Why facts and statistics don’t always convince readers

One of the discussion groups of which I am a member today sent me an email with the headline “Why facts don’t convince people”.

I read on, only to realise that if I wanted to find out why facts don’t convince people I would have to go on the course which they are advertising.  But it did strike me that a fairly large number of people have now given up on facts.

For advertisers this is interesting because quite often advertisements are based on facts – or at least the facts as we see them.  So how are we supposed to conduct our advertising campaigns if people are not believing the facts anymore?

The answer is that people still do believe in some facts: it is just that they are being more selective these days.  Most of us, for example, believe that if we stick our hand in the fire, it will hurt.  We believe because we have painful evidence to support the belief.

But if there is no evidence immediately to hand to show cause and effect, the person receiving the advertisement may well not believe.

As a result, if we are going to make any claims in our advertising then we need to do something different – we need either to make an emotional appeal which doesn’t deal in facts at all, or we need to show exactly why the facts are true.

But here’s the problem: simply using facts to overturn existing beliefs normally doesn’t work.  Instead what happens is that people tend to cling onto their existing belief.

So what are the alternatives?

One other way is to move away from what the reader currently believes and simply present an alternative vision. In short, instead of saying “X is not true” or even “Y is true” one says instead “Z is the solution.”

A perfect example of this came with the recent government statement that 8 million people between the ages of 16 and 64 in the UK were “economically inactive” and could be given the skills to do jobs in sectors where there were shortages.

When this claim was made the argument was put back that many of the 8 million were students, the long-term unemployed, the retired, and those with caring responsibilities. But the Secretary of State stuck to her guns, mostly by repeating the mantra over and over.

There was no evidence presented that the figure was accurate or that such people could be encouraged into work successfully, but the point was made.

Unfortunately, Advertising Standards Authority rules don’t allow those of us working in business to copy the approach of people working in government; politicians are specifically excluded from the need to be able to justify their claims.

But nevertheless the boldness of the unprovable claim “that 20% of available working age people were inactive and could be encouraged into work” is an interesting example.

Now I would never say that one should lie in one’s advertising, and of course the claim by Ms Patel could well backfire on her in time, but starting with a bold claim of the benefit that can be achieved always seems a good idea to me.

My point therefore is that instead of writing advertisements by starting with a description of the product or service one is selling, one could start by thinking about a claim one could make.

For example, consider this claim: “50% of all students taking GCSE Physics could increase two grades if they studied physics in a meaningful way for an extra 20 minutes a day for the month leading up to the exam.”  That claim is right – they “could” increase by two grades.

Of course you may feel that you don’t want to be reduced to the level of mucking around with the language and coming up with such an approach – and actually I don’t either.  Although I do enjoy the phrase, “What is the simplest way to” as in “What is the simplest way to take half your students up two grades at GCSE?”

I’ve no idea what will happen to Ms Patel and her figure of 8 million people who could be encouraged to work.  But I do think the model is interesting, for after all she does say “could be encouraged to work”, not will be encouraged to work.

Will anyone try adverts suggesting that “20% of students could get higher grades if they could be encouraged to work”?  I wouldn’t be surprised if they did.  If you find such thoughts interesting you might care to have a look at our regular blog which records many of these notions.  You’ll find us here.

If you want to chat it is 01604 880927.  If you want to email it is Stephen@schools.co.uk

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