All stats, no story

One of my favorite lines is an insult. “He’s all hat, but no cattle” means someone is all show and bluster, but holds little of true value. Managers and emerging leaders are often beset by ‘imposter syndrome.’ To compensate, they overload their presentations with charts, graphs, statistics and data. They leave no room for a story to breathe life into the narrative.

Statistics will not help us fall in love with anything.

Martin Shaw, Ph.D

Whatever you say…

Over the last several decades, communication trainers have emphasized two things: body language and the quality of voice. This focus was based on a study by UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian, misinterpreted to suggest that what you say doesn’t matter as much as how you say it. The guidance, so-called the “55-38-7” rule, promoted the idea that 55 percent of your communication is in your body language, while 38 percent is locked up in the tone and quality of your voice. The message accounts for only seven percent of the communication. The interpretation is erroneous for a variety of reasons, including the limited scope of the study and what it was really measuring.

Meanwhile, start-up co-founders and middle managers have dutifully honed their hand gestures, practiced holding eye contact and projecting their voice. Meanwhile, they unleashed slide after slide of eye charts, making one impressive data point after another in the hope of securing funding, or approval, or a policy vote.

Consciously or unconsciously, our audiences are, in fact, making judgments not only about the information but also about the speaker. How do we improve the opportunity for our audience to be receptive to the information?

Forming an impression

Persuasion theory tells us that two factors influence impressions: the warmth and competence of the speaker. Warmth refers to perceived friendliness, sincerity and trustworthiness. Competence relates to ability, intelligence and skill.

Telling a story might be a way to improve that perception of warmth because stories create empathy.

Melanie C. Green, Ph.D

In a recent paper, researchers asked why some people find it hard to be convinced despite overwhelming evidence. They specifically reviewed science communication in which the speaker may be competent, but cold and distant. In one part of the behavioral study, “participants preferred to work on cooperative tasks with partners who had provided narratives.” In other words, if the purpose of the communication is to gain support or engagement, then weaving a narrative with the data is more effective than “just the facts, ma’am.”

Facts still matter, of course. A narrative does not mean a fiction or embellishment. You can explain why the research question was compelling, how the team worked together, or how you gathered data. In other words, we need some color commentary in addition to the play-by-play.

It is a false choice to suggest that weaving narrative — demonstrating warmth — into a presentation somehow undermines the presenter’s competence. Creating an impression and persuading people is a complex process. Weaving a narrative seems to be more effective than a simple data dump.

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