20. “Give ’em the old razzle dazzle”

To faculty seeking to advance: Create an academic product that will impress — but also anticipate the predictable irrationality of those who will assess it.


Dear faculty member seeking promotion or funding:

First, a disclaimer.   This is not advice to deceive academic assessment. Do not “put lipstick on a pig”. Be certain to do your best to create a body of accomplishment so unambiguously strong and a narrative so compelling that promotion or funding will be a foregone conclusion. Seek advice from knowledgeable colleagues or the literature on how best to do this; this advice will not be re-summarized here.

Second, know your enemy! Even if you create such a body of accomplishment and narrative, the forces of predictable irrationality[2] will conspire to defeat you. Hopefully the peers who assess you will keep these forces at bay, and your peers are usually successful at this. But – leave as little to chance as possible.   Help your allies. Plan to disable predictable irrationality. The good news is that it is predictable. Because you can predict it, you can devise countermeasures to these forces. In short, razzle dazzle ’em.


An invisible hand is at work. When academics exhibit talent, judgment, wisdom, accomplishment, and stature, they are asked to do more (including to assess other academics).   The more they do, the more they are asked to do, and the busier they become. In particular, the more effective they are as peer reviewers, the more they are sought as peer reviewers. Bottom line: those who review you are likely to be very busy people. The busier they become, the more they need to work efficiently and delegate some of their work to others. How? They will take usually-reliable shortcuts (heuristics). Bottom line: create shortcuts, and put them in the path of those motivated to take them.[3]


We all suffer from egocentric bias, which in present circumstances means that we believe what makes sense to us makes sense to everyone else. We all suffer from fear of looking stupid. These two biases can combine to undermine the best of promotion cases: You think you’ve explained your work adequately, but you haven’t; ‘they’ either think ‘they’ understand your work, but they don’t – or ‘they’ say ‘the work is outside my area’, which is code for ‘I’m afraid to express a judgment for fear of looking stupid’.

Most likely your training did not include communications as a formal topic, so here’s the elevator version: Presuming you have done work worth supporting, it is your job to sell it to those who will assess it – strike that, true but too cynical – it is your job to make your work and its significance comprehensible to those who will assess it. In the real world, when the stakes are high (e.g., in political campaigns, advertising, cinema releases) there are exhaustive test-marketing, focus groups, and surveys in which alternative forms of messages are compared[5]. Shouldn’t you do the same?

My point is simply to be certain that your sales pitch is compelling. Because of egocentric bias, your judgment of what is compelling is likely to be flawed; never trust it. How, then, can one be certain?

  • Study the masters (and the failures[6]). Every research presentation, lecture, elevator speech, textbook, teaching moment, etc. (and, for that matter, all political and sales campaigns) is an object lesson in what works and what doesn’t in a sales pitch.
  • Find reliable and appropriate critics.   Reliable: Many potential critics will sugar-coat their criticisms, or will feign understanding to avoid looking stupid. Instead of them, rely on those who can be brutally honest. Appropriate: In job applications and promotions you will need to please two audiences. The first, content experts in your field, you probably already know how to please (and whether you’ve succeeded). The second is both less recognized and more important: those who are not content experts in your field. Except in unusual cases, the second audience will be involved in assessing your product. Therefore you also need critics who are non-experts (and probably the more non-expert, the better). Use them to perform the Vonnegut test: “…any scientist who couldn’t explain to an eight-year-old what he was doing was a charlatan.”[7] Unless she is a professor in your field, your mother is probably an ideal critic. Professional communications coaches can be very helpful.[8] Critics: That’s plural. Few messaging tactics are effective with all audience members (and those tactics are probably too offensive to use).  Test-market your sales pitch with sufficiently diverse critics until you are certain that it will be successful with the known or unknown ‘peer’ reviewers who will judge you.
  • Allow sufficient time and effort to optimize your message. Many academics mistakenly believe that content sells products, and focus insufficiently on crafting a message that convinces consumers to consider their product. Given our meager training, successful messaging is likely to require many successive approximations and consultations, each taking time. Hint: Make each iteration comparative. That is, try communicating in two ways and ask your critics which is better? This defuses fear of looking stupid, and does not put your critics on the spot to deliver advice.

