say you’re giving us half-truths and telling only one side of the story.

You cite experts. We ask about their qualifications and find our own talking heads who think like us and repudiate you.  

You give us statistics to prove your point. We find stats that disprove your point.

The reality is that your worldview – your truth — isn’t our truth. And as employees, voters and consumers, our truth trumps your truth. What’s more, you can’t and never will change our view of the world.

Welcome to what author Michael Maslansky calls the post-trust era. Maslansky, who’s one of corporate America’s leading communications and research strategists, says trust died sometime back in 2008.

“I believe it is the fundamental reason why our public discourse, our corporate communication, and our traditional sales techniques have pretty much fallen off a cliff,” says Maslansky.

We’re distrustful of everyone and everything around us. “We don’t trust the government to look out for us. We don’t trust companies to do right by us. We don’t trust each other to take responsibility for ourselves anymore. And we don’t even trust our own families to be there for us.”

Public relations firm Edelman tracks the public’s trust in everything from media to banks. The firm’s 2009 Trust Barometer found that three out of four Americans were less trusting of business than they were a year earlier. In fact, trust levels were down across the board in every major market segment.

In our post-trust era, we’re all skeptics. Maslansky says a skeptic is someone who challenges ideas in search of the truth. Thanks to the wonders of the Web, we have more information than ever before to guide our search for the truth. We’ve seen behind the curtain and know how marketing, advertising and public relations works.  We really don’t want to be told what to think and we’re unimpressed by hype and spin. And to top it all off, we have much shorter attention spans. Which means you have less time than ever before to build credibility and trust.

So how can anyone sell a breakthrough product, service, solution or big idea to a workplace, a marketplace and a community that’s overrun by skeptics?  Maslansky proposes four principles for communicating with credibility.  

1. Be personal. It’s never about you and it’s always about us. “Selling a product or idea has little to do with your company, what you’re offering or your ideas,” says Maslansky. “It has everything to do with your audience and what they believe, think and want.” So when you’re communicating with us, make it relevant. Make it tangible. Make it human. And make yourself real.

2. Be plainspoken. If we can’t understand you, it’s your fault. And we’re going to listen to someone else who’s easier to understand.  Remember that we don’t know what you think we know. Simple doesn’t always mean short. “It is always better to use five words to tell a clear story than use two and leave people confused,” says Maslansky. And say enough but not too much. “Sometimes the most effective way to build credibility and create an effective message is to stop talking.”

3. Be positive. Negativity breeds contempt. Scare tactics and negative messages erode trust and push us away. Far better to be for things rather than against them.

4. And be plausible. Life isn’t perfect and neither is what you’re selling. Acknowledge the flaws that all of us believe exists with your big idea or breakthrough product. Tell us about the pros and cons. Dial down self-congratulation and dial up authentic information.

“A world that once looked up to experts and complexity, believed in promises made, and responded to threats and fear now demands authenticity and simplicity,” says Maslansky. “The messages and approaches that worked well in the past must be re-evaluated in light of this new paradigm. The language of trust is built around just a re-evaluation.”

There’s a lot riding on how you talk and what we hear. We’re living in an interconnected world with no shortage of challenges. Smart solutions need to find an audience that’s willing to buy in, get to work and make things happen. The sooner the better.

“The mentality of saying whatever is expedient, creating false urgency, making a sale or killing a piece of legislation at all costs, and scurrying back into our holes will eventually destroy us,” says Maslansky. To restore trust, we need authentic communications built on honesty, transparency, empathy and acknowledgement. “In this era of mistrust, words are more important than ever.”

So let’s start by being personal, plainspoken, positive and plausible in how we talk with each other.

Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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