Clear thinking - Presentations

Content is Still King–Long Live the King

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

John Adams

Aristotle taught us that the art of persuasion rests on three legs: logos, ethos and pathos. Logos means a strong argument supported by sufficient evidence; ethos refers to personal credibility; pathos is emotional resonance.

Ethos and pathos are clearly important—most great speeches in history are engraved in our memories because they speak to our deepest feelings and values, or because they are linked to the great figures who uttered them. There will be plenty of discussions about them in this blog, but initially I’m going to stress logos because in a world of shrinking attention spans there seems to be an overemphasis on flash and superficiality, as if you can make a meal out of sizzle without the steak.

Al Gore’s slide presentation, An Inconvenient Truth, definitely sizzled: it contributed to his Nobel Peace Prize. Yet his presentation was found to contain nine major factual errors. I’m not sure if these are enough to invalidate his central thesis, but I’m certain that if he were presenting a proposal to a Board of Directors rather than the general public it would be a career-limiting presentation.

Ultimately, your persuasiveness and credibility rests on the quality of your ideas. The information forming your message must be true, it must be logical, and it must be relevant to the issue being discussed. As long as you say things that make logical sense, and can back it up with verifiable facts, your credibility can not be undermined.

Logic, quantification and sound data are especially important in business communication, where emotional and “passionate” arguments will be automatically met with suspicion by many audiences. Besides being important in their own right, they also carry a certain intangible value, so that even the appearance of rationality carries weight (“nine out of ten doctors recommend…” )

Logic has greater staying power than emotion, which is especially important if the target of your persuasion is not going to make the decision right then. We’re told to sleep on important decisions precisely because we can be objective when emotion recedes. While a passionate argument may bring out strong feelings, that good feeling may not last. When your audience is ready to decide, they’ll remember the logic longer than they will feel the feeling. They’ll also find it easier to convince others.

Sound content is also an ethical obligation. There are manipulators who know how to appear credible even though the content of their messages is false or harmful. I hope you are not one of them, and that’s all I’ll say about that.

Here are some guidelines to preserve your credibility:

Be sure of your facts

With so much information at our immediate disposal, it’s much more difficult to assess the quality of the evidence. Make sure your information is from a trusted source, and cross-check it against other sources whenever possible. Avoid confirmation bias, which is the tendency to only pay attention to information that supports your point; if you don’t bring out contradictory information, someone else will.

Really learn the material

Another disadvantage of the ease of finding information is that we get lazy and we don’t internalize material like we used to.  While it might be enough to know where to get the relevant knowledge to bring to the table, far more impressive and credible to others is the person who has a firm grasp of the relevant material and can discuss it fluently and at length from memory.

Search engine knowledge is easily gained, so we can get a lot of it quickly at a superficial level. But sometimes credibility demands depth of knowledge as well. There is a wonderful story about the physicist, Max Planck, who traveled around Europe delivering lectures. One day, his chauffeur said to him, “Professor Planck, I have heard you give the same lecture so many times that I am quite confident that I could deliver the same lecture. Why don’t we exchange places at the next one and let me pretend to be you?”

Planck agreed, and the chauffeur went on to deliver a perfect word for word version. At the end of it, a professor in the front row asked a question about one of his points. The chauffeur looked at him for several seconds, and said: “Herr Professor, I am surprised that someone of your standing would ask such a simple question. To prove how simple it is, I will let my driver answer it.”

The point of this story is that superficial knowledge of your material may be just enough to get you into trouble. Any favorable initial impression can be quickly lost if you can’t answer the deeper questions you’ll get in the inevitable drill-down. It’s like the Western movie set where you go behind the facades and find nothing there. Beware the superficial analysis of the problem or simplistic explanations.

Get your hands dirty

“Get your hands dirty” is Toyota’s way of saying that you should get to where the action is, and see for yourself. It’s difficult for anyone to challenge your facts when you are the only person who has the information, because you have been to the scene and have seen for yourself. Knowledge gained through personal observation is very credible, and it’s easier for you to remember and bring forth as the occasion demands.

Don’t get out in front of your facts

Never overstate your expertise or claim more than your facts allow. Be honest about your limitations if asked, or even before you deliver the material. Above all, never try to bluff your way through. If you don’t know, say so—and then find the answer.

Separate opinion from fact

There is nothing wrong with using personal opinion to support your arguments.  In fact, in most of your persuasive efforts you’re not going to have an airtight case that can be proven with mathematical rigor. Some of the information you might need is simply unavailable, unknowable, or undecided. If you do use opinion, make sure you are transparent—be honest about the difference between fact and opinion with others. More importantly, perhaps, be honest with yourself about the difference.

Block your time

Once you have the facts and material collected for your presentation, take time to focus and reflect on it. I don’t simply mind putting in the time; I’m referring to uninterrupted blocks of time that will allow your mind to relax from its continuous partial attention. You’ll be amazed at how many insights and connections pop into your mind when you’re immersed into your subject.

Related Posts
The Eyes Have It
January 6, 2012
  • […] on the evidence and the logic, which is where your competence will be fully tested. That’s where content is king, and the competent jerk will beat the amiable dummy […]

  • […] Where I totally disagree, however, is in the excessive and unwarranted claims made in the video, that “what you say is less important than how you say it and “style trumps content”.  People have tried to get away with this thinking for a long time, which is why Lincoln stressed that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Yes, presentation is important, and yes, people make snap judgments of your competence based on how you present yourself, but in the end, as I’ve written before, content is still king. […]

  • More rock-solid stuff, Jack!

    I appreciate how you point out that preserving credibility is not only a good idea for the individual, but also an ethical consideration. Spreading bad information doesn’t do anyone any good in the long run (and may be one factor contibuting to many of the largest problems in our society today).

    A good amount of research indicates that one of the major barriers to becoming a credible source of knowledge for many individuals is low levels of enjoyment for the activities you recommend above. So, I thought I might support your article above by sharing a short, simple article on how to boost enjoyment for a variety of activities. I’ve seen people move from wishing that they were willing to do the work of becoming (rather than just “looking like”) an expert to actually enhancing expertise by considering some of these simple (but often quite powerful) enjoyment-enhancing strategies:

    Once again, I appreciate your commitment to promoting a fact-based approach to helping others, Jack. Bravo once again!

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