On Data, Stories, and Persuasion

Examining whether decisions today should begin and end with data.


How do people make decisions?

That high-level question summed up much of my college studies. It’s also driven a great deal of my professional life. Related queries include:

  • How can we make better decisions?
  • Can we ensure that we are making the right decision? If so, how?
  • Why do different groups and individuals make different decisions?

Many excellent books have been written about questions like these. For my money, Daniel Kannehman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (affiliate link) is the best of the lot.

As a student of big ideas, I often wonder how the explosion of information (aka, Big Data) is changing the way that we make decisions. Do we respond better to stories or to data? What’s more, does the answer depend on situational factors? Put differently, when trying to convince someone or a group of people about our ideas, where should we start?

Where to begin?

In this vein, consider a recent post on Harvard Business Review by Nick Morgan who writes:

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.

Different people respond differently to different approaches.

Morgan may very well be right in many–if not most–consumer settings and even a majority professional ones. You’ll get no argument from me on the power of storytelling, especially the visual kind. But should we always start with storytelling?

I have a hard time swallowing that one. As W. Edwards Deming famously said, “In God we trust; all others must bring data.” That maxim is increasingly becoming true, at least in the workplace. For instance, a friend of mine used to work at Google as a VP in HR. In speaking with him over the years, I was amazed at the extent to which most decisions start with data. Current HR head honcho Laszlo Bock writes about how data even informs the company’s approach to work-life balance.

At Google, there is no “escape” from data. Irrespective of function, if you’re not comfortable using quantitative methods to advance your argument, you’re not going to do very well. Your ideas will not gain traction. The culture is predicated on data, some would so excessively so.

Simon Says: Beware of Absolutes

Aim for a more holistic approach. In the Mad Men days, perhaps you could get away with a good story alone. Today, though, I can think of no worse idea than only bringing one girl to the dance. When pitching an idea, it’s more dangerous than ever to leave the data at home. Big Data has changed many things, but don’t forget that different people still respond differently (read: better) to different approaches. Don’t try to put a square peg in a round hole.

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What say you?


I wrote this post as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program. It provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise, and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. IBM has compensated me to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

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