The Facts Speak for Themselves. Do They?


“Just the facts: they speak for themselves.” That's the approach many take when they want to persuade someone to their point of view.

But do they speak for themselves? Not so much.

From my technical background, I have observed a fact-based approach to persuasion many times but rarely successfully. It’s no wonder. The brain isn’t designed to respond to facts alone. Analytical people are responsive to reasoned arguments more often than others are; however, even they need to be motivated to pay attention. A logical argument takes a lot of energy and is less likely to work for most people

Thankfully, there are other persuasive techniques that are more promising. (Kevin Dutton’s work provides excellent insights into persuasion). After all, when persuading someone, the goal is to get to “yes,” you see (YES, UC).

1. You-focused. “What interests you about this issue?” And, “We want to address your questions first.” The word “you” is powerful. It is immediately relevant and it is always about our favorite subject. However, all too often, we are so preoccupied with our view that we think too little about theirs.

Before starting the persuasive argument, consider how the issue looks from their perspective. Why is it of interest to them? Given their background, what viewpoint are they likely to have and why? (This presumes that you did the research to know their background and preferences.) How can you put their interests in the forefront of the discussion? When you figure that out, start the discussion with that point of view. The first point can be the most influential.

2. Empathetic. People are more easily persuaded if they have a sense of relatedness, which leads to empathy. A lack of empathy can have the opposite effect. A 2002 study of doctors found that those with a less empathetic tone of voice were sued more often. Empathy counts a lot. Before beginning a persuasive discussion, take stock of the ways you connect with this person – schools, sports teams, background, and hobbies. Use examples or analogies based on these connections that reinforce your persuasive points. This is a step toward establishing empathy.

We like people better if we feel an empathetic connection. Mirror neurons help if we allow ourselves to notice the expressions, postures and feel of the other person. We start to feel what they feel. But we don’t pick up these subtle clues if we are thinking about a practical argument and push aside feelings. Relax so that you pick up on feeling clues.

3. Simple. A leader once told me, “If I can’t explain it, I can’t sell it.” Exactly. A pile of detailed, convoluted data rarely sells the idea. Neither will a barrage of multiple points. Make it easy for them to grasp and remember. What is the one thing you want them to remember, do, or agree to? Is it simple, clear and unambiguous? The reasoning part of the brain (prefrontal cortex) is energy intensive. It is easily derailed by fatigue, distraction or emotion. If you catch the person when they are tired or stressed, their ability to focus on detailed arguments is reduced. Keep it simple; include factual and emotional appeals; state the main point first and throughout. Repetition sticks. Repetition sticks.

4. Unexpected. We tend to be captivated by and remember the unexpected. Brain research shows that the emotion center in the brain (amygdala) is more sensitive to unexpected stimuli whether positive or negative. In a study, diners were divided into three groups. At the end of the meal, one group received a single candy; the second group received two candies; the third group received one candy but the server stopped as though having a change of heart, returned and gave an additional candy. The increased tip amounts (compared to the control group) for each group were 3.3%, 14.1% and a whopping 23% for the last group. The unexpected nice treatment caused a positive emotional reaction.

A friend of mine tried to persuade a company to hire her. She happened to be traveling to Maine after her interview. She mailed them a live lobster with a thank you note, and shortly afterward she got the job. Is there an unexpected twist you can add to your argument – something visual, tactile, or humorous? The unexpected turn will be more persuasive.

5. Confident. Confident and credible people are more persuasive. Walk in straight and tall; look them in the eye; have a firm handshake, and speak with confidence. A truly confident person doesn’t need to be a bully because they exude an air of self-assurance. A confident person is also open to hearing others’ concerns. If you sense concern, acknowledge it. Negative feelings come from a threat response in the brain. The threat response is reduced when the feeling is acknowledged. “I’m picking up that this topic is uncomfortable/not resonating/disagreeable for you. Tell me more about that.” There is no defensiveness but rather a confident interest in understanding fully.

Facts alone rarely lead to persuasion. Improve your persuasive approach by focusing on “you” statements, creating an empathetic connection, keeping the message simple, using an unexpected twist and exuding a quiet, confidence. YES, UC will make a difference. You’ll see.


Shelley Row
Shelley Row works with forward-thinking managers and leaders who must make fast, insightful decisions in the face of uncertainty and rapid change. Shelley’s original research through 77 executive interviews revealed the secret to effective decision-making: Use information and intuition. That research is validated through neuroscience. But Shelley’s work is grounded in more than just her research. Her life experiences taught her to think, feel, and act…and it made all the difference.