Potential: Revealed

Strategic Thinking, Innovative Ideas, Growth Marketing, and Revealing of Potential

Archive for March, 2009

Data is not the plural of anecdote

Following the recent election season I heard a pundit comment that, as usual, winning candidates from both sides had mastered the art of successfully positioning themselves – and their opponents – through powerful use of anecdotes. They found anecdotes that resonated with the electorate and used them to either effectively portray themselves positively or their opponents negatively. The power came from repeating these anecdotes in speeches, campaign literature, political advertisements, and those much-hated automated campaign telephone calls such that people began to believe them simply because the repetition gave them an air of being factual.

Now, I looked up the definition of the word anecdote. An-ec-dote \ˈa-nik-ˌdōt\, noun, “short account of a particular incident or event of an interesting or amusing nature, often biographical.”

I wasn’t sure how this could be so powerful – sounds sort of innocuous. Then I looked at synonyms of the word – I often find synonyms to be interesting perspective on word definitions. Here’s what I found:

Fish story
Fairy tale

Ah ha! Now I get it – tell a story that is rooted in some specific truth but with an edge of humor and human interest, repeat it often enough and it becomes accepted fact!

Now, I do NOT want to make my blog into a political one. I use the above to set up a simple point that I think is important in personal and business situations and has nothing necessarily to do with politics. Often in my business career and in my consulting work in the area of data-driven decision making (for strategic planning or in marketing), I have used interviews with an organization’s associates and executives to get a baseline on the current environment from various stakeholders. Without fail, a common thing I hear is “we have lots of data, we are drowning in data, but we make most decisions based on opinion or conventional wisdom”. Probing a little further I find that what happens is one or a small set of facts become favored (sometimes for pure but often for political reasons) and then repeated and re-used until it becomes the rationale for many decisions.

A great quote I just recently found is: ““data is not the plural of anecdote”. I think I’ll use it going forward to help me make the point about breaking away from opinion-based decision making and moving to data-driven decision making. As in politics, we often fall prey to simply repeating – and believing – what we’ve heard before rather than demanding data-supported facts, particularly fresh ones and from multiple sources that clearly support recommendations and decisions.