Branding works because once a product’s brand comes to signify an attribute (e.g., high quality, high standards, reliability, good taste, etc. – or the opposite), consumers will favor or disfavor the product on the basis of its brand. Some academic assessors are consumers who will favor or disfavor the ‘products’ they assess in part on the basis of brands such as current or past institutional affiliations, the impact factor of the scholarly journal in which the work appears, an honorific award, or a particular type of funding. That is: If one’s short on time, just look at the brand and jump to the obvious conclusion.

If you have a choice of a brand for your personal academic product, choose the brand with the highest consumer approval. If you don’t know which scholarly institution, journal, honorific, or funding has the highest consumer approval, that’s what the Internet is for.

Having said this, do not ‘go overboard’. For example, some scientists will insist on repeatedly revising and resubmitting work to a particular journal in the belief that acceptance will guarantee tenure, and in so doing undermine their own productivity and squander the opportunity to place their work in equally appropriate journals. Perfect can be the enemy of good enough.[9]


People (and they include even faculty) are hardwired to follow other people, often for good reason. Running with (and not against) people fleeing danger normally enhances survival. In academic assessment, which is typically not done in private, the counterpart is agreement with majority opinion, dominant paradigms, and those perceived as leading scholars. A minority of you will create heterodox scholarship so compelling that it will overcome these prejudices. But if you are not in this minority, you should anticipate groupthink and manage it. Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point[10] is an entertaining popular account of how this is done in the real world. In your world, it is prudent to count on several factors:

  • Deference to “experts”. In biomedicine, these are members of the National Academy of Sciences, investigators of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, named chairs at prestigious institutions, and so on. A few minutes’ thought should yield the names of those in your area. Chances are: confidential assessments will be solicited from them when your promotion is under consideration, and your institution will be hard-pressed to ignore overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic endorsements from them. It is much easier for your ‘experts’ to provide such endorsements if they know and respect you personally. How?   (a) Although the rule is to avoid committee service while a probationary faculty member, the one committee you want to be on is the one that organizes departmental colloquia or seminars. Ask to join it, and use it as an opportunity to invite your ‘experts’ to speak. [Be patient: Some of the big acts book up years in advance.] When they arrive, host them, introduce them, wine them, and dine them[11]. Show them a good time – but do talk some research, including yours. This will also associate them with you in the minds of your colleagues, and legitimize your area of research. (b) Go to professional meetings and conference they attend, and make their acquaintance. Offer them coffee, see if you can join them for a meal, and/or sit next to them on the bus[11.5].
  • Deference to brands. If your curriculum vitae includes many invitations from brands your assessors respect, they will be impressed. You can suggest to a prestigious journal that it invite you to produce a review, editorial, or thought piece. You can suggest to a program officer that you be invited to serve as a peer reviewer for a prestigious funding organization. You can suggest to a significant professional society that you be invited to serve in some visible capacity or stand for election as an officer. The worst they can say is ‘no’ and, if they do, no one will know. There is also what the politicians call logrolling; it works like this: You befriend someone at a prestigious institution. You say: If I invite you to give a talk at my institution, will you invite me to give a talk at yours? You put the talk on your CV.   Or, at a professional meeting you run into someone from a prestigious institution and mention: “I’ve always wanted to visit your institution…”
  • Deference to leaders at your own institution. Typically the people who assess you will be senior to you and have greater institutional stature. Treat them as you’d like to be treated; the rest is commentary.   Your institution may instruct them to set behavior aside and assess only your work; they may well be unable to do this, for they are only human. And when they speak, they’ll be heard.
  • Deference to paradigms. As implied above, our minds are biased to prefer what confirms our pre-existing knowledge and disfavor what challenges it. The more your work challenges existing paradigms, the more your patrons and assessors will be averse to endorsing it. If your academic work can become the existing paradigm in time to be recognized as such, you’re in excellent shape! But: “You come at the king, you best not miss.”[12] It may be prudent to postpone a paradigm shift work in progress to after tenure – except if this leads you to be scooped. [In that case, publish away and it may then be necessary for you to claim your named chair at another institution.]

