Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Decision by anecdote, and how communicators can fight it

I'll never forget the time a board president of mine was preparing his first message to the organization. His message centered on the idea that public audiences intensely disliked and mistrusted our work, and wanted to combat that negativity, ideally with a big national campaign. By the time I heard about the message, it was close to publication time. I called him directly. "This is going to be a big initiative for your communications office," he told me, thinking I'd be pleased.

"That's great," I said. "But I did have a question about all this: Where are you getting your data? I only ask because all the data I have says the exact opposite of what's in this message."

That question prompted a useful--and needed--conversation in which I shared my data and found out he didn't have any, but was working from anecdotal evidence. The idea that the public finds your profession unpopular is a sticky meme and an effective rallying cry. But I knew that pushing against a nonexistent myth wouldn't add luster to our reputation.

That's the premise behind Beyond Anecdote, an essay recently published in Inside Higher Ed that urges communicators at universities to be data collectors in an effort to combat decisionmaking-by-anecdote, in which programs get scrapped, signs get reformatted and initiatives are born because a trustee, donor, fellow staffer or faculty member has an anecdote to support the change. And if you know anything about statistics, an n of 1 is never valid.

My only complaint? The authors of this piece could have gone further, as they suggest data that can be collected on campus, metrics from existing efforts at the university. The smarter communicator fighting the tide of decisions by anecdote will need more ammo, and should be cultivating external data from government agencies, nonprofits, and independent research groups. Your research should include the full marketplace in which you exist--from the business world, the public sector, the nonprofit world and higher education. The data context in which decisions are made shouldn't stop at your own door.

(Photo from Oberazzi's photostream on Flickr)

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