Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 22, Issue 8;   March 2, 2022: Logical Presentation Can Be Ineffective

Logical Presentation Can Be Ineffective

by

Although logic and reasoning are useful tools for problem solving and decision making, they're less useful for exchanging ideas among collaborators. Effectiveness in presenting one's own views to others requires more clarity than logic.
A picture of a Snow Crystal taken by Wilson Bentley, "The Snowflake Man"

A picture of a Snow Crystal taken by Wilson Bentley, "The Snowflake Man." Snowflakes, as ice crystals, are metaphors for clarity. But in their symmetry they also represent order and logic. Synthesizing order and clarity is an admirable goal for any communication. Photo by Wilson Bentley courtesy Wikipedia.

Rational argument and its components — objective evidence, clearly stated assumptions, logical inference, and other rational arguments — form the basis of a kit of tools essential for decision-making and problem solving. Rational argument can provide unparalleled assurance that we're making the right decision, or that we've actually solved the problem we're confronting.

But logical presentation of our thinking can be much less helpful in the discussions that lead to those decisions, or that produce those solutions. Adhering to the rules of logical presentation creates problems for groups as they collaborate to converge on decisions or solutions.

Comparing two approaches

Consider the example of offering an opinion as to the effectiveness of using burndown charts to report progress in a project. Here are two forms that are logically equivalent.

Version one
We don't have all the data required to create a burndown chart. It's an effective presentation format, but we would need to fabricate or guess at what we don't know, and that could lead to faulty conclusions and misimpressions.
Version two
We risk misleading people about where this project stands when we present status in chart format. We would be creating the impression that we know much more than we do, because we don't actually have good estimates of how much work remains to be done.

The first version states the problem, and then explains how it arises and what its consequences are. The lead message is that chart format is an effective format, but our data doesn't support it. It then continues with details describing the consequences of the lack of data. The punch line is at the end: "it can lead to faulty conclusions and misimpressions."

In the second version, Effectiveness in presenting one's
own views to others requires
more clarity than logic
the lead message is right up front: chart format risks misleading people. That's the punch line. The second version then continues with an explanation of the factors that contribute to that unfortunate outcome.

The first version is more "logical" in the sense that it proceeds from cause to effect. The second version is clearer, because it features the consequences, and then follows with the details that explain how those consequences can arise. Its clarity derives from delivering the conclusion first. That order provides recipients a framework that helps them make sense of the chain of the argument during its delivery.

Sources of differences in effectiveness

A cognitive bias known as the serial-position effect causes us to recall better any items placed early in a list or late in that list, compared to how well we recall items in the middle of the list. [Ebbinghaus 1913] Experimental evidence for this effect is derived from measuring recall ability for lists of words. That exercise is admittedly different from recalling (or grasping) the thread of a rational argument. But it's reasonable to suppose that a similar effect might apply to rational argument. If so, positioning the important points of an argument at one end or the other of the argument might be more effective than simply reproducing the logical order of the argument, especially in the context of a meeting or informal conversation.

More important still is the choice of content for the start of the argument. The logical framework would suggest that one ought to begin with the premises, or perhaps the assumptions. But because of a cognitive bias known as salience bias, impact rules. [Kahneman 1982] A more effective choice for the lead point might be a point that awakens in the recipient a powerful urge to hear the rest of the argument and follow closely how it ties together all of its elements including that first point. Salience bias predisposes us to focus on items that are more prominent or emotionally striking. And this effect suggests that we tend to ignore or be less attentive to points that are unremarkable, even though they might be critical to the validity of the argument.

Last Words

Because of the serial-position effect and salience bias, then, I chose to title this post, "Logical Presentation Can Be Ineffective." I was hoping — I am hoping — that you'll remember that fundamental message. It is the message that logic, while useful in discovery and invention, might not work so well when used to communicate an idea in a memorable way. A more effective approach might be to lead with the piece of your message that's most likely to stick. Go to top Top  Next issue: Quasi-Narcissistic Quasi-Subordinates  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

Footnotes

Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Ebbinghaus 1913]
Hermann Ebbinghaus. "Memory: A contribution to experimental psychology." (translated by Henry A. Ruger and Clara E. Bussenius, 1913). New York: Teachers College, Columbia University (1885). Available here. Retrieved 15 February 2022. Back
[Kahneman 1982]
Daniel Kahneman, Stewart Paul Slovic, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky, eds. "Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases," Cambridge University Press, 1982. 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 Effective Communication at Work:

Virginia  Satir's Yes No MedallionSaying No
When we have to say "no" to customers or to people in power, we're often tempted to placate with a "yes." There's a better way: learn how to say "no" in a way that moves the group toward joint problem solving.
Senator Mark Warner (Democrat of Virginia) meets with mayorsDiscussus Interruptus
You're chairing a meeting, and to your dismay, things get out of hand. People interrupt each other so often that nobody can complete a thought, and some people dominate the meeting. What can you do?
Doodles by T.D. Lee, created while working with C.N. YangDismissive Gestures: III
Sometimes we use dismissive gestures to express disdain, to assert superior status, to exact revenge or as tools of destructive conflict. And sometimes we use them by accident. They hurt personally, and they harm the effectiveness of the organization. Here's Part III of a little catalog of dismissive gestures.
Raquel Welch (left) and Gilda Radner (right) from a Saturday Night Live rehearsal, April 24, 1976Conceptual Mondegreens
When we disagree about abstractions, such as a problem solution, or a competitor's strategy, the cause can often be misunderstanding the abstraction. That misunderstanding can be a conceptual mondegreen.
A symphony orchestra in actionThe Risks of Rehearsals
Rehearsing a conversation can be constructive. But when we're anxious about it, we can imagine how it would unfold in ways that bias our perceptions. We risk deluding ourselves about possible outcomes, and we might even experience stress unnecessarily.

See also Effective Communication at Work and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Adolf Hitler greets Neville Chamberlain at the beginning of the Bad Godesberg meeting on 24 September 1938Coming 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.
The S.S. Eastland, in Cleveland, Ohio, around 1911And on March 13: On Anticipating Consequences
Much of what goes wrong when we change systems to improve them falls into a category we call unanticipated consequences. Even when we lack models that can project these results accurately, morphological analysis that can help us avoid much misery. Available here and by RSS on March 13.

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 post 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.