Thursday, March 11, 2010

Apparently, Nothing Trumps the Power of a Personal Experience

A small group of executives was given a vast amount of data about a problem they were tackling about employee engagement. They looked it over and set it aside. Then, they had frank conversations with a couple of individual employees. They came away from their conversations and dismissed the lesson of the data, and made decisions based on the experiences of the few individuals they spoke with.
Things like this used to drive me crazy. As a trained scientist, I was taught to be skeptical of a single observation until you’d verified that it was a reliable learning. My background instilled a love of experiments and repeatable, reliable data. I hated when someone would challenge or dismiss my vast research and carefully controlled experiments with a personal anecdote.

Recently, though, I have come to understand and embrace this phenomenon. After seeing this happen hundreds of times (more often than not), it occurs to me that we seem to be wired to put undo weight on our own personal experiences and concrete stories of other’s experiences. We do this because the experiences and stories resonate with us as “real”. We can recall our own experiences or empathize with those of others, and it is a deep connection to the “truth” of the information. When we look at large data sets or aggregated data, it lacks the deep personal connection that makes it seem real.

In other words, for the scientists in my reading audience, although the reliability of information is important to the average person, it isn’t as critical as the validity of information.

This jibes with what others have observed about the power of story over data in presentations (e.g., see Stephen Denning’s The Secret Language of Leadership) and the power of empathy in business (e.g., see Dev Patnik’s Wired to Care).

SO… when challenged with helping people internalize reliable data, I have begun to try to give people a personal experience with the topic of information.

Nothing seems to trump the power of a personal experience.

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