Don’t Let Too Many Facts Cloud Your Argument

Sean Silverthorne

Here is an article written by Sean Silverthorne for BNET, The CBS Interactive Business Network. To check out an abundance of valuable resources and obtain a free subscription to one or more of the BNET newsletters, please click here.

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When it’s time to make the Big Pitch for more resources, a better job title or to head a sexy new project, our first inclination is to load the supporting data into the PowerPoint canon for firing when needed. The more data, the better, of course. Nothing spells success like cold, hard facts.

Except that more data often means a less persuasive presentation. You know this is true: How many meetings have you slumbered through as the numbers piled up like spent shells that missed their mark? The key is to offer a message or story with clarity and simplicity, backed with key data points. Not all of them–you can always make the full information available later.

John Kotter, a Harvard Business School professor emeritus and author of the new book, Buy-In: Saving Your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down, agrees. The deluge-of-data problem often arises after the initial presentation, when the audience has a chance to challenge or question what they’ve just heard. Kotter sees problems when the presenter tries to overwhelm objections from the audience with even more information.

“They shoot at an attack sixteen times with bullets of data to make sure it is dead,” Kotter blogs on “But in so doing, they are arguing not on their own but on the naysayer’s territory, opening themselves up to counter-attacks with each piece of evidence they dispense–and simultaneously putting other listeners to sleep!”

Read his post for more details, but his advice comes down to this. When confronted by doubters, offer a “quick, direct, common sense answer that shows respect for the naysayer but moves the discussion along.” In other words, don’t rebut point-by-point, but rather acknowledge the points made while being brief in your answer.

How do you handle the data dilemma? How much is too much?

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Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

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