The Data Tells The Story…Not!

I was listening to a podcast recently and the guest said, “The data tells the story.” I would contend it’s not the data that tells the story but rather, how the data is presented. Let me share several examples.

Unhealthy Big Macs

In Made to Stick, authors Chip and Dan Heath shared a story about how unhealthy movie popcorn was back in the 1990s. A medium sized bucket contained 37 grams of saturated fat. While that sounded unhealthy, people basically said, “So what?” Even when informed it was almost twice as much as the USDA recommended daily allowance of 20 grams, people response was still, “So what?”

It wasn’t until “the data” was put into a visual that people sat up and took notice. During a press conference at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, it was conveyed, along with a visual, “A medium sized ‘butter’ popcorn at a typical neighborhood movie theater contains more artery-clogging fat than a bacon-and-egg breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings – combined!” You don’t have to be a doctor or fitness expert to understand how unhealthy that picture is!

Tax Increases

Several years ago, there was debate over a potential increase in the state tax for Illinois residents. It was a whopping 66% increase according to opponents. However, supporters said it was only a 2% increase. And, as strange as it may sound, both sides were right!

At the time, the state tax was 3% and the proposal was to increase it to 5%. So, it was raising the tax two percentage points. But, looking at the change from 3% to 5% represented a 66% increase in what Illinois residents would pay.

It was literally two sides of the same coin…that the state wanted!

Carbon Emissions

I saw a news story last week with the headline U.S. Sets Record in Reducing Carbon Emissions. Given that we stepped away from the Paris Accord it caught my attention. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA):

“The United States saw the largest decline in energy-related CO2 emissions in 2019 on a country basis – a fall of 140 Mt, or 2.9 percent, to 4.8 Gt. U.S. emissions are now down almost 1 Gt from their peak in the year 2000, the largest absolute decline by any country over that period.”

The counterfactual was as follows:

“It’s true that, according to the IEA’s February 2020 report, the U.S. achieved a greater absolute reduction in CO2 emissions than any other country, in 2019. However, claims that the U.S. therefore ‘led the entire world’ or was a ‘global leader’ in CO2 emissions were belied by the fact that other countries (including Germany, Japan, and likely others) achieved a superior rate of reduction in CO2 emissions. Although not a country, the European Union achieved both a larger absolute reduction and a greater rate of reduction in CO2 emissions than the US did.”

This is analogous to the Illinois state tax. It depends on how you view it; in absolute or relative terms. No matter how you view this one, a reduction is a good thing.

National Debt

Is a million dollars a lot of money? I’m guessing all of my readers would say it is. Is a trillion dollars a lot of money? I know everyone would agree that’s a lot of money! Did you know our national debt is over $23 trillion now? Do you realize how big that number actually is? Probably not so let me give you some perspective:

If the U.S. national debt grew no larger starting today, and we could pay it down by one million dollars a day, every single day, any idea how long it would take to pay it off?

Just over 63,000 years. Yes, you read that right, it would take 63,000 years to pay off the national debt if we reduce it by a million dollars a day. We hear about numbers on the news – data – all the time and have no clue as to what those numbers really mean for us.


I could go on and on with examples like these. I hope you see my point – the data doesn’t tell the story. The presentation of the data tells the story. And, how that data is presented always comes with an agenda.

To Do This Week

Start looking critically at what’s being presented and how it’s being presented, especially in the news. Never forget, every news outlet has a bias so carefully consider what’s being presented and ask why it’s being present the way it is.

We’re coming up on a presidential election, a time when all candidates on both sides make big promises. Do a little research, find out what’s being promised and whether or not those promises as truly feasible. I think in most cases you’ll conclude they’re not.

Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC. An author, international trainer, coach and consultant, he’s one of only 20 people in the world personally trained by Robert Cialdini, Ph.D., the most cited living social psychologist on the planet on the science of ethical influence and persuasion.

Brian’s book, Influence PEOPLE: Powerful Everyday Opportunities to Persuade that are Lasting and Ethical, was a top 10 selling Amazon book in several insurance categories and top 50 in sales & selling. His LinkedIn Learning courses on sales and coaching have been viewed by more than 90,000 people around the world!

