How to Persuade with Numbers

How to persuade with numbers

Imagine you’ve been asked a question. Give the wrong answer and you’re thrown to your death. Give the right one, and you live a long, happy life with all your wants and needs provided.

This exact scenario faced by an astrologer for the court of France’s King Louis XI.

Several weeks earlier the astrologer had predicted a woman would die in 8 days. Eight days later the woman died as predicted.

This accuracy frightened King Louis, and he decided the astrologer must die.

The king devised a plan. He told his guards at his command they take the astrologer and throw him out a window to his death.

But before he gave the order, King Louis decided to ask the astrologer a final question. “You claim to understand astrology and to know the fate of others, so tell me what your fate will be and how long you have to live?”

The astrologer looked at King Louis and said, “I shall die just three days before Your Majesty.”

King Louis felt a sudden change of heart. Instead of killing the astrologer, the king treated him for years with the best food and doctors in France.1Greene, Robert 48 Laws of Power, page 85-86

The astrologer had followed the first rule of persuading with numbers: Always frame the number from your audience’s perspective.

In politics, we often use numbers to make our point. As Republicans, we seem drawn to the idea that the more numbers you present, the better. We get caught up in the logic of our facts and forget a key principle.

Numbers that persuade appeal to our emotions first then our logic.

But how do we make numbers more emotional? Here are three principles that can help.

We feel loss more than we feel gain

People put a lot of faith in doctors and their judgment. We believe they are rational and make decisions based on facts and evidence. But do doctors make different decisions based solely on the presentation of data?

Researchers asked a group of doctors to evaluate a lung cancer case and recommend either surgery or radiation treatment. The risk associated with surgery was stated differently to the doctors. Half read the surgery outcome as, “The one-month survival rate is 90%.” The other half read, “There is a 10% mortality in the first month.”

Rationally the information is exactly the same. But 84% doctors who read the surgery’s “survival rate is 90%” picked surgery as the best treatment. Only 50% picked surgery when they read the “10% mortality” rate.2Kahneman, Daniel Thinking, Fast and Slow, page 367 paperback

Why the difference? The doctors felt more emotional impact when reading about the loss implied by the mortality rate.

We think about people, not percentages

Which headline are you going to remember more?

“26% of Americans Thinks The Sun Goes Around The Earth, Survey Says.”

Or

“1 In 4 Americans Thinks The Sun Goes Around The Earth, Survey Says.”3NPR,  “1 In 4 Americans Thinks The Sun Goes Around The Earth, Survey Says“, 2/14/2014

Most people chose the second headline. It’s less abstract and more relatable. We immediately start to think, “Who do I know dumb enough to think that?” When several people quickly come to mind, we click the link to confirm what we’ve always thought about them.

By presenting it as 1 of 4, our minds easily personalized and internalized the information.

But use caution with this approach.

One study asked University of Washington students to rank which cancer was more dangerous:

Cancer with a mortality rate of “1,286 out of 10,000.”

Or

Cancer with a mortality rate of “24.14 out of 100.”

Most picked the first cancer as more dangerous. Had they stopped and done the math, they would have seen the first cancer had a 12.86% mortality rate versus a 24.14% mortality rate. These students weren’t bad at math, intuitively it just seemed “1,286 out of 10,000” was the larger number and more risky. 4Original study -Yamagishi, Kimihiko – “When a 12.86% Mortality is More Dangerous than 24.14%: Implications for Risk Communication [PDF]“, Applied Cognitive Psychology, Vol. 11, 495-506 (1997) also related in Kahneman, Daniel – Thinking, Fast and Slow, page 329 paperback edition

We don’t identify with statistics

Our mind has difficulty processing abstract information. We have no frame of reference for large numbers like millions and billions unless we bring it down to the individual level. As Mother Teresa said, ‘‘If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.’’

Instead of focusing on the large number, start with one. Research into charitable giving found people more likely to give when they read:

“Any money that you donate will go to Rokia, a 7-year-old girl from Mali, Africa…”

Then when they read:

“Food shortages in Malawi are affecting more than three million children…”

When you know the story of Rokia, it’s much easier to think of three million children like her. This is called the “identifiable victim” versus the “statistical victim”.5Small, Debora; George Loewenstein, & Paul Slovic – “Sympathy and callousness: The impact of deliberative thought on donations to identifiable and statistical victims [PDF]“, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 102 (2007) 143–153

But this doesn’t just apply to numbers about people. It can also apply to large budget numbers. Instead explaining millions in government waste, talk about how an agency paid $16 for a single muffin and $8 for a cup of coffee.6The Atlantic,  “$16 for a Muffin?! A Justice Department Boondoggle“, 9/20/2011

Final thoughts

Underlying all these examples is one theme. To persuade with numbers you must first appeal to emotions, and then to logic. But it’s difficult at first to do this well. We love politics and think everyone is as interested in the minute details as us.

Luckily, the world is not full of political junkies. It’s helpful to have someone normal act as a sounding board. This person can be a spouse, friend, coworker or neighbor. The key is that they’re a normal person.

Once you’ve followed the tips above and created something you think is persuasive, run it by them. Ask how it makes them feel and how memorable it is. This feedback will improve your persuasion and in time you’ll know what works, and can rely on them less.

Now you know how to talk persuasively with numbers, go convince 51 out 100 voters to support you.

About the Author

Trevor Bragdon

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Hi, I’m the founder of EquipGOP. Every election cycle I meet smart, hardworking Republicans who are running for the first time but don’t know where to start. EquipGOP's goal is to help these local Republican candidates learn tactics and strategies they need to win on Election Day.

Sources & Notes   [ + ]

1. Greene, Robert 48 Laws of Power, page 85-86
2. Kahneman, Daniel Thinking, Fast and Slow, page 367 paperback
3. NPR,  “1 In 4 Americans Thinks The Sun Goes Around The Earth, Survey Says“, 2/14/2014
4. Original study -Yamagishi, Kimihiko – “When a 12.86% Mortality is More Dangerous than 24.14%: Implications for Risk Communication [PDF]“, Applied Cognitive Psychology, Vol. 11, 495-506 (1997) also related in Kahneman, Daniel – Thinking, Fast and Slow, page 329 paperback edition
5. Small, Debora; George Loewenstein, & Paul Slovic – “Sympathy and callousness: The impact of deliberative thought on donations to identifiable and statistical victims [PDF]“, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 102 (2007) 143–153
6. The Atlantic,  “$16 for a Muffin?! A Justice Department Boondoggle“, 9/20/2011