Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 14, Issue 53;   December 31, 2014:

The Power and Hazards of Anecdotes: I

by

Anecdotes are short stories — sometimes just a single sentence. They're powerful tools of persuasion, but they can also be dangerous, to both anecdote tellers and anecdote listeners.
An egg sandwich

An egg sandwich. The story of the invention of the sandwich is widely known. As the story goes, it was named after an English aristocrat, John Montagu (1718-1792), the fourth Earl of Sandwich, who ordered his valet to bring him meat between two slices of bread. The Earl was supposedly playing cards, and wanted to avoid both greasy fingers and using a fork. Whether or not the anecdote is true, it is certainly memorable.

One powerful tool of persuasion is the anecdote. Anecdotes are stories about specific incidents, or descriptions of specific situations. We use anecdotes to persuade because they represent a more general class of incidents or situations. For example, we might say, "One customer tried to follow those installation instructions, and it destroyed all her data files." That's an anecdote that suggests problems with the installation procedure.

Anecdotes derive their power from their repeatability and their passion.

Repeatability
Anecdotes confer leverage upon their tellers because those who hear the anecdotes can easily repeat the anecdotes to others. This enables the teller of the anecdote to persuade people who aren't actually present for the telling. Anecdotes can thus go viral without computers or networks. And the people persuaded by anecdotes can clearly explain why they were persuaded, because anecdotes are memorable.
Passion
Some anecdotes are compelling because they convey emotion or passion. They can elicit empathy from those who hear them, as does the anecdote about the lost data files from anyone who has ever lost data. Telling a compelling anecdote can persuade powerfully.

Although anecdotes are powerful, they can also be hazardous to both anecdote tellers and anecdote listeners. As we listen to anecdotes we're subject to a variety of so-called cognitive biases. The biases can distort our thinking as we interpret and evaluate the persuader's message. Listeners can find themselves adopting views that aren't in their interests. Similarly, if listeners make interpretations not intended by anecdote tellers, they might adopt views that aren't consistent with the teller's intentions.

Here is Part I of a catalog of cognitive biases that create these hazards.

Availability Heuristic
We tend to estimate the probability of events based on how easy it is to imagine those events occurring, Although anecdotes are powerful
tools of persuasion, they can also
be hazardous to both anecdote
tellers and anecdote listeners
rather than on serious estimates of likelihoods. Likewise, we gauge the plausibility of an assertion based on how easy it is to imagine the conditions that would make it valid. Anecdotes illustrating assertions can thus lead listeners to feel that the assertions are more likely to be true than they actually are. That's one way in which the Availability Heuristic makes false rumors — which are often in the form of anecdotes — credible.
Focusing Illusion
The Focusing Illusion is our tendency to overvalue one aspect of a situation relative to its importance. For example, in the anecdote about the lost data files, the listener focuses on the fact that the loss occurred at the time of installing the new software. The anecdote says nothing about what else might have been happening at the time. Did another user have access to the files on the server? Did someone or something else delete the files? The anecdote's form actually suppresses any thought of possible causes other than the installation.

We'll continue next time exploring additional sources of distorted thinking associated with anecdotes used for persuasion.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: The Power and Hazards of Anecdotes: II  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenGBFYqdeDxZESDSsjner@ChacmtFQZGrwOdySPdSsoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

USS Indianapolis' last Commanding Officer, Captain Charles B. McVay, IIIThe Politics of Lessons Learned
Many organizations gather lessons learned — or at least, they believe they do. Mastering the political subtleties of lessons learned efforts enhances results.
A shark of unspecified speciesNarcissistic Behavior at Work: VII
Narcissistic behavior at work prevents trusting relationships from developing. It also disrupts existing relationships, and generates toxic conflict. One class of behaviors that's especially threatening to relationships is disregard for the feelings of others. In this part of our series we examine the effects of that disregard.
Children playing a computer gameHigh Falutin' Goofy Talk: III
Workplace speech and writing sometimes strays into the land of pretentious but overused business phrases, which I like to call "high falutin' goofy talk." We use these phrases with perhaps less thought than they deserve, because they can be trite or can evoke indecorous images. Here's Part III of a collection of phrases and images to avoid.
Inside the space station flight control room (FCR-1) in the Johnson Space Center's Mission Control CenterEmbarrassment, Shame, and Guilt at Work: Coping
Coping effectively with feelings of embarrassment, shame, or guilt is the path to recovering a sense of balance that's the foundation of clear thinking. And thinking clearly at work is important if you want to avoid feeling embarrassment, shame, or guilt.
Three gulls excluding a fourthAn Introduction to Workplace Ostracism
We say that a person has been ostracized from a group when that person is ignored by the members of that group or excluded from participating in that group's activities, and when we might otherwise expect that person to be a member. Workplace ostracism can have expensive consequences for the enterprise.

See also Workplace Politics and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A possibly difficult choiceComing April 21: Choice-Supportive Bias
Choice-supportive bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to evaluate our past choices as more fitting than they actually were. The erroneous judgments it produces can be especially costly to organizations interested in improving decision processes. Available here and by RSS on April 21.
Two people engaged in pair collaborationAnd on April 28: The Self-Explanation Effect
In the learning context, self-explanation is the act of explaining to oneself what one is learning. Self-explanation has been shown to increase the rate of acquiring mastery. The mystery is why we don't structure knowledge work to exploit this phenomenon. Available here and by RSS on April 28.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenGBFYqdeDxZESDSsjner@ChacmtFQZGrwOdySPdSsoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!

Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.