Thursday, March 12, 2009

Beware The Sophists

Originally Published 12.24.08

In the 5th century, B.C., the world’s first professional teachers and trainers emerged. They were called Sophists. The Sophists roamed the country, giving lectures, taking students, and teaching on any subject in demand. The subject in greatest demand was public speaking and debate skills for use in politics.

The politicians who sought to learn from the Sophists weren’t concerned with truth so much as persuasion. The Sophists were not paid to teach truth, but to win arguments. They could argue that black was white, white was black, good was bad, and bad was good. They became expert in tripping up opponents, setting rhetorical snares to trap them, and if all else failed, drowning them out with the volume of noise they could generate.

The Sophists and their students mastered the ability to twist arguments, to use confusion, to create false arguments. They took pride in being smart and clever, not in integrity and honesty.

For these reasons, Merriam-Webster defines sophistry as “subtly deceptive reasoning or argumentation.”

Sophists in Business

Sophists are alive and well in the 21st century. We encounter them every day in business. The overly slick and less than honest salesperson is a sophist. The consultant with an integrity deficit is a sophist. The businessperson who fabricates a great, but untrue story to sell his wares is a sophist.

Fortunately, most businesspeople are not sophists. Most consultants pour their hearts and souls into efforts to help their clients. Most salespeople are honest and sincere.

Unfortunately, the encounters we’ve had with sophists tend to overwhelm the encounters with the bulk of the business community. And if it’s that way for those of us engaged in commerce, imagine what how the business world must seem to average consumer?

Because of sophists, most consumers are like my next door neighbor. “I don’t trust anyone,” he says, referring to contractors. He suffers from a form of contractor paranoia.

While sophists make the honest businessperson’s life more difficult, they also create opportunity. Because consumers have become so jaded from experience, word-of-mouth, and hyped up stories from a thoroughly sophist media, they are overwhelmed when they encounter good, honest companies and latch onto them with the resolution of a terrier.

Prove yourself to the sophist-shy consumer and you will earn a customer for life.

© 2008 Matt Michel

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