Sunday, August 9, 2009

Persuasive Evidence

Last time we spoke about the various structures of persuasive presentations. These structures described how you may want to present your perspective and the ‘evidence’ or ‘backing’ that supports it. Long time readers of this newsletter have heard me speak of Advocacy vs. Inquiry as the primary methods of business communication before. Advocacy is the style in which the participants pick a perspective and maintain it throughout the evaluation. This is how trials are conducted; each side may have different perspectives regarding the degree of guilt of the defendant, and they argue those sides by presenting evidence. There are strict rules for conducting advocacy (precisely why it is usually unsuitable for work) and many of those rules extend to the introduction of evidence.

What constitutes persuasive evidence in a collaborative work environment? Let’s talk about that:
There are three types of evidence: Objective Evidence, Social Consensus, and the speaker’s Credibility are types of evidence.

Good objective evidence is not necessarily tangible, but it is verifiable. Certainly well-prepared statistics, photographs and video, interviews or testimony all serve as objective evidence.

Social Consensus are things like common knowledge, things that we are willing to stipulate as true without further discussion, and any agreements that were previously reached using an acceptable method.

When presenting evidence it is necessary to do it in a way that is most accessible by those listening. 75% of people understand things better if presented visually, so graphs are good. Keep things simple; fight the desire to complicate a chart by showing too much (or different types) of information on it. Use simple numbers (round them off). Strive to make the perspective seem simple and clear, without oversimplifying. You would know if you oversimplified if your counterparts aren’t sure how the proposal fits with the issue at hand. When it comes to being authentic, simple, and direct consider things deeply - remember that what is said is not as important as what is heard and remembered.

If the speaker is credible, their evidence is more persuasive. Seems simple enough, but what makes us credible? I say it here again because I can’t say ENOUGH how important your own credibility is to your communication: Competence, Trustworthiness, Good Will, Dynamism (speakers that move and appear to possess energy and enthusiasm are more persuasive than those that aren’t), Eyewitness access to information, Background and Training, a good track record for being right.

The idea of how access to information is acquired is an important one. Does the persuader have primary access (eyewitness, for example) evidence? Is the source of the evidence reliable? Is the access secondary (hearsay or worse)? Many “conspiracy theories” gain a startling amount of traction with NO evidence!

When we are considering opinions as evidence (which we frequently do in business) we need to consider the source. Is the source of the opinion an expert? Are they a layperson? Make sure your expert is qualified as an expert in the subject at hand. A marketing expert’s opinion on advertising deserves more weight than their design opinions (unless that is another area of expertise).

Finally, different kinds of evidence carry different weight based on how they are developed and by whom. A rule of thumb regarding the relative weight of evidence that is accepted in many circles is as follows:
1. Assertion (in my opinion…)
2. Common Knowledge or Stipulation
3. Lay Opinion (if a reasoned conclusion)
4. Expert Opinion or Consensus of Lay Opinion
5. An Empirical Study or Consensus of Expert Opinion
6. Consensus of Studies

Note that an opinion that is not a “reasoned conclusion” is listed as an assertion – a kind of “trust me” statement. Next is common knowledge precisely because we only SOMETIMES correctly identify certain knowledge as common. Frequently, what we think is common knowledge is not held by other people in our organization. A lay opinion for which there is a demonstrated logical basis is at number three. From there, it becomes a matter of experts, well prepared studies, and consensus that raises the probability that the evidence is correct. This knowledge will give you a great advantage in preparing and critiquing persuasive perspectives.

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