For most educated
persons, Murphy’s Law is the fundamental law of the universe, even
more important than birth, death and gravity.
In its purest form,
Murphy’s Law says: “Anything
that can go wrong, will go wrong.” There is an important but often
neglected corollary: “Many things that can't go wrong, will go wrong
I am now pleased to report a loophole. In at least one important
area of human activity - expository (non-fiction) writing and public
speaking - Murphy’s Law does not have total coverage. This is because
it can be counteracted, at least partially, by a rival principle
that I recently discovered and immodestly call Yaffe’s Law
Law states: “If you give people what they want
first, they are likely to accept anything else you want them
to have. If you give them what you want first, chances are
they won’t accept anything at all.”
In short, in a text or a speech if you quickly and securely
engage the audience’s interest, any significant missteps later
on will be muted, if not completely counteracted.
There is of course nothing new in this idea. It is just another
way of saying that for best effect, you should write or speak
starting from your audience’s point of view. Nevertheless,
Yaffe’s Law is revolutionary because its new formulation focuses
attention on this fundamental principle of persuasive communication
as never before.
Applying the principle implies that you know the audience’s point
of view. If you are inclined to think this is virtually impossible
because point of view can change so very much from subject to subject
and audience to audience, you would be making a serious mistake.
In most cases, readers or listeners share a single overriding concern:
Will this text or presentation sufficiently reflect my interests
and apprehensions that I should pay any attention to it? They want
this question answered virtually instantaneously; otherwise they
will stop reading or stop listening.
In short, your first job, even before deciding what you want say,
is to determine what your audience wants to hear. In other words,
give them what they want first, i.e. a positive answer to this universal
question. If you then continue positively answering it, your audience
will follow you almost anywhere.
Here are a couple of examples to demonstrate how the idea works.
Written Example Below, the “Original” shows a text
as it might have been written without Yaffe’s Law. The “Revision”
shows how it actually was written with Yaffe’s Law.
Original A piece of electronic equipment installed
in automobiles could allow insurance companies to monitor
the driving behavior of their customers.
Each time a motorist
uses the car, the device will record the roads being traveled and
the time of the journey, and send the information via satellite
to the insurance company. With this data, the company will be able
to calculate the insurance premium for each individual journey based
on the relative risk of crashes on the different roads at different
times of the day. The motorist will receive a monthly or quarterly
“usage statement”, similar to a telephone bill, itemizing the insurance
cost for each use of the car. By agreeing to the system, motorists
could save hundreds of dollars on their automobile insurance. Because
of the lower risk of crashes, trips on superhighways will cost less
per kilometer than on city roads, while trips on country roads will
also cost less per kilometer than on city roads because . . . .
(the text continues)
Revision Motorists could save
hundreds of dollars on their automobile insurance by allowing their
driving habits be monitored by a satellite-tracking device installed
in the vehicle. Each time a motorist uses the car, the device will
record the roads being traveled and the time of the journey, and
send the information to the insurance company.
The company will then calculate the insurance premium based on an
assessment of the relative risk of crashes on the different roads
at different times of the day. Motorists will receive a monthly
or quarterly “usage statement”, similar to a telephone bill, giving
the insurance cost for each journey.
Because of the lower risk of crashes, trips on superhighways will
cost less per kilometer than on city roads, while trips on country
roads will also cost less per kilometer than on city roads because
. . . . (the text continues) The “Original” was clearly written
from the point of view of the insurance industry. However, simply
moving the fourth paragraph of the “Original” to the first paragraph
of the “Revision” charges everything. Who wouldn’t want to know
how to save hundreds of dollars on their automobile insurance?
By giving the readers what they want first, a text that might have
been of interest only to “techno-nerds” suddenly becomes interesting
to virtually everyone. Moreover, even if the rest of the text is
not superbly written, people will probably continue reading anyhow,
because it is in their interest to do so.
