Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 13;   March 25, 2020: Bullet Point Madness: II

Bullet Point Madness: II

by

Decision makers in many organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of a series of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. Briefers who combine this format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision makers, guiding them into making poor decisions.
Bullet points

As I noted last time, although the bullet point format of briefings and presentations is suitable for relatively straightforward argumentation, its inherent shortcomings limit its value for addressing complex issues. Because bullet points are too terse to express complex notions, and because the structure of a series of bullet points is inherently linear, briefers must add observations and detail during the presentation itself. This exposes the briefers to a cognitive bias known as the illusion of transparency. Briefers tend to believe that their audiences are gaining a better understanding of the briefing than they actually are.

But some briefers are very comfortable with this situation. They're more concerned with successfully leading their audiences in adopting the briefer's point of view than they are in providing their audiences with an accurate understanding of reality that can serve as the basis of a sound decision.

One approach to mitigating this risk is persuading decision makers not to demand briefings in bullet-point format, and instead encourage briefers to use whatever format best suits the content. But the bullet point is so well entrenched in business culture that efforts of that kind are unlikely to succeed. So I offer this alternative: a selection of insights about techniques that briefers use to bias decision making in the briefer's favor when the briefing uses bullet point format. Below are three guidelines some briefers employ to bias decision makers.

Feature aesthetics
In a recent post (see "The Trap of Beautiful Language," Point Lookout for December 18, 2019), I explored how beautiful language can confer credibility on the message the language carries. This phenomenon is due, in part, to a cognitive bias known as the rhyme-as-reason effect. It isn't much of a leap to suppose that other dimensions of beauty, beyond the mere linguistic, might have a similar effect.
For example, a beautiful set of slides, Some briefers are more concerned
with successfully influencing their
audiences than they are in
providing them with an
accurate view of reality
narrated by an attractive and polished presenter, might be regarded as more credible than would be a more workaday slide set narrated by a more down-to-earth presenter. [Brenner 2012]
Indeed, a search of the Web for tips for effective presentation slides yields over 24 million hits. These "tips sites" include such wisdom as the "6x6 rule" for bullet-point-formatted presentations: No slide should have more than six bullet points of no more than six words each. Slides with more verbiage than that are un-aesthetically "busy."
Provide dramatic nonprobative information
Dramatic nonprobative information is information that doesn't contribute to a proof of the briefer's case, but which is dramatic in its impact on the audience. Audiences find it persuasive, even though it proves nothing. Examples are emotional or humorous anecdotes; suggestive charts, graphs, and statistical data; statistical correlations; and images.
Nonprobative information can be so persuasive that it has drawn the attention of researchers. For example, Newman, et al., have produced results that are consistent with the hypothesis that ancillary photographic images can enhance the probability of subjects accepting claims to be true without evidence. [Newman 2012]
A reasonable conjecture is that the effect of nonprobative information might not be restricted to photographs — videos, well-designed graphics, testimonials, stories, personal accounts, celebrity endorsements, clever word or phrase coinage, and so on, might all have similar effects.
These results suggest that we make our decisions based on the bulk or emotional impact of the material offered in support of a claim rather than on the evidentiary quality of that material. The advertising industry seems to be willing to invest enormous sums in ways that suggest that such approaches are effective in general populations.
Exploit cognitive biases
A cognitive bias is the tendency to make systematic errors of judgment based on thought-related factors rather than evidence. We're all subject to cognitive biases; no one is exempt. Many different cognitive biases are available for exploitation, but let's consider one: the endowment effect.
The endowment effect is our tendency to demand much more to give up an asset (or privilege) than we would be willing to pay (or sacrifice) to acquire it. [Morewedge 2015]
In some circumstances, decision makers confront a choice in which they must close down one initiative that's already underway (call it initiative O for "old"), in order to undertake another initiative (call it initiative N for "new"). In these cases, the endowment effect can sometimes lead decision makers to demand a lower level of risk or a higher return from N than they would if they had no need to close down O, and therefore the endowment effect were not acting.
Briefers who advocate for N can exploit the endowment effect to advantage. They can use aesthetics and nonprobative information to make their projections for N seem more credible and more appealing to a skeptical audience. And by avoiding those techniques in the portion of the briefing concerning another contending briefer's projections for O, they can make O seem less appealing. In this way they can increase the relative attractiveness of N.

These are just three examples of techniques briefers can use to gain an unfair advantage in persuading decision makers to adopt the position the briefers advocate. If I haven't convinced you that this is a real risk, let me know and I'll send you some bullet points. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Virtual Meetings: Then and Now  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Footnotes

Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Brenner 2012]
Richard Brenner. "The Halo Effect," Point Lookout blog, March 21, 2012. Available here. Back
[Newman 2012]
Eryn J. Newman, Maryanne Garry, Daniel M. Bernstein, Justin Kantner, and D. Stephen Lindsay. "Nonprobative photographs (or words) inflate truthiness," Psychonomic Bulletin and Review 19:5 (2012), 969-974. Available here. Back
[Morewedge 2015]
Carey K. Morewedge, and Colleen E. Giblin. "Explanations of the endowment effect: an integrative review," Trends in Cognitive Sciences 19:6 (2015), 339-348. Back

Your comments are welcome

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

About Point Lookout

This article in its entirety was written by a 
          human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.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.

This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

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 Cognitive Biases at Work:

An actual bandwagon in a circus paradeCognitive Biases and Influence: I
The techniques of influence include inadvertent — and not-so-inadvertent — uses of cognitive biases. They are one way we lead each other to accept or decide things that rationality cannot support.
Assembling an IKEA chairSeven More Planning Pitfalls: III
Planning teams, like all teams, are vulnerable to several patterns of interaction that can lead to counter-productive results. Two of these relevant to planners are a cognitive bias called the IKEA Effect, and a systemic bias against realistic estimates of cost and schedule.
A drone carrying a camera, flying under remote controlIllusory Management: I
Many believe that managers control organizational performance, but a puzzle emerges when we consider the phenomena managers clearly cannot control. Why do we believe in Management control when the phenomena Management cannot control are so many and powerful?
18 hatsIllusory Management: II
Many believe that managers control organizational performance more precisely than they actually do. This illusion might arise, in part, from a mechanism that causes leaders and the people they lead to tend to misattribute organizational success.
The Yin and Yang symbol with white representing Yang and black representing YinUnrecognized Bullying: III
Much workplace bullying goes unrecognized because of cognitive biases that can cause targets, perpetrators, bystanders, and supervisors of perpetrators not to notice bullying. The Halo Effect and the Horn Effect are two of these biases.

See also Cognitive Biases at Work and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

What most of us think of when we think of checklistsComing February 28: Checklists: Conventional or Auditable
Checklists help us remember the steps of complex procedures, and the order in which we must execute them. The simplest form is the conventional checklist. But when we need a record of what we've done, we need an auditable checklist. Available here and by RSS on February 28.
Adolf Hitler greets Neville Chamberlain at the beginning of the Bad Godesberg meeting on 24 September 1938And on March 6: Six More Insights About Workplace Bullying
Some of the lore about dealing with bullies at work isn't just wrong — it's harmful. It's harmful in the sense that applying it intensifies the bullying. Here are six insights that might help when devising strategies for dealing with bullies at work. Example: Letting yourself be bullied is not a thing. Available here and by RSS on March 6.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenIyeJIiAfnGdKlUXrner@ChacsxirZwZlENmHUNHioCanyon.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

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at X, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
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!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
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.