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Tom Alderman

Tom Alderman

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The Placebo Effect and How to Use It

Posted: 02/ 3/11 07:26 PM ET

If you're in medicine or any of the healing arts, you certainly know the placebo effect. You've may have even used it -- treating an imagined condition with sugar pills, or a dose of Alan Greenspan-speak that the patient can't really follow except the part where you say, "...it will be better in a few days." And, miraculously, it is. Some might call this placebo effect a deception -- and it is. Others may say it's mind-over-matter -- and it is. It's a conundrum called the placebo paradox meaning: it's unethical to use a placebo, but it also unethical not to use something that heals.

Since most of us are not in the healing business, the opportunity to test this paradox doesn't often pop up. So when Jerry Weintraub show us an effective use of a placebo in business and relationships -- it's worth noting.

If you live outside of Southern California, are not in the entertainment business and don't read movie credits, you've probably never heard of Jerry Weintraub. But you've seen movies he's produced: Nashville, Diner, Oh God(s), The Karate Kid(s) and Oceans 11, 12 and 13 -- he likes sequels. And, if you've ever seen Elvis, Sinatra, Led Zeppelin, The Carpenters or Neil Diamond in concert, Weintraub was there. Jerry is the guy behind the guy who sings the songs. When you deal with so many high profile artists, many of whom tip the scale towards abundant narcissism, Weintraub's masterful use of the placebo is instructive.

In his very engaging memoir, When I Stop Talking, You'll Know I'm Dead: Useful Stories from a Persuasive Man, Weintraub tells about his former client, John Denver, the singer-song writer with a pre-Beiber hairstyle. Denver was an unknown performer getting $70 a show in Greenwich Village. Weintraub signs him and turns him into a mega-watt star. One time, while Denver is on a European concert tour, word gets back that John is not happy and is threatening to fire Weintraub. The L.A. agent drops everything, flies over to Europe to find out why his star is grumpy.

"It's the tour," grumps Denver, "The hotel stinks, the food is no good, the venues are just awful and the sound system is terrible. I think I have to let you go." A calm Weintraub asks for four hours to fix the problem.

Four hours later, the agent returns and announces the problem is solved, "I fired Fergusun."

"Who's Fergusun?" asks Denver?

"You had hotel, food, venue and sound problems? Fergusun was in charge of all of that. I fired him."

The singer, who didn't know Fergusun, was filed with guilt that he got the poor guy fired and right before Christmas.

Weintraub thought about it and suggested that instead of firing Fergusun, maybe he should just move him to another part of the business, away from people. "Hide him," says the agent.

"Yeah, I feel a lot better about that," sighs the relieved artist.

The next night Weintraub asks how the sound and the show went. "Oh much better," says a happy Denver, "I could tell the difference right away. I'm glad we could fix it without firing Fergusun." Of course, there was no Fergusun.

Deception? Uh huh. Effective? Oh, yeah. You should read what he did with Led Zeppelin. Better yet, listen to the audio edition of his entertaining autobiography. http://www.hachettebookgroup.com/books_9781607889687.htm

Weintraub is his own narrator and his slightly grainy, street savvy New York accent juices up the warmth and authenticity throughout the memoir. Aside from the many insider showbiz tales, the value of this book is seeing and understanding how a master salesman works without any stereotypical hard sell. Weintraub is in the people business, the high-maintenance people business. Perhaps you have some in your family or at work. There are stories here that offer interesting perspectives on dealing with all sorts of people. After all, Weintraub is a guy who knows when and how to use the placebo effect. But if YOU are ever in the position to deploy this tactic, please us it wisely. It still is deception.