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Data Storytelling and Persuasion

A new survey tackles a topic that's captivated thinkers from Aristotle to Jane Austen to Dale Carnegie: persuasion. Persuasion is a device -- a skill -- used in all human interactions. In many cases, it's the reason for human interaction: we communicate, we collaborate, we tell stories in order to persuade.

A new survey tackles a topic that's captivated thinkers from Aristotle to Jane Austen to Dale Carnegie: persuasion.

The Art of Persuasive Communication in the Workplace is the second entry in Qlik Inc.'s Quarterly Research Digest. In addition to the survey about workplace communication, collaboration, and persuasion that is its centerpiece, Qlik's new report includes articles about persuasion and data storytelling, persuasion and propaganda, and several other provocative topics.

Why persuasion? Qlik researchers argue that persuasion is what moves the needle. It's a device -- a skill -- that's used in all human interactions. In many cases, it's the reason for human interaction: we communicate, we collaborate, we tell stories in order to persuade.

Above all, persuasion is a critical tool in business, Qlik researchers argue.

For Further Reading:

How to Find a Story in Data

Three Practical Ways of Narrating Your BI

Data Stories: Best Practices for Charts, Data Journalism, and Visualizations

"We use it while convincing or reinforcing attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors and to carry our opinions. How much persuasion managers need to use is heavily influenced by their organizations' decision-making style and culture," the report says.

Most of the 206 participants in Qlik's survey, all of them from North America, said that persuasion is an important tool in their business cultures. For example, 35 percent) of respondents said that their decision-making culture was "somewhat collaborative" and that persuasion -- the ability to make the case for one's preferred decision or course of action -- was critical to move forward.

Thirty-nine percent of respondents said their decision-making cultures were highly collaborative and that persuasion was no more or less important than other devices in enacting decisions. As for the rest, Qlik notes that "a considerable number of organizations still display autocratic management styles." Persuasion is no less critical in autocratic contexts, although it's less a function of persuading to consensus (as in collaborative cultures) as winning over executives and other key stakeholders.

When it's time to make a persuasive case, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of respondents say they prefer in-person meetings or presentations. The remainder (34 percent) said they prefer one-to-one phone calls or in-person conversations.

People don't always have the luxury of their preferences, however. In a plurality of cases (38 percent), would-be persuaders say they're able to use structured presentations to make their cases. A slightly smaller proportion (36 percent) says they almost always have to use one-to-one meetings to persuade, however. In other words, the ways in which people persuade are determined by a number of factors -- e.g., timeliness, location, weather, budgets, business criticality, and (not least) organizational culture. Some cultures prefer presentations, which is great for people who like them and not so great for those who don't. Others prefer one-to-one meetings.

In a sense, organizational culture is the critical determinant. The Qlik survey found that "very collaborative" organizations tend to do more of both types of interaction: 61 percent of respondents in "very collaborative" organizations say they use structured presentations to persuade, while 51 percent use one-to-one meetings. Those numbers decrease for "somewhat collaborative" (to 47 percent and 40 percent, respectively) and quasi-autocratic (45 percent and 45 percent, respectively) organizations. In any case, would-be persuaders should be prepared to excel in both.

As to how they're persuading, 45 percent still make their pitches primarily on the basis of their own knowledge and experience. Thirty-seven percent said that they primarily use data in their pitches.

Persuaders tend to plan their arguments with collaboration -- of a sort -- in mind. Most respondents (45 percent) said that they discuss objections openly with their team or audience. Most said they also do their best to anticipate disagreements or objections when they prepare their presentations or documents. A smaller proportion (40 percent) said they discuss objections privately in one-to-one meetings or via phone calls. (Some respondents said they'll also proactively contact team members personally to discuss potential disagreements.) In any case, a sizable proportion (40 percent) of respondents said they allocate at least one-quarter of a meeting to debate and discussion.

Elsewhere in the survey results, Qlik found that almost half (46 percent) of respondents say they like to take the time to lay out background information for the people or groups to whom they're presenting. An overwhelming 80 percent say they "almost always" or "often" take the time to outline possible outcomes when they make proposals. Persuasion doesn't seem to be a one-and-done proposition, either. A majority of respondents (69 percent) say that more discussion is usually required before any action is taken.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a technology writer with 20 years of experience. His writing has focused on business intelligence, data warehousing, and analytics for almost 15 years. Swoyer has an abiding interest in tech, but he’s particularly intrigued by the thorny people and process problems technology vendors never, ever want to talk about. You can contact him at [email protected].

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