Gauging from what’s happening in politics this season, fact-based persuasion has gone woefully out of style. And it’s not just politics—one of the most common themes in the sales and persuasion blogosphere is that emotion rules persuasion. You don’t need to have a detailed grasp of the facts to make your case, because anyone can look up the details. Impressions and emotions sway decisions, numbers and details simply bore people.
But when you tear yourself away from a computer screen and pay attention to what’s happening in the real world, it’s clear that having a deep command of the facts—and being able to speak them at the rate of normal conversation without having to use your slides as a crutch—still has tremendous persuasive power. In fact, when everyone else is relying on vague, unsupported emotional appeals, those who state their case calmly, but with airtight confidence based on a tenacious grasp of the evidence, can stand out because hardly anyone does it anymore.
I’ve seen this phenomenon repeatedly over the past several months, as I’ve been involved with a group that has been fighting a battle against overdevelopment in my city. Our little band of dissidents lacks the money or influence that the developers and politicians have, and we’ve learned the hard way that emotional appeals at City Commission meetings are simply ignored. But we’ve also figured out that we can get attention by carefully researching the issues and backing up everything we say.
We’ve also learned that nothing is drier than too many numbers in a presentation, right? Actually, I’ve seen that if done correctly, rattling off a series of numbers from memory can have an enormous impact on the minds of your listeners. Paul, a member of our group, is a master at this. When we met with the editorial board of our local paper to make our case, Paul began explaining the public safety impact that the project would have, citing numbers such as response times, traffic delays, number of incidents, etc. Halfway through his spiel the paper’s editor interrupted and said: “You have an amazing grasp of the numbers!” That’s when I knew we had made our point.
In another public meeting, Paul’s detailed analysis of the weaknesses in the developer’s traffic study was so devastating that when the traffic expert tried to rebut his testimony, every time she mentioned a number, she looked at him as if she needed approval.
These examples point out another benefit of fact-based persuasion. When people are already emotionally invested in their own opinion on a matter, it’s extremely difficult to change their minds with an emotional appeal; they will simply dig an and defend their point of view even harder. Even if they agree with you, conceding your point may make them lose face. But if confronted with irrefutable facts, this “new information” gives them an honorable way out of their position, and they can show themselves to be reasonable people by changing their minds. This is especially important if you’re challenging those who are more powerful; a torrent of facts can be your best protection and surest way to succeed.
There is one key to keep in mind if you want to use details to impress and not to simply bore people. State the bottom line up front and then support it with numbers. As John Medina says in his book, Brain Rules: “Meaning before detail.” People will lose interest if they don’t know what your point is right away. When they grasp the meaning, they can much more easily pay attention to and absorb the necessary detail.