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Decisions Don’t Start with Data
Comments (4) | May 14, 2014
I recently worked with an executive keen to persuade his colleagues that their company should drop a long-time vendor in favor of a new one. He knew that members of the executive team opposed the idea (in part because of their well-established relationships with the vendor) but he didn’t want to confront them directly, so he put together a PowerPoint presentation full of stats and charts showing the cost savings that might be achieved by the change.

He hoped the data would speak for itself.

But it didn’t.

The team stopped listening about a third of the way through the presentation. Why? It was good data. The executive was right. But, even in business meetings, numbers don’t ever speak for themselves.

To influence human decision making, you have to get to the place where decisions are really made — in the unconscious mind, where emotions rule, and data is mostly absent. Yes, even the most savvy executives begin to make choices this way. They get an intent, or a desire, or a want in their unconscious minds, then decide to pursue it and act on that decision. Only after that do they become consciously aware of what they’ve decided and start to justify it with rational argument. In fact, recent research from Carnegie-Mellon University indicates that our unconscious minds actually make better decisions when left alone to deal with complex issues.

Data is helpful as supporting material, of course. But, because it spurs thinking in the conscious mind, it must be used with care. Effective persuasion starts not with numbers, but with stories that have emotional power because that’s the best way to tap into unconscious decision making. We decide to invest in a new company or business line not because the financial model shows it will succeed but because we’re drawn to the story told by the people pitching it. We buy goods and services because we believe the stories marketers build around them: “A diamond is forever” (De Beers), “Real Beauty” (Dove), “Think different” (Apple), “Just do it” (Nike). We take jobs not only for the pay and benefits but also for the self-advancement story we’re told, and tell ourselves, about working at the new place.

Sometimes we describe this as having a good “gut feeling.” What that really means is that we’ve already unconsciously decided to go forward, based on desire, and our conscious mind is seeking some rationale for that otherwise invisible decision.

I advised the executive to scrap his PowerPoint and tell a story about the opportunities for future growth with the new vendor, reframing and trumping the loyalty story the opposition camp was going to tell. And so, in his next attempt, rather than just presenting data, he told his colleagues that they should all be striving toward a new vision for the company, no longer held back by a tether to the past. He began with an alluring description of the future state — improved margins, a cooler, higher-tech product line, and excited customers — then asked his audience to move forward with him to reach that goal. It was a quest story, and it worked.

Good stories — with a few key facts woven in — are what attach emotions to your argument, prompt people into unconscious decision making, and ultimately move them to action.

Persuading with Data
An HBR Insight Center

How Data Visualization Answered One of Retail’s Most Vexing Questions
The Case for the 5-Second Interactive
Generating Data on What Customers Really Want
10 Kinds of Stories to Tell with Data
Nick Morgan is the president and founder of Public Words, a communications consulting firm, and the author of Trust Me: Four Steps to Authenticity and Charisma.

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