John Kotter over at HBR argues that we should use less data and evidence in our presentations and Q&A:
[M]ost people respond to a critical question by arguing against the reasoning of whoever asked the question. They offer all of the evidence they can think of, hoping to make their case overwhelming. They shoot at an attack sixteen times with bullets of data to make sure it is dead. But in so doing, they are arguing not on their own but on the naysayer’s territory, opening themselves up to counter-attacks with each piece of evidence they dispense — and simultaneously putting other listeners to sleep!
I have seen far more success when people offer a quick, direct, common sense answer that shows respect for the naysayer but moves the discussion along. It is important to strike a balance between addressing a naysayer’s concern and keeping each question-and-answer brief in order to hold your audience’s full attention. To use economics terms, there are diminishing marginal returns to data-dumping in your answers. Great leaders throughout history, from Gandhi to Sam Walton, have always employed this principle to maximum effect. They knew the power of clarity and simplicity. And they found that using it allowed them to connect with more people and win more hearts and minds.
The next time you present an idea on an important new marketing campaign, for example, and someone rebuts it by citing five previous times that your company tried a new marketing campaign and it was unsuccessful, you have two options. You could go through each of the five examples, explain their flaws in detail, and demonstrate how each of those flaws does not apply to your idea. Or you could say, “There are always examples of failed attempts to do anything of real importance, and we did indeed learn from the experiences you cite. But we cannot allow these past failures to keep us from adapting to a changing world or else we would never move forward on anything.”
I am sympathetic to the notion of using less data in presentations as well as being less verbose, but Kotter seems to be conflating the two. Short, concise statements that lack adequate evidence and data are just as likely to get shot down as long, laboring statements that include reams of data.
Kotter is right that data dumps are a bad thing, but his example has it’s risks. If your audience includes folks with great BS detectors they won’t let you get away with that statement. Sure, it’s short. But it lacks any rationale for why the campaign being pitched shouldn’t be judged by those previous failures. How hard would it be to briefly state that the factors that led to the previous failures do not apply to the current case? You don’t need to get into the weeds on each factor, but you have to give people a reason to buy in to your current proposal other than “we need to keep trying new things and taking risks”. Statements devoid of evidence are just as useless as data without purpose or context.
For me, it’s about right-sizing and being selective with the data you use, not banishing data and evidence in favor of simple statements or platitudes out a fear of alienating your audience.