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April 15, 2021
This simple but incredibly effective trick could help you finally convince stakeholders about the importance of user research.
The term mirroring refers to the behavior in which one person imitates the gestures, speech patterns, or body language of another person. Mirroring, or limbic synchrony, is subconscious—specific neurons in the brain are responsible for us becoming copycats around people we like or are interested in—and it plays an important role in building rapport and developing relationships.
Mirroring can be intentional, too. Politicians, narcissists, and psychology undergrads who’ve realized its potential as a dating tool all use mirroring to create a sense of trust, comfort, and commonality. Intentional mirroring is a form of manipulation—but its unscrupulousness depends on application and intent.
When it’s used in job applications and stakeholder presentations, it’s a harmless but effective way to connect with key decision makers.
So exactly can you use mirroring in a job application? What does that look like?
It looks a lot like SEO, actually. Except instead of optimizing keywords for search engines, you’re optimizing language for a very specific reader. Let me show you what I mean using excerpts from this real job listing for a lead user researcher. (Condensed, bold and italics my own.)
You will lead research activities across the entire [company] ecosystem, regularly sharing insights and recommendations with stakeholders. You will partner closely with both product and design to test concepts and understand use cases, pain points, and unmet needs. Your work will inform product decisions and design iterations. Ability to work independently in a fast-moving organization is a must.
Key criteria for this role
First, the basics.
Take a look at the words in bold. These are skills or qualities that are reiterated multiple times—they’re essential to this job. The hiring manager for the role is looking for someone who can concretely demonstrate how they fit this criteria.
To be in the running for this role, you’d want to make sure your cover letter and resume highlights things like:
But you could really stand out as an applicant by honing in on language like “explore” and “recommend” and thinking about what the job poster is really asking for here. Don’t just parrot the language verbatim—take some time to analyze the meaning behind it.
The person who wrote this job listing uses the words “explore” and “exploration” more than once—but that doesn’t mean they’re looking to hire Zheng He or Rabban Bar Sauma. It means they’re looking for someone who is relentlessly curious, and who acts on that curiosity to make new discoveries.
Similarly, if you pry a little deeper into the meaning behind the words “recommend” and “recommendations” (and “advocate” for that matter) you can assume that they’re not looking for a "yes" person. They’re looking for someone with strong, informed opinions about user research, that they are able to translate into actionable advice.
Articulating people’s desires in a new way tells them you get it. You know what they’re looking for and you’re it.
Are the tactics above truly mirroring? Not really—but insofar as those tactics persuade the reader that you’re compatible with their own interests, it achieves some of the effect.
To layer a bit of true mimicry into your writing, take a peek at the words I’ve italicized—they’re all adjectives, and specific ones at that. These are words you could use (sparingly!) in your cover letter and resume to really tap into the mirroring effect.
Don’t just say you deliver on projects—say you consistently deliver. You don’t just address user needs, you love working closely with stakeholders to address unmet user needs. Use a similar vocabulary.
You can also try using similar sentence patterns.
This job listing uses both adjectives and verbs in pairs several times: “analyzing and synthesizing,” effectively and efficiently,” “on time and to the highest quality.” Try using a similar structure to describe your own talents.
If the person reviewing your application is the same person that wrote it, they’ll unconsciously pick up on this reflection of their own way of expressing themselves, just as they would if you started using similar phrases in a 1:1 conversation.
At this point, you may be thinking: This is great but I already have a job. How do I apply this advice to my conversations with stakeholders?
Think of it this way: Each research project is like a job application—your stakeholders have a job they need doing, and you’re trying to convince them that User Research is the right candidate for the role. You can use the same persuasive techniques explained above to highlight the importance of research in a way that speaks directly to their needs.
The missing piece here is the job description. And in this case, you’re going to have to help write it yourself. This is where stakeholder interviews come in. Erika Hall makes a great, succinct argument for why these early conversations are so important:
Zach Lamm, Lead User Experience Researcher at NerdWallet, told us about his process for stakeholder interviews. He highlighted three key questions you can use to get to the heart of the problem they’re trying to solve (aka the job they’re hiring for in, our analogy):
These questions will help you suss out what successful research looks like to everyone involved. They’re the core job requirements, so to speak.
Now, it should be said that if you’re not already conducting stakeholder interviews as part of your research—forget this next bit for now and just get some meetings on the books!
But if you already conduct stakeholder interviews, have and are still having a hard time making your research resonate with people, try applying the linguistic mirroring tips to your approach. Taking the extra time to record and think through the words and phrases they use to describe their problem and desired outcome can go a long way.
That’s because it’s often not what you say but the way you say it that matters—if the “what” isn’t compelling on its own, even though it ticks all the right boxes, try adapting to their “how,”
In other words, literally speak their language.
Content marketer by day, thankless servant to cats Frodo and Elaine Benes by night. Loves to travel, has a terrible sense of direction. Bakes a mean chocolate tart, makes a mediocre cup of coffee. "Eclectic."