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 might be a more workaday slide set narrated by a more down-to-earth presenter [1].
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 non-probative information
Dramatic non-probative 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.
non-probative 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 non-probative 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 and who understand the endowment effect can exploit it to advantage. They can use aesthetics and non-probative 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  

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

[1]
This might be an example of the halo effect. 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? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.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 Cognitive Biases at Work:

Gachi Fernandez and Sergio Cortazzo, professional tango coupleScope Creep, Hot Hands, and the Illusion of Control
Despite our awareness of scope creep's dangerous effects on projects and other efforts, we seem unable to prevent it. Two cognitive biases — the "hot hand fallacy" and "the illusion of control" — might provide explanations.
The Bloomingdale's store in Stamford, Connecticut in January 1955Why Scope Expands: I
Scope creep is depressingly familiar. Its anti-partner, spontaneous and stealthy scope contraction, has no accepted name, and is rarely seen. Why?
Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and President Bush in a press conference on September 17, 2001Overconfidence at Work
Confidence in our judgments and ourselves is essential to success. Confidence misplaced — overconfidence — leads to trouble and failure. Understanding the causes and consequences of overconfidence can be most useful.
Louis Pasteur in 1885Wishful Significance: II
When we're beset by seemingly unresolvable problems, we sometimes conclude that "wishful thinking" was the cause. Wishful thinking can result from errors in assessing the significance of our observations. Here's a second group of causes of erroneous assessment of significance.
Domestic turkeys. The turkey has become known for lack of intelligence.The Stupidity Attribution Error
In workplace debates, we sometimes conclude erroneously that only stupidity can explain why our debate partners fail to grasp the elegance or importance of our arguments. There are many other possibilities.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Child's toys known as Chinese finger trapsComing April 1: Incompetence: Traps and Snares
Sometimes people judge as incompetent colleagues who are unprepared to carry out their responsibilities. Some of these "incompetents" are trapped or ensnared in incompetence, unable to acquire the ability to do their jobs. Available here and by RSS on April 1.
A portion of the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.And on April 8: Intentionally Misreporting Status: I
When we report the status of the work we do, we sometimes confront the temptation to embellish the good news or soften the bad news. How can we best deal with these obstacles to reporting status with integrity? Available here and by RSS on April 8.

Coaching services

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

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
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.