A Spoken Example With regard
to Yaffe’s Law, the written word and the spoken word are exactly
the same. Nevertheless, speaking allows use of techniques that simply
would not work on the printed page. The following speech was delivered
on the subject of integrity in politics. Once again, the Original”
shows how it might have been written without Yaffe’s Law. The “Revision”
shows how it actually was written with Yaffe’s Law.
Original I want to talk to you this evening about a man
I admire very much. His name is Julius Nyerere and he was the first
president of Tanzania after it gained independence from Britain
Julius Nyerere was born in 1922 in Butiama, a small village in what
was then Tanganyika. He was the son of Nyerere Burito, a Zanaki
tribal chief. At that time schools in Tanganyika were in very short
supply. Julius began attending Government Primary School at the
age of 12, which he completed in three years instead of the standard
four. He did equally well in secondary school and won a scholarship
to Makerere University in Uganda, then the only university in all
of East Africa. When he returned to Tanganyika, he worked for three
years as a secondary school teacher of biology and English before
winning a scholarship to attend the University of Edinburgh, where
he obtained a Masters of Arts Degree in history and economics. This
is also where he began developing the ideas and tactics that ultimately
helped him lead Tanganyika to independence from Britain and become
the country’s first president. Unlike many other independence movements,
Nyerere achieved independence without a single drop of blood being
shed. (The speech continues)
Revision We live in a cynical world where the values
of truth, honesty and integrity seem to be in short supply. We are
therefore always looking for examples of such values in action,
especially with regard to politicians. I would like to offer you
such an example from Africa. You have probably never heard of this
man, but for me he stands as a true model of integrity. Can you
guess who he might be? (Speaker pauses a few moments). No, it is
not Nelson Mandela, as I imagine many of you were thinking. However,
I am certain Mr. Mandela would be more than pleased to be considered
in the same light as this person. His name is Julius Nyerere. Julius
Nyerere was the man who led then Tanganyika, today called Tanzania,
to independence from Britain in 1961. Unlike many other independence
movements, this one succeeded without a single drop of blood being
I had the privilege of living two years in Tanzania shortly after
independence. Being a city boy, for me Tanzania was quite a revelation.
I virtually lived in a mud hut, suffered through a drought, saw
leprosy, and experienced both malaria and dysentery. All of these
things affected me. But getting to know Julius Nyerere as a political
leader was truly a life-changing experience. When Nyerere became
head of state, he was so popular that he could easily have taken
on the trappings of a king or potentate. But he did exactly the
opposite. He chose to live very modestly, because that was his nature.
More importantly, he inspired confidence in everyone, and never
betrayed that confidence, because that also was his nature. He of
course had political enemies, but they were critical of certain
of his ideas and policies—but never the man. The worst I ever heard
anyone say about him was, “President Nyerere is doing all the wrong
things for all the right reasons.” (The speech continues)
At this point the speaker could insert all the information about
Nyerere’s background and education, which seemed so tedious in the
“Original”. Why? Because instead of tedious, the audience would
now find it instructive and integral to understanding the man in
whom their interest has been effectively ignited.
So does Yaffe’s Law pardon poor writing and poor speaking? Absolutely
not! Poor writing is still poor writing, and poor speaking is
still poor speaking, so you must constantly be alert not to fall
into bad habits. On the other hand, by strongly focussing your attention
on giving the audience what they want first, when you start giving
them what you want, it will be in a context that appeals to their
most basic instincts. This, of course, is what persuasive communication
is really all about.
Contributing Writer: Philip Yaffe is a former
reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal and a marketing
communication consultant. He currently teaches a course in good
writing and good speaking in Brussels, Belgium. His recently published
book In the “I” of the Storm: the Simple Secrets of Writing &
Speaking (Almost) like a Professional is available from Story Publishers
in Ghent, Belgium (storypublishers.be) and Amazon (amazon.com).
For further information, contact:
Philip Yaffe, 61, avenue des Noisetiers B-1170 Brussels, Belgium
Tel : 32 (0)2 660 0405 firstname.lastname@example.org