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When “Just the Facts” Fail to Persuade

One big mistake I see repeatedly in the communications industry is the focus on providing more information instead of telling a persuasive story.

In an effort to persuade others, organizations work hard to get the facts right. They leave no stone unturned and are hungry to get as many facts out as possible thinking that if people can just get the facts, they will accept their argument and take the desired action.

However, there are two problems with that assumption.

First, people don’t always make rational decisions based on facts. For example, despite the overwhelming evidence that vaccines save lives, there are some who refuse to vaccinate their children. Just giving people more reasons why this is true won’t change their minds. The same could be said for climate change and other polarizing issues. The facts fail to persuade.

Second, people don’t remember all the facts. There have been a number of studies showing the limit of our short-term memory. One of the most recent studies was conducted by Nelson Cowan published in Behavior and Brain Sciences entitled, “The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity.” In short, less is more.

If facts won’t persuade people, what can organizations do when responding to a crisis or trying to influence a target audience? The answer is to take a step back and think about the story you want your audience to hear. Then use the most relevant two to three facts to validate the story you are telling.

For example, if you are candidate running for political office, just proving the facts might look like this:

“You should vote for me because I will spend more money on public safety, reduce crime, invest in infrastructure, protect senior citizens, build more playgrounds, reduce taxes, protect social security, build more bike lines, build a basketball court, hire more police officers, encourage development, protect the environment, build more affordable housing and take on special interests.

In this case, you have provided a lot of information, but nobody will remember it. Our work with organizations and businesses has shown it’s more effective to use fewer facts that play into a memory sticking narrative. You can do this by effectively telling stories that use the the most important facts to support it. An example of this approach would be:

Our community is being threatened by greedy special interests and career politicians. Working families, senior citizens and community groups are all doing their part but we are failing to make the progress we need. That’s because special interests and career politicians are more interested in helping themselves than helping the community.  We need a new approach where our elected officials will protect our senior citizens, build more playgrounds for our kids and invest in our community’s infrastructure. I’m asking for your vote to take on the special interests and put our community back on track for a better tomorrow.”

Fewer facts, but a more persuasive argument.

While the above example is from a hypothetical political campaign, the lesson is applicable to all communications. At NST, we work with large and small businesses, non profit organizations and government agencies to ensure you can effectively persuade your target audience. If you have questions on how we can help, feel free to contact us.

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