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 logicthe 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.
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. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
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- When Over-Delivering Makes Trouble
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- Please Reassure Them
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 1: The Big Power of Little Words
- Big, fancy words, like commensurate or obfuscation, tend to be more noticed than the little everyday words, like yet or best. That might be why the little words can be so much more powerful, steering conversations where their users want them to go. Available here and by RSS on February 1.
- And on February 8: Kerfuffles That Seem Like Something More
- Much of what we regard as political conflict is a series of squabbles commonly called kerfuffles. They captivate us while they're underway, but after a month or two they're forgotten. Why do they happen? Why do they persist? Available here and by RSS on February 8.
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