The Billboard Test

Have you ever heard the advice that you shouldn’t do or say anything that you wouldn’t want printed on a billboard the next day?

Though this is great advice in and of itself, I think the commonly held view is that we only need to consider it for the really important, potentially devastatingly embarassing actions or interactions we might engage in.

But when it comes down to it, it’s great advice for just about any action or interaction. 

I thought of this simple test recently when, yet again, I was pressed by a friend for a break on my professional fee because of our close relationship. I say “yet again” because, as is the case with many freelancers / business owners / trainers / consultants, much of the business we do is with friends, family, acquaintances and current or former colleagues. And that special relationship status makes people feel in a unique position to ask for “a break.”

Every time this happens, I can't help but think that maybe, just this once, I could give someone that break. I mean, what’s the big deal? 

Thankfully, my thought process then goes something like this:

  1. It will take me just as much time and effort to do the work for him/her as it will for anyone else, which means it’s not a fair ask and I'm likely to resent them for it. And that could fundamentally change, even end, our relationship.
  2. It would reset the anchor pricing for this friend, and for me, for future interactions. (By "resetting the anchor," I mean that for both parties the default pricing would become the new, lower pricing, not the “regular" price .)
  3. And the big one: If another loyal client or a client who is also a friend heard about this arrangement, how would that make them feel? How would I feel about having been "found out"?
Not only are people pretty poor at recognizing what will influence their future behaviour, it turns out that they are also not that well attuned to what persuaded them after the event either.
— Steve J. Martin, Noah J. Goldstein, and Robert B. Cialdini, "The Small Big", p. 4.

As much as I would like to say that #1 is in the lead in influencing my behaviour, I would be lying. This pains me, but it's true and I don't think I'm alone on this one. 

The one that keeps me on the right path is #3. That third and final step in my thought process always steers me in the right direction because it would potentially be a lose/lose situation. The billboard test is what has helped me sleep at night because of all the angst and regret I’ve managed to avoid. For years now. 

[The principle of commitment and consistency] describes a deeply held motivation that most of us have to behave consistency with the previous commitments we have made, especially those commitments that are active, require effort on our part, and that are made public to others.
— Steve J. Martin, Noah J. Goldstein, and Robert B. Cialdini, "The Small Big", p. 36.
[W]hen people observe that their peers have violated one social norm, not only are they potentially more likely to violate that same norm themselves—but they are also more likely to violate a related but different social norm.
— Steve J. Martin, Noah J. Goldstein, and Robert B. Cialdini, "The Small Big", p. 20.

Consistency is key. I don’t play games. The confidence and predictability of my answers is solid. It’s almost like a good habit that has become automatic and its guidance has made doing what I feel is the right thing much easier (though I always avoid answering right away to any such request because I find it takes me time to think about #3 and I know that I’d be more likely to short change myself if I were to answer immediately).

Have I disappointed some people as a result of applying the billboard test? Without question. 

Have I lost some opportunities as a result? Certainly. But, I also have to consider what I’ve gained (aka what I haven't lost or given away that could lead to me questioning or reevaluating the value of my time and my skills).

Have I ever regretted applying it? Not yet, though I don’t dismiss the fact that it might happen one day.

Some might say that the way I’m applying the billboard test is selfish. How could I not be generous with my time in some circumstances? To that I answer that I will give my time but I will not discount my time. 

What does that mean? If there is a charity event that needs my help or if I can help a friend or colleague who is trying to do something great and I think it’s something I want to do, then I make the decision to give my time as a one-time offer. It helps them out and it makes me feel good, sometimes great. Plus, there are few, if any, long-term repercussions because I can easily pass up future engagements. The right to say "no" is implicit in every ask (it always is, but it's much easier, at least for me, in these circumstances).

The main message here is that it’s not really about the money. It’s about what the money says to the parties involved and about what it makes them think and feel. Hence my heavy use of the billboard test. I know I'm more content in my day-to-day activities because of it.

Whether we apply the billboard test to price negotiations or to any other decision we need to make, it works. Every time. I've increasingly come to appreciate just how effective it's been for me, which is why I wanted to share it with you.

Have you used the billboard test, or some similar type of guideline(s) when making decisions you might regret?


Image credit/copyright:  ponsulak / freedigitalphotos.net

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