2018.05.02 Persuasion - by story or theory?

Hearing a story speaks to our emotions. We can imagine ourselves in a similar situation and are exited for the people involved when they overcome obstacles and get a good outcome of their adventure.

This was the problem; this is what we did about it. Mission accomplished.

Compare this to reading a research paper where a literature review lays out what is already known about an issue, the methodology describes how we test the hypothesis, and the result tells us if data confirmed the hypothesis.

In comparison, the latter is boring.

Never the less, when you try to persuade somebody to do something, in many cultures they prefer going from theory to application rather than the other way around.

From Harvard Business Review's quiz on how people perform along these dimensions:

"People from Germanic and southern European cultures usually find it more persuasive to lay out generally accepted principles before presenting an opinion or making a statement; American and British managers typically lead with opinions or factual observations, adding concepts later to explain as necessary."

USA is very much in the camp where applications come first.

This presentation form is already trained with the "five paragraph essay" poor high school students have to produce in great volumes: Introduction, supporting arguments 1,2,3, and conclusion.

This is much different from exploring a subject with both arguments that are for and arguments against an opinion.

in this article on the research behind selecting astronauts in the 1970s and onward, you can see the American script plays out: First a story about NASA, lending credibility to how efficient this method is, and then comes some theory.

My first "aha" experience related to this difference in communication preferences was when a fellow student from Nepal was dissatisfied with his grade on a paper. The teacher explained what the expectations were around essays and he explained that in Nepal, a paper was meant to show what the student knew about the subject, not necessarily to get to a conclusion.

The irony is that this happened in an ethnography class - of any teachers, this one should know that there are more than one way to do things.

As I have said before: The right form is the one that makes the audience engaged. Whether it means sharing a story or feeding skeptics with the underlying theory and research results depends entirely on who they are.