In summary, expect groupthink, and at least do not create conditions that will lead groupthink to oppose you.


You may complain that the activities I suggest shouldn’t be necessary. OK, you’re right. Feel better now?

You may complain that the activities I suggest aren’t appropriate. I disagree. Know the 3 Ps of academics[13]? Academics produce knowledge that is

  • Public
  • Peer-reviewed
  • Platform on which others can build

If a tree falls in the middle of the forest and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a sound? If an academic produces work that is unknown to or unrecognized by peers, is it an academic product? Product yes – academic no. These days we all compete for attention; academic products far outnumber our ability to notice them all. Nonetheless, many of us assume that because we are academics, we can rationally assess and compare all relevant products such that the cream will rise to the top automatically. Believe this at your peril!   If perchance the manipulations I suggest are un-necessary, you will at least have had a good time in their execution.

Finally, the largest obstacle to successfully following my advice is likely you yourself; i.e., your own cognitive biases and tendencies. Stage fright is difficult to overcome. Brutally honest advice from critics can hurt. Aiming for the best brands, the biggest names as patrons, and the most prestigious of invitations risks rejection. These all can be unpleasant – but far less than rejection of your manuscript, grant application, or promotion case. Nonetheless, our minds lead us to avoid present pain and risk even when this sets the stage for much greater future pain and risk. Fortunately, as detailed in prior posts, there are ways to overcome the aversions that can impede our advancement.

Good luck! Give ’em the old razzle dazzle. And once you are promoted, work to make all this un-necessary.

[1]  Razzle Dazzle.   From Chicago (1975).   Music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago_(musical)  Lyrics: http://www.stlyrics.com/lyrics/chicago/razzledazzle.htm  http://amzn.com/B006RXQ1L6

[2] Ariely, Dan. 2008. Predictably Irrational. HarperCollins.

[3] This is a version of BJ Fogg’s first law of captology: Put hot triggers in front of motivated people.

[4] A film in which the principal plot device is the ability to look at the world through another’s (John Malkovich’s) eyes: Being John Malkovich. 1999. Polygram USA Video. http://amzn.com/6305807086

[5] http://www.winningcampaigns.org/Winning-Campaigns-Archive-Articles/Polls-Focus-Groups-in-Political-Campaigns.html https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Focus_group https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Test_market

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhiCFdWeQfA

[7] https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Cat%27s_Cradle

[8] For example: https://www.linkedin.com/pub/julie-peterson/3/976/96a

[9] After Voltaire. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfect_is_the_enemy_of_good

[10] Gladwell, M. 2000. The Tipping Point. Gladwell. http://amzn.com/0316346624

[11] I tried for years without success to get a distinguished professor to speak at my institution. What finally worked was when he mentioned that he always wanted to dine at Charlie Trotter’s, then the leading restaurant in my city. I told him: “I can do that.” Once the arrangements were made, it turned out that they also included a visit to my institution.

[11.5] Karen Kelsey offers additional instructions in Chapter 20, “How to Work the Conference”, of The Professor Is In, Three Rivers Press, 2015.  http://amzn.com/0553419420  See also: http://theprofessorisin.com/?s=how+to+work+the+conference&x=0&y=0

[12] https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/The_Wire

[13] Attributed by   Simpson D, Fincher RM, Hafler JP, Irby DM, Richards BF, Rosenfeld GC, Viggiano TR. Advancing Educators and Education: Defining the Components and Evidence of Educational Scholarship. Proceedings from the Association of American Medical Colleges Group on Educational Affairs Consensus Conference on Educational Scholarship, 9-10 February 2006, Charlotte, NC. Washington DC: AAMC 2007, to Hutchings P, Shulman LS. 1999. The scholarship of teaching: New elaborations, new developments. Change 31:10–15.

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©Martin E. Feder 2015

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