It’s All About The Data…Or Is It?

Until last November, my entire career was in the insurance industry. The industry has been slower to change than many others. This is due in large part to legacy mainframe systems, state regulations, and no sense of urgency. However, over the last five years the pace of change has accelerated. The reason; new competitors threatening to disrupt the status quo.

Big data is one factor that’s making a huge impact. In the past, insurance companies were limited on the data they could capture and mine from their old mainframes. Whether it’s insurance or any other industry, the more data a company has, the better it can do when it comes to predicting customer behavior.

That could lead you to think it’s all about the data. Or is it?

Less is More

Generally, more data is better…at least to a point. Research shows, given too many options people end up making fewer choices. This was born out in a well-known study conducted by Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper using jam displays in a store.

People entered the store and either saw a selection of two dozen types of jam or six choices. People were attracted to the larger selection, with approximately 60% of shoppers stopping to peruse the table with 24 choices. But, only 3% of those shoppers bought a jar of jam.

Far fewer people, only 40%, stopped by the table with six jams. However, 30% of those people bought a jar. If you do the math, the table with only half a dozen choices sold nearly seven times more!

On the surface this seems counter-intuitive. But, it makes sense when you realize the struggle humans have with discriminating between items when all the choices appear relatively similar. The same thought process applies when too much data is presented for consideration; it can cause analysis paralysis.

Not The Whole Story

Data is limited in that it’s only as good as what can be collected and it rarely tells the who story. Have you ever used a dating app? I know many people who have. Rarely is it the person who seems to be a perfect match on paper who ends up being the love of their life.

Having lots of data is good but just like a dating app has its limits. The data points are like still images taken from a video. You may get a strong sense of what’s going on by looking at the right pictures but you might also jump to the wrong conclusion if important pictures are missing.

What’s Your Message?

Perhaps most important is what you do with the data you have. At some point communication has to happen between people. It may come via a website, an email, a phone call or face-to-face. Good data will be worthless if the person using it doesn’t know how to communicate.

For example; if there’s a problem – people not voting, kids cheating, citizens not paying taxes – you will hurt your chances of changing that behavior by normalizing it with big numbers.

Normalizing it might go like this; it’s terrible that more than 60% of college students cheat (I made that up). If you understand the principle of consensus, people are more inclined to follow the lead of similar others, then you know the statement above may encourage more students to cheat! “Hey, if more than half of the kids are cheating I might as well too,” goes the thought for some students.

I’ve also seen companies use verbiage on collection notices and cease and desist letters that do nothing to help them achieve their goal. Often it makes the person who receives the intimidating communication dig their heels in more! Humans are funny that way. It’s not uncommon for people to forego what’s best for them in order to teach the other person or organization a lesson if they feel they’ve been treated unfairly.

To Do This Week

Think about all the data you encounter and attempt to use to move your organization forward. How can you maximize the effectiveness of that data? At some point you’ll use data when interacting with other people. This is where the rubber meets the road; getting or not getting what you want. Consider the following:

  1. Less is more. Don’t overwhelm people with charts, graphs and numbers. Think about the data that will help reach your objectives and discard what’s not essential.
  2. Account for limitations. Data is good but it’s not the answer, only a tool to help you get answers. Think of it like a map; it’s helpful but it’s not the actual terrain. What might be missing that could help make a better decision?
  3. Manage your message. Don’t share big numbers to impress. Consider the psychology it will trigger in those who encounter it. Will it move people in the direction you want? If not, rethink what you’re going to share and how you plan to share it.

Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC. An author, international speaker, coach and consultant, he’s one of only 20 people in the world personally trained by Robert Cialdini, Ph.D., the most cited living social psychologist on the planet when it comes to the science of ethical influence.

Brian’s first book – Influence PEOPLE: Powerful Everyday Opportunities to Persuade that are Lasting and Ethical – has been one of the top 10 selling Amazon books in several insurance categories and cracked the top 50 in sales & selling.

Brian’s LinkedIn Learning courses have been viewed by nearly 85,000 people around the world! His newest course – Advanced Persuasive Selling: Persuading Different Personalities – is now available through LinkedIn Learning.