The No Data Approach to Persuasive Messaging

Recently, on national television in Australia, a physicist and a politician debated whether climate change was real. The physicist presented data and charts to prove that climate change was occurring, while the politician contended that his data was manipulated and that the uncorrupted data disproves the climate change theory. Unsurprisingly, neither side persuaded the other.

Sounds familiar right? During this U.S. presidential election cycle, each candidate is presenting facts — whether accurate or not — to build a case for becoming the next president. Yet, data and facts presented in speeches and campaign rallies are failing to persuade the opposite side to view the argument or the candidate differently. Recent poll numbers reflect that reality.

Why does it seem that presenting data and facts is not persuasive? A recent column by David Ignatius in The Washington Post may provide some insights.

Ignatius highlights a study on misperception by former Ogilvy Public Relations chairman Christopher Graves examining why U.S. parents believe that childhood vaccines cause autism, despite overwhelming medical evidence to the contrary. In summary, Graves’ study found that people tend to accept arguments that confirm their views and discount facts that challenge what they believe.

If that’s the case, what can we do as communicators to debunk inaccurate information and reinforce and spread the accurate perspective? Here are some tips from Graves’ article in Harvard Business Review about his study findings:

Avoid confirmation bias

    Discussed by Charles Lord in his research, the confirmation bias is the effect that people will only accept evidence that fits their pre-existing views. Arguing the facts can undermine your argument. Instead of facts enlightening your opposition, it may encourage them to “dig in” deeper into their original argument. By “correcting” them, you may actually help reinforce their perspective. A good example of this phenomenon is what the Clinton campaign is experiencing right now. Clinton’s communications team is working to undermine Trump campaign statements about Clinton’s and Obama’s records with facts and evidence, but they are not persuading Trump supporters to see those issues differently. Instead, their efforts are strengthening Trump’s base and making it hard to draw those voters away.

Debunk without repeating the myth

    It’s a habit to repeat the misinformation when trying to correct it — however, each time we restate the inaccurate information, we are further spreading it and inadvertently giving the myth more credibility. Not a good thing. While not an easy task, find ways to state your position without repeating the false one. Offer a counter argument without repeating inaccurate statistics or claims. Using the Australian TV climate change debate as a topic example, perhaps the physicist could have said something like: “While Malcolm Roberts thinks otherwise, the climate reporting data is collected by multiple agencies from all over the world and they are all showing the same trends. The data tells us that climate change is real and is happening, and that humans’ growing carbon footprint has been a contributing factor as to why we have impacted the environment and contributed to climate change.”

Affirm your opponents

    Before Al Franken was a U.S. Senator from Minnesota, he played self-help guru Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live.

    via GIPHY

    His famous catchphrase was this daily affirmation: “You’re good enough, you’re smart enough and gosh darn it, people like you.” In order to help opponents see the argument differently, studies show that we need to provide positive affirmation for their perspective. Validating how they feel will help them become more receptive to new information instead of holding their original perspective so closely.

Replace the myth with a story

    After debunking a myth, communicators must replace it with something else, or the intended audience will fill the void with other myths or inaccurate information. Keeping your argument centered on one individual’s empathetic narrative — instead of the collective narrative of the group — gives opponents a personal alternate story to replace their debunked myth.

Think of the Khan family’s speech about their son U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan at the Democratic National Convention as a good example of a simple, focused counter argument that provides a powerful alternative narrative to dispute an opponent’s perspective on an issue. In a brief speech, Khizr Khan was able to encourage his opponent’s supporters to view their candidate differently, in spite of what the candidate has said during the campaign. Khan accomplished more than all of the speeches that occurred during both national conventions by the candidates and their surrogates.

Don’t leave out well-sourced data in persuasive messages — but effective message platforms will not reinforce incorrect information. Provide positive affirmations for opponents and offer a powerful singular narrative as a myth replacement.