Stories are the way in which we teach moral lessons, keep an audience engaged in what we’re saying, and convince others to pursue a course of action.
In the business world, where time is short, and you need to make a point quickly the favorite device is the anecdote. These short stories help others see your point of view.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in a meeting where all of the evidence is pointing towards a clear path when someone, usually someone in a senior position, offers up and anecdotal counter-example.
You want to quit smoking? Why? My grandfather smoked a pack a day and he lived till 92.
And that’s all it takes. The meeting is over. All the evidence in the world doesn’t matter anymore.
This simple anecdote now has everyone ignoring the evidence and statistical distribution and focusing on the grandfather.
The problem is stories don’t really encourage us to think. They make it easy to overlook evidence, fall prey to cognitive biases, and generally encourage bad decisions.
Stories are an important weapon to have in our arsenal.
As someone trying to persuade others, you can have all the facts you want but if you can’t tell a story people won’t listen.
In response to a question recently, Demian Farnworth, a writer at copyblogger, offered up four books copywriters should read to improve their ability to tell a good story.
He spends his day writing stories and highly recommends you read these four books if you want to learn how to tell better stories.
“As you’ll notice,” he writes, “these have nothing to do with copywriting. That’s okay. The discipline of storytelling translates exceptionally well over industries. What you learn in these books you can use in your sales copy.”
And sales copy is just a fancy way of persuading people to come around to your point of view. Just make sure you’ve done the work.
Two important nuggets from an interview with Chip Heath, co-author of Decisive (more here), on improving our ability to make better decisions:
A decision-making magic trick
The closest thing to a decision-making magic trick that I’ve found is the question, “What would you advise your best friend to do if they were in your situation?” So often when I ask that question, people blurt out an answer and their eyes get wide. They’re shocked at how easy it is when you just imagine you’re advising someone else.
This time isn’t so different
businesses make decisions about mergers and acquisitions that are hundreds of millions of dollars, and to the senior leader it seems like, “Well this is a different situation than the last acquisition we made.” And yet in that room making the decision is a set of people who have probably seen a dozen acquisitions, but they don’t take the time to do even the equivalent of the three-out-of-five-stars rating that we would get from Amazon.com.
The kind of decisions that senior people make always present themselves as though they are completely different than anything else. Big decisions are subtle in a way because they all seem to come one at a time. The advantage of smaller decisions is we realize we are in a repeated situation where we’re going to see the same thing a lot.
Yet lots of big decisions end up having that property as well. If we take the time to move our mental spotlight around, we can always find other decisions that are similar to this one. We think the chief financial officer we’re trying to hire is in a unique position in the company, and that this is a unique position in time with unique demands. But the fact is, we’ve made other senior hires and we know how that process goes. Stepping back and taking in the broader context is just as useful for senior leaders as it is for the frontline worker who’s making a decision on the 35th mortgage application or the 75th customer complaint.
You’re probably not as effective at making decisions as you could be.
This article explores Chip and Dan Heaths’ new book, Decisive. It’s going to help us make better decisions both as individuals and in groups.
But before we get to that, you should think about a tough decision you’re grappling with right now. Having a decision working in your mind as you’re reading this post will help make the advice in here tangible.
Ok, let’s dig in.
“A remarkable aspect of your mental life is that you are rarely stumped … The normal state of your mind is that you have intuitive feelings and opinions about almost everything that comes your way. You like or dislike people long before you know much about them; you trust or distrust strangers without knowing why; you feel that an enterprise is bound to succeed without analyzing it.”
— Daniel Kahneman
We’re quick to jump to conclusions because we give too much weight to the information in front of us and we fail to search for new information, which might disprove our thoughts.
Nobel Prize winning Psychologist Daniel Kahneman called this tendency “what you see is all there is.” But that’s not the only reason we don’t make good decisions — there are many others.
We’re overconfident. We look for information that fits our thoughts and ignore information that doesn’t. We are overly influenced by authority. We choose the short-term over the long-term. Once we’ve made a decision we find it hard to change our mind. In short, our brains are flawed. I could go on.
Knowing about these and other biases isn’t enough; it doesn’t help us fix the problem. We need a framework for making decisions.
In Decisive, the Heaths introduce a four-step process designed to counteract many biases.
In keeping with Kahneman’s visual metaphor, the Heaths refer to the tendency to see only what’s in front of us as a “spotlight” effect.
And that, in essence, is the core difficulty of decision making.
What’s in the spotlight will rarely be everything we need to make good decisions, but we won’t always remember to shift the light.
Most of us rarely use a process for thinking about things. If we do use one it’s likely to be the pros-and-cons list. While better than nothing, this approach is still deeply flawed because it doesn’t really account for biases.
The Four Villains of Decision Making
Narrow Framing: “… the tendency to define our choices too narrowly, to see them in binary terms. We ask, “Should I break up with my partner or not?” instead of “What are the ways I could make this relationship better?”
Confirmation Bias: “When people have the opportunity to collect information from the world, they are more likely to select information that supports their preexisting attitudes, beliefs, and actions.” We pretend we want the truth, yet all we really want is reassurance.
Short-term Emotion: “When we’ve got a difficult decision to make, our feelings churn. We replay the same arguments in our head. We agonize about our circumstances. We change our minds from day to day. If our decision was represented on a spreadsheet, none of the numbers would be changing—there’s no new information being added—but it doesn’t feel that way in our heads.”
Overconfidence: “People think they know more than they do about how the future will unfold.”
The Heaths came up with a process to help us overcome these villains and make better choices. “We can’t deactivate our biases, but … we can counteract them with the right discipline.” The nature of each of the four decision-making villains suggests a strategy for how to defeat it.
1. You encounter a choice. But narrow framing makes you miss options. So … Widen Your Options. How can you expand your set of choices? …
2. You analyze your options. But the confirmation bias leads you to gather self-serving information. So … Reality-Test Your Assumptions. How can you get outside your head and collect information you can trust? …
3. You make a choice. But short-term emotion will often tempt you to make the wrong one. So … Attain Distance Before Deciding. How can you overcome short-term emotion and conflicted feelings to make better choices? …
4. Then you live with it. But you’ll often be overconfident about how the future will unfold. So … Prepare to Be Wrong. How can we plan for an uncertain future so that we give our decisions the best chance to succeed? …
They call this WRAP. “At its core, the WRAP model urges you to switch from “auto spotlight” to manual spotlight.
All in all this was a great book. We focus our efforts on analysis. If a decision is wrong the analysis must have been the problem. Not only does this ignore the fact that you can have ‘bad outcomes’ with good decisions but it also places your spotlight on the analysis at the cost of the process by which the decision was made.