Wasted Breath: Data Alone Won’t Convince

October 19, 2015
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In a data driven world, rhetoric is often chastised as “fluffy talk”. In fact, as more organizations adopt a culture based on fact-based decision making, the mantra of “show me the data” is increasingly prevalent. That’s too bad though, because in trying to persuade an audience regarding your point of view (POV), you will need more than data. In reality, a convincing argument—supplemented with data, but not superseded by it, is how big decisions are made.

Janan Ganesh has an interesting article in the Financial Times where he exhorts business executives to have ample command in the skill of argument. “(You need) the ability to frame any given problem on your own terms so that your conclusion is irresistible to the client, jury, investor, politician, or reader,” he says. Or in other words, it’s important to have the talent to frame an argument so that it’s simple and memorable, and that at the end of it, there’s no doubt regarding the outcome.

Rhetoric is more than “the art of speaking and writing effectively”. The use of rhetoric is how audiences are persuaded, deals made and sealed, and nations and constituents inspired. However, it seems that rhetoric gets short shrift in a data driven world, where one business magazine after another recites Deming’s timeless principle of “In God we trust; all others must bring data.”

Data is in fact, a critical lifeblood of business. However, in terms of decision making that goes beyond automated and algorithmic processes, a convincing argument using rhetorical devices is critical to win the day. After all, Johnny Cochran and his crew of lawyers didn’t successfully defend OJ Simpson with facts and figures, but rather a memorable quip; “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

It’s true that when trying to convince, facts and figures are necessary elements in the recipe. The trick, however, is not to create an argument full of logical and/or mathematical statements, but to know when to disperse them throughout your story, as either orange construction cones of caution, or supporting buttresses for reasonable statements.

Of course, the counter to this argument is that rhetoric is on the decline, especially in an era of machine learning, AI, and six second attention spans. The rise of computer programs such as Quill prove to skeptics that machines can easily piece facts and sentences together, deciding in a formulaic manner which subject goes first and which pieces of evidence should follow. Indeed, with the rise of machine driven news stories, newsrooms are slimming, editorial staffs disappearing, and the sheer number of articles that can now be “written” grows exponentially.

And yet, while it’s true enough that smart algorithms are on the rise, there’s nothing they can compose that’s going to tug on heart strings, evoke passion and/or fury, or turn around a somewhat testy audience. The truth is, people like to see the numbers and facts in a narrative, but only to support a broader story where pathos and ethos are liberally applied. Many times, even before your argument is applied, your audience’s mind is already made up—they just need a sprinkling of facts and obligatory charts to support what they already believe.  

Data provide credibility to your argument and are necessary, but only to a degree. The human brain can only absorb so many facts and figures before they’re stuffed in a mental baggage compartment. As long as human beings manage the disposition of money and make the big decisions, rhetoric is never going out of style. You can take that one to the bank.