Not a fair fight: Your data vs. your audience's experiences and emotions
June 30, 2005
You've heard me speak about the importance of connecting with the emotional right brain of your audience members before. It's fundamental, yet often neglected. Here's what the authors of Why Business People Speak Like Idiots say:
In business, our natural instincts are always left-brained. We create tight arguments and knock the audience into submission with facts, fiqures, historical graphs, and logic....The bad news is that the barrage of facts often works against you. My facts against your experiences, emotions, and perceptual filters. Not a fair fight —facts will lose every time (emphasis mine).
If your presentation does not connect, if you bore and are not memorable, then all your great data will likely be for naught. People have a tendency to over interpret their own personal and vivid experiences, and may ignore or be very skeptical of new information — no matter how scientific or objective — that is contrary to their current belief.
Professor Richard Brislin (my graduate school mentor) of the University of Hawaii, touches on a very similar phenomenon in his book Understanding Culture's Influence on Behavior. In a section on theoretical concepts in intercultural communication, Dr. Brislin discusses why people make incorrect attributions or dubious conclusions in spite of evidence to the contrary.
For example, let's say you read many reports in respectable periodicals that conclude Seattle is a very good place for young graphic designers to find high-paying jobs. Complete with this evidence, you begin sending off your resume, contacting companies, and looking into housing in the Seattle area. Later, while talking to one of your best friends, Lisa, and informing her of your desire to relocate to Seattle, she becomes practically apoplectic. "What?" she says. "My brother has a design degree from Berkeley and has been up in Seattle for over a year without finding a full-time design gig!" Lisa then goes on to tell her brother's horror story in Seattle.
So now you have the word of one friend vs. loads of factual, detailed documented information which runs contrary to your friend's opinion. Who do you believe?
Citing early work by Sherman, Judd, and Park (1989) on social cognition, Brislin suggests that it is highly likely we will be more persuaded by our friend's testimony, which was surely more colorful, emotional, and vivid compared to the reading of labor reports in periodicals. Also, I would say that the fact Lisa is "telling her story" about her brother makes her information memorable.
So what does this have to do with presentations? Two things: (1) As presenters, we have our work cut out for us. Our audiences bring emotions, experiences, biases, and perceptual filters that are no match for data and facts alone. And (2) we must not make the mistake of thinking that our data can speak for itself, no matter how convincing, obvious, or strong it may seem to us. We may indeed have the best product or best research, etc. But if we "plan" a boring, ego-centric, "death by PPT" snooze-fest, we will lose. The best presenters target both the logical left and the emotional right. The audience, after all, is comprised of human beings, is it not?