Monday, September 23, 2013

Use a story to get past their biases

Confirmation bias refers to the tendency of your readers or listeners to accept only what they already believe. It could explain why your well-crafted papers, memos and speeches get nowhere. I've written about it here and here.

This cognitive bias would seem to be an impenetrable barrier, but there is a way through it: the old-fashioned story.

Steve Denning, a knowledge management and organizational storytelling consultant, has looked into this. “Analysis might excite the mind," he writes, "but it hardly offers a route to the heart.And that’s where you must go if you are to motivate people not only to take action but to do so with energy and enthusiasm.”

Here's an example from his own experience, as related by Cynthia Phoel:
As a program director at The World Bank in the mid-1990s Denning was at a loss for how to convince his colleagues of the value of knowledge management. Presentations built on solid research and carefully constructed PowerPoint slides got him nowhere. Then he started telling this simple story:
In June of last year, a health worker in a tiny town in Zambia went to the Web site of the Centers for Disease Control and got an answer to a question about the treatment of malaria. Remember that this was in Zambia, one of the poorest countries in the world, and it was in a tiny place six hundred kilometers from the capitol city. But the most striking thing about this picture, at least for us, is that the World Bank isn’t in it. Despite our know-how on all kinds of poverty-related issues, that knowledge isn’t available to the millions of people who could use it. Imagine if it were. Think what an organization we could become.
This narrative succeeded in persuading Denning’s listeners to envision a broader, more ambitious future for the organization. It succeeded where analysis and argument had failed.
Business isn't as rational as we pretend. But you knew that.

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