Potential: Revealed

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

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.


  adamgrizzly wrote @

you don’t cite it but here’s a link to origin of this quote from the Everything2 blog. Seems it might have originated in the reverse saying the plural of anecdote is data, meaning that indeed if something is repeated and believed often enough it becomes accepted fact (think of scientific theories which can only be proven to a certain point but are generally accepted after having been debated and cited enough times). There does seem to be as you advise a bias in favor of data versus anecdote though.

  marketingagent99 wrote @

Data driven + marketing. As always you speak to my heart! I have not heard of this quote before but it is a good one. I will steal it if you don’t mind. I’ll give you attribution if that helps 🙂
The thing that drives me nuts is people who use anecdotes or things they just heard or read as gospel even if they aren’t doing it for unsavory or political intent. It usuallay shows me they are lazy thinkers. Or that they are not thinkers at all. They are just passing through and passing along whatever they hear or feel.

  Randy wrote @

Grizz you have time on your hands! But thanks for the look up of alternative origins of my quote. I recently read Joy Hakim’s The story of science: Newton at the Center (and also read the precursor companion Aristotle Leads the Way), and indeed much in science throughout history was attributable to brilliant people who conceived of theories to explain things in the natural world which could not be readily or directly tested (for instance the early theories about atoms which are things you cannot see!) but since experiment after experiment seemed to support their existence their existence became accepted “fact”. Still, I am talking about anecdotes which conventionally seem to be anything but rigorous experimental output.


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