I've had several situations in recent weeks where my client's talented and growing Advanced Analytics team has complained about their problems with business end-users who won’t accept the results of an evidence-based analysis. "it's crazy!" they say. "The models and calculations are sound, the data sets have integrity, we can prove our answer is right! How can the business team still be making gut-feel decisions? They just don't understand!"
The penny might just have dropped for them yesterday though, when their Group Director gave a short presentation on the overall business strategy for the next 12 months. Out of the blue (and unprompted) he said, "we all need to learn that being right isn't always enough", before going on to outline that the political decision-making process often didn't depend on the data, and that bringing people along on the journey was often more important than the actual facts.
This revelation was just the cue I needed to introduce the Analytics group to a technique that I've been applying for some years, based on the main themes from Aristotle's "Art of Rhetoric". In summary, Aristotle identifies three factors that you need to get in balance in order to carry the argument:
Logos - this is home territory for the analytically minded. This is the underlying proof of the case, and depends on whether the evidence stands up to skeptical scrutiny and examination. The challenge is that if the audience is not skilled enough to grasp the rationale of the argument or follow the logical reasoning being put forward, then the case can go no further! This is the situation my client’s analytic team is currently faced with – the business community aren’t familiar enough with statistical concepts and evidence-based decision making to let the facts stand up for themselves.
Ethos – the reputation, disposition and standing of the speaker in the perception of the audience, based on their ability to project good sense, moral character and goodwill. A message is more likely to be well received if it the audience has confidence in the nature of the speaker; this is established by successfully conveying oneself as having the relevant experience, expertise and judgment to be talking on the subject. An “expert” with the right credentials will be more credible that someone who is perceived as having less of a track-record (whether or not they’re actually all that knowledgeable). As a consultant, it’s the Ethos dimension that I’m most often trading on, at least in the early stages of a new relationship – if a prospective client has the expectation that I’m an expert, then they’re more likely to hire me! Tools of the trade that help me generate instant Ethos include a good CV, case studies and testimonials from happy clients, and of course plenty of war-stories drawn from my back-catalogue of successes (and failures! There’s always additional credit to be gained from sharing a painfully-learned lesson.)
Pathos – the ability to engage with and appeal to the audiences emotions. Being able to put the listener in a certain frame of mind will make them more disposed to agree with your point of view. Aristotle describes methods of arousing all sorts of emotional responses from an audience, depending how you want the listener to respond. In order to be successful in establishing the right connections with the audience, the speaker needs to be able to carefully judge the listener’s initial emotional state, such that the messaging can then be adjusted accordingly to tap into the desired emotional response. There would be no point giving bad news to an audience that was already angry, regardless of how rational the logic of the situation!
It's this third area of Pathos that's often the missing capability, and interestingly it's the one that sales people, marketeers and politicians operate in most of the time. Who needs facts when you can manipulate people's emotions in order to bend them to your will? (A chilling example of just how powerful the successful use of Pathos can be is illustrated by the rise of the Nazi party in 1930’s Germany).
While in some respects it is this third area that seems to be the most effective aspect of conveying an argument successfully, As Aristotle advises, there needs to be a balance of Logos, Ethos and Pathos in your presentations, or else you are going to get found out at some point. I therefore find it very helpful when preparing a business case or recommendations report to make sure that I've given consideration to all three areas. Here are a few questions that I ask myself in reviewing my presentations:
- Logos: have I prepared the raw facts and supporting evidence clearly and presented them with integrity and traceability? Does the rationale for the requirement really stack up? Have alternative solutions been identified, examined and discounted so that there can be no objections further down the line? Have I reduced the amount of jargon and simplified the presentation of the information in a no-nonsense way that can be understood by the least knowledgeable person in the audience? (If you want an excellent example of how this can be achieved, read Professor Stephen Hawking’s book ‘A Brief History Of Time’).
- Ethos: Have I researched additional 3rd party quotes and made cross-references to other bodies of work? Have I included anecdotes and observations from other stakeholders within the same organization? Have I used examples from my own case studies to compare with the current client’s situation?
- Pathos: Have I identified the “what's in it for me” factors and business benefits that are relevant to the people making the decision? Do I understand their current disposition? If the decision I want them to make is unpalatable, what do I need to do to get them feeling positive before breaking the bad news? (Don't forget the FUD factors - Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. Perceived risk of failure and the ability to save face are powerful motivators.)
Don’t worry if you never get around to reading the whole of Aristotle’s book – it’s pretty dry in places and can be hard going! But remembering to apply the underlying themes of Logos, Ethos and Pathos will give you a reference-point to test your messaging before engaging with your audience. So next time you're about to make a presentation or recommendation to a group of stakeholders who might be a little less than data literate, don't forget to get your Greek on!