I’m researching the history of business gurus now, for an upcoming Inc. story. It’s fascinating stuff–serious academics have studied it! — but my favorite bit so far is about the origination of the term "claptrap".

You see, it’s very important for gurus to give give persuasive presentations. (How else will they gain adherents?) And while it would seem like the ability to give a spellbinding presentation is a gift, i.e. something that you can either do or you can’t, it turns out that one fellow named Maxwell J. Atkinson analyzed the most effective political speeches in history, and has deconstructed spellbinding presentations into their component parts.

An effective speech is one that generates many interruptions for applause. This might seem obvious, but provoking intermittent applause isn’t so easy. So, Atkinson recommends the use of claptraps: "a trick or device or language designed to catch applause, that instructs the audience, in a step-by-step manner, towards a precise moment in the near future where all are to do the same thing at the same time." The most famous claptrap: hip, hip….hooray!

Another set of researchers analyzed claptraps in nearly 500 of the most effective political speeches in history. The two-part contrast, or TPC, generated 1/3 of all of the applause over the speeches that he studied. The example I read was from a JFK speech: "our task is not to fix the blame for the past, but to fix the course for the future."

The second most-effective claptrap is List of Threes, or LOTs. These accounted for 15% of all applause. For example: try, try, try again. (And of course, hip, hip hooray!)

See if you can spot the odd LOT in this unusual paragraph from Management Gurus: What Makes Them and How to Become One, by  professor Andrezej A. Huczynksi:

"The TPC and LOT principles appear to be valued for the written as well as spoken word, as [illustrated by an] analysis of advertising slogans, nursery rhymes and the Communist Manifesto." 

I don’t know about you, but I’m applauding.


2 thoughts on “Claptrap!

  1. Interesting. Be sure to post a link to your article on your blog.
    Also though, it depends on the position of the speaker and their ability to get applause.
    A president of a country (in this case, to a consistantly stacked and brainwashed house of True Believers), like G Bush or Kim Jong Il, will have an easier time of impressing an audience than, say, me.

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