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
Do 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!
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrensDaBMTItJCwaKsgNner@ChacCrQTBGMzBwhIqYTXoCanyon.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.
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.
More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- Corrosive Buts
- When we discuss what we care deeply about, and when we differ, the word "but" can lead us
into destructive conflict. Such a little word, yet so corrosive. Why? What can we do instead?
- Begging the Question
- Begging the question is a common, usually undetected, rhetorical fallacy. It leads to unsupported conclusions
and painful places we just can't live with. What can we do when it happens?
- Interviewing the Willing: Strategy
- At times, we need information from each other. For example, we want to learn about how someone approached
a similar problem, or we must interview someone about system requirements. Yet, even when the source
is willing, we sometimes fail to expose critical facts. How can we elicit information from the willing
- What, Why, and How
- When solving problems, groups frequently get stuck in circular debate. Positions harden even before
the issue is clear. Here's a framework for exploration that can sharpen thinking and focus the group.
- The Passion-Professionalism Paradox
- Changing the direction of a group or a company requires passion and professionalism, two attributes
often in tension. Here's one possible way to resolve that tension.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
- And on October 19: Bullying by Proxy: I
- The form of workplace bullying perhaps most often observed involves a bully and a target. Other forms are less obvious. One of these, bullying by proxy, is especially difficult to control, because it so easily evades most anti-bullying policies. Available here and by RSS on October 19.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrensDaBMTItJCwaKsgNner@ChacCrQTBGMzBwhIqYTXoCanyon.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:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
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