Persuasion: why facts don’t work

As a communication skills coach I work regularly with individuals and groups to identify, prioritise and illustrate the key facts that support the arguments they need to put forward in presentations, media interviews, negotiations and other critical meetings.

There is an assumption that facts are the ultimate, undeniable persuaders, in the face of which the strongest opposition has no choice but to melt away.

But in our ‘post-truth’- era, the power and the primacy of factual information is looking increasingly dubious as a tool for persuasion.

Climate change deniers and vaccination refuseniks

Just consider these examples:

  • While the vast majority of climate scientists agree that climate change is happening as a result of human activity and have a wealth of data to prove it, more than half of US senators are climate change deniers
  • Although claims of a link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism have been comprehensively discredited, the belief persists among a significant minority of parents in England to the extent that in some areas almost two fifths are opting out of vaccination
  • The claim on the Brexit bus that the UK pays £350m per week to the European Union was disproved by independent fact-checkers FullFacts before the UK referendum and by the Office for National Statistics since. But that hasn’t stopped people believing it is true and it hasn’t stopped Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson reviving the claim more recently

How can we explain these blatant discrepancies?

The ‘confirmation bias’

We have to start by acknowledging the fact that the human brain is an imperfect computer that finds it very difficult to interpret factual information objectively. Instead we tend to filter information through the prism of our pre-established opinions and beliefs.

According to economist and journalist Tim Harford: ‘…when we hear facts that challenge us, we selectively amplify what suits us, ignore what does not and reinterpret whatever we can.’

This tendency to see what we want to see is known as ‘the confirmation bias’. And it probably has more traction now than at any other time in our history because it is possible to find support for just about any crackpot theory you care to mention on the internet, promulgated to believers via social media.

The limitations of logic

The other problem with the human brain is that it isn’t anywhere near as logical as we like to think. Our instincts and emotions predate our intellects by a very long way and recent findings from the field of neuroscience suggest that emotions play a primary role in decision-making.

A few years back the Portugese-American neuroscientist Antonio Damasio made a groundbreaking discovery when studying people with damage in the part of the brain where emotions are generated.

Although they seemed normal (apart from not feeling emotions, that is) they all exhibited the same inability to make even the simplest decisions.

Damasio concluded that even the most apparently logical decisions are probably based on emotion. Which probably explains why, after weighing up the pros and cons, we tend to go with what ‘feels right’.

What this means for you

To return to my starting point, where does all this leave facts as a tool of persuasion?

In terms of the confirmation bias, it means you can’t just throw a series of facts, however well-evidenced, at your audience and expect them to be accepted at face value. Rather you need to do some homework aimed at uncovering your audience’s preconceptions and identify some shared ground before you can hope to influence them.

In terms of the primacy of emotions, it means you need to find ways to appeal to hearts as well as minds, to engage feeling as well as thought.

Aristotle arrived at this same conclusion centuries ago when he identified ethos (a speaker’s credibility), logos (appeal to logic) and pathos (appeal to emotions) as the three key tools of persuasion. And that will be the subject of my next post.

How we can help you

Clearsay works with senior executives in all sectors to develop and improve their spoken communication skills for us in presentations, media interviews, negotiations and critical meetings. For more information return to the Home Page.