More than facts: the art of convincing

by Randall Snare

I’m having a standoff with a nurse. She is lovely and it’s not personal, although sometimes I get a bit hot in the face, and frustrated, like a child.

The standoff regards the content of a large cancer charity website I’m working on. We’ve had many back-and-forths about the scientific information we’re displaying on the site, which is indeed the bulk of the content, and serves its primary users.



Science is almost as bad as law: they are both anti-clarity. They pack in the clauses to cover all eventualities, which makes sense from their perspective – there is always an outlier, and if these outliers read a generalisation, they could get angry.

As the content strategist on the project, the bulk of my work has been at word level. They’re happy with new layouts, semantic structures and even new job titles as they move into their new roles. But edit their sentence? This takes weeks of wrangling.

I get so emotional (but so does Leah Buley)

Leah Buley, from Adaptive Path, has a fantastic presentation called the UX team of one.  She finds herself sometimes having knee jerk reactions when meeting with clients, which struck me because I can do the same thing.

And this is why I think content strategists are leagues ahead in the consulting game: they know how to ingratiate themselves in business. We have to; we don’t have fancy graphics to hold in front of us like a shield (I’m not saying all UX and visual designers do this. I love you UX and visual designers). We’re dealing in the currency that everyone is comfortable with – marketers, product owners, CEOs, everyone: language.

Brains, not business

What is most challenging (and most interesting) is not the political part. Rather, it’s truly convincing someone of something they previously did not believe – that they perhaps actively think is not true.

And making your point is more than presenting facts. We’re not logical beings - we believe things based not on facts and evidence, but on our experience.

An experiment in persuasion

One of my favorite (if erudite) podcasts is This American Life, who recently had on their show a girl who didn’t believe in global warming. They found her at a Glenn Beck rally (naturally) and brought her into their studio to talk to a scientist. The experiment was to see if this scientist could change her mind.

The scientist started with an overview, citing temperature measurements, sea levels, CO2 levels and even fancy ice core measurements.

The girl didn’t find this convincing. She cited holes in the theory (like record high temperatures in the 12th century), which the scientist rebutted, filling the theoretic gaps.  But the girl was still not convinced.

The host then asked if anything the scientist or anyone else could do to convince her:

If I saw both sides of the arguments completely side by side, then maybe I could see how it would be true.

This, of course, had just happened. She was presented with facts, and facts were the responses to her questions: the “side-by-side” scenario was exactly what she got. So why didn’t she believe it? Because things that we think are true have more to do with who we are and how we fit in the world than knowledge we’ve collected. They are far more than just facts.

Why everyone hated Socrates

Socrates was executed for heresy, which (from what we read in Plato’s books) meant challenging people’s beliefs. We don’t want to change our minds. It’s scary.

One of the things Socrates challenged was an assumed cause and effect, which he argued with people were simply correlations.  We naturally make inferences (something Elizabeth and I talked about in our recent A List Apart article), which is how we can make sense of the world. But it also means that our beliefs often come from our experiences, and therefore we believe that they are true. This is very hard to dispel. A dispute over a fact can seem like a personal attack.

Take one of Socrates’ encounters as an example. He is talking to Charmides, one of his disciples, trying to define self control (as you do). Charmides argues that “what self control really is, [is] knowing oneself.” Socrates argues that real knowledge is knowledge of a thing (like architecture is a knowledge of buildings). He’s questioning what the  knowledge of oneself actually produces. After going around in circles, Charmides exclaims “you’re ignoring the real point . . . in your efforts to refute me.”

Socrates argues with fact alone: he breaks things down to points so small that people can’t refute them logically.  But they still do – Charmides leaves the argument (he eventually comes back) and instead exclaims “you’re just attacking me”.

Guidelines for changing minds

Convincing is like teaching. We can broadcast information as much as we like, but unless we allow someone to figure it out on their own, they won’t be convinced.

But building a framework to facilitate discovery is hard.  I should know – I’m the one arguing with a lovely nurse. But here’s how I think you do it:

Know who you’re talking to. Sound familiar? If you know what someone cares about, what their value systems are, then you’re more likely to discuss something on the level that means something to them, which more often than not, is an emotional level.

Make your case slowly. Rarely does anyone come around immediately. Part of getting someone to believe you is associating who you are and how you behave with the position you’re presenting. (This goes for every topic: studies looking at the acceptance of LGBT people show that there’s a higher acceptance among those who know someone LGBT than those who don’t).

Don’t list. Wax poetic. Richard Nisbett and (later) Paul Slovic did an experiment (in 1983 and 2007 respectively) showing  that people retained information better if it was presented within a narrative, rather than as a data set. Stuff sticks more strongly if it has a context.

Listen. Stop talking for a minute, and listen to what someone you’re trying to convince is saying. More often than not, if someones has to prove themselves right, they’ll find holes in their own theory. Plus people like talking, so you should let them.

A paradoxical conclusion

The most important thing you can do is realize that convincing is all about emotions, while at the same time removing emotions from your arguments. No one said convincing was easy.


Written by
Randall Snare
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5 responses to More than facts: the art of convincing

  1. Enjoyed this article a lot! Have you read the 1950s literature on congnitive dissonance? Festinger and friends did some really interesting experiments on changing beliefs and communication systems. This whole area of study is fascinating.

    • Thanks Melissa! I have not read any of that and I’m going to the bookstore tomorrow. I’m not even ashamed that I’m giddy with reading anticipation.

  2. A great article with substance. I wish some of our so called Journalists would consider philosophy and history before putting pen to paper.

    In the time of Socrates there was a belief in rhetoric as an art. An argument might be tossed over and back adding and subtracting facts. Each side was ready and waiting to be moved by the facts. This is an idea that has been forgotten. Now people take positions and defend it from facts like a castle under siege. Theres a word for that style of argument, but I cant for the life of me recall and don’t feel like Googling.

    In summary, we should teach our children and nurses to allow themselves to be move by facts (picture the school debating team having a change of heart mid argument)

  3. Randall——this was easy for me to understand. I am a person who does not keep up with technology or the times and I got the message and enjoyed it.

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We're two writers who make web things. We're interested in what makes stories go: in our brains, online, in design, fiction, culture and everywhere.

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