As I confessed in a prior post (On Repeat), I was not a natural when it came to the art of persuasion. I shared with my technical brethren a belief that the power of facts would be enough to convince someone that I had a better way. If someone didn’t agree, I was only 10 facts away from bringing them onside.
This translated to a presentation approach that is referred to in derogatory terms as the “show up and throw up”. That’s the relentless spewing of points, usually accompanied by endless PowerPoint slides, guaranteed to cause the most receptive audience to glaze over and tune out.
I could tell that I was blowing it, but couldn’t figure out why. Most of the advice that I found was related to how you should structure your slides. No more than 10 slides, 3 points per slide, use photos that enhance the meaning, and so one. Followed the advice, didn’t help.
One day, I was watching a program on “AFI’s1100 best movies”. At one point, the famed writer/director Billy Wilder was being interviewed2. An Austrian born Jewish man making films in Germany during the rise of the Nazi party, he fled to America, and created an incredible body of beloved work, including Sunset Blvd., Some Like It Hot, The Seven Year Itch, and so many more.
How Billy Wilder Connected With Everyone
Billy Wilder was once asked how he managed to make movies that reached so many people, including those who persecuted him. His answer stopped me in my tracks. He said, “Stories unite, philosophies divide”.
Let me repeat this for emphasis. “Stories unite, philosophies divide”.
In my customer meetings and demos I wasn’t telling a story. I was selling a fact based business and technical philosophy, “a better way” and the audience was rarely receptive. Unless my philosophy was their philosophy, I was cooked from the start.
Confirmation Bias and the Backfire Effect
If that was it, it would be bad enough. But, let’s mix in confirmation bias and (I like this one…) the “Backfire Effect”. Confirmation bias is where we cherry pick the facts that match our views. The Backfire Effect is confirmation bias’ strange cousin. Often, when people are presented with irrefutable truths that should cause them to revise their beliefs, they not only reject the truths, but they double down and entrench those beliefs more deeply. The more “facts” that I presented, the more likely I was to present a fact that countered their views.
We people are weird. But we are what we are.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you throw facts out the window. Rather, facts need to be gently and artistically woven into the narrative, into the story that you are telling.
This is one thing that I learned from a movie director. Next week, what I learned from John Lasseter, the animator, director, and the heart of Pixar.
1AFI is the American Film Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving movie heritage, and educating the next generation of filmmakers.
2In telling this story from memory, I may have inadvertently taken some artistic license. Attempts to find the clip or quote online were futile.