A Simple Hack That Makes You MUCH More Persuasive

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Whether you are writing an article intended to persuade, designing a commercial website, or building your slide deck to pitch your big idea, you can give your credibility a boost with one small change.

A recent experiment gave subjects an ad that described a medicine effective in treating a particular illness. Only two thirds of the people who read the ad, however, believed that the medicine worked.

Then, the experimenters added one element: a chart that displayed the same data. This small change caused the percentage of readers who believed the drug to be effective to leap from 67.7% without the chart to an amazing 96.6% with the chart.

chart power

The study was conducted at Cornell by Aner Tal and Neuromarketing favorite Brian Wansink.

One of the things the experimenters tried to determine was why a chart seemed to be so powerful. Was it the better visualization of the data, or the veneer of scientific rigor suggested by the chart? They concluded that it was the science, or at least the appearance of science.

Got Data?

You may not always have academic research to illustrate your article or slide deck. In that case, you can often create simple data that is still persuasive.

For example, say I wanted to show that blog posts with charts were shared more than posts without that kind of imagery. Here’s a simple chart (with supporting numeric data for added credibility) that I created by comparing five recent posts containing charts to the posts preceding them:
tweets-post

A casual glance at the chart certainly suggests that my research bears out the positive impact of charts on social sharing.

In reality, even though this data is accurate and unbiased, it is in no way a robust enough sample to prove that posts with graphs get shared more. I include it simply to show that data can be obtained in many ways, and that graph data tends to look persuasive.

Be sure that any persuasive charts you create are honest and statistically sound. If you cut corners (as I did in the tweets per post example), some portion of your audience will see through it and call you out.

Beyond Charts

It’s not just charts that give your content a science-based boost.

In Your Claim + Math = Credibility! at Forbes, I described how even readers with advanced degrees in math and science could be swayed by adding “nonsense math” to a paper’s abstract.

brain-image-vs-text-240x170I also wrote about research that showed a neuroscience paper into which irrelevant brain scan images had been inserted was found to be more significant than the same paper without the bogus pictures. See Brain Image Bias for more. (Note that long before the new research on charts, I bolstered the credibility of that post by creating a graphic for the display.)

Infographic Implications

Infographics have become strangely popular. While some do indeed simplify data and help the viewer visualize the numbers, many others take a few mediocre data points and make them visually attractive, or even arresting.

I haven’t seen research on whether infographics are more credible than text, but I’d guess in some cases they could be. When numeric data is presented in a visually appealing, well-organized way, it may seem a bit more scientific to the viewer. Many infographics use scientific-looking imagery, which could give them a boost in believability.

The Big Takeaway

The research demonstrates one inescapable conclusion: including charts and other scientific-appearing content makes the exact same data more credible.

If you want your data to persuade, graph it!

9 Comments
  1. William T says

    Hi Roger, Your blog is perfect mix of Psychology, Science and marketing…really appreciate your writing I’m far behind from this, but will keep my focus to grow in marketing niche.

  2. Bruno Winck says

    I think also that a chart, a graphic shows that the writer took some time to find supporting facts, supporting data. This simple addition proves that the writer is willing to support his claim more than just throwing a simple sentence. Combined with the given of extra attractivity of graphic contents.

    In our example of tweets I could quickly check that yes something could be true. In social marketing trends are so quick to take off that we need to figure out tips before we can explain them.So we end up rushing for half proven facts for which the explanation will come long after. A/B testing fits into that. We build on some choices we can’t explain.

    Was fun to read.

  3. Wouter Kleinsman says

    Roger, thanks for this great article! It makes me think about the authority figure. Maybe because something (like a chart) may look more professional. people will trust it faster?

    1. Roger Dooley
      Twitter: rogerdooley
      says

      I agree, Wouter – I think “authority” as described by Cialdini is the key factor here. The trappings of science, like graphs and brain images, are like the white lab coat: a proxy for expertise.

      1. Wouter Kleinsman says

        Exactly Roger 🙂

  4. K says

    I wonder if it’s the engagement of the right hemisphere because you’re combining image and text in the graphs that’s contributing to the believability of the data presented… I’d love to see brain scans of people reading charts vs people reading words only in research like this, to see the variation and what’s at play neurologically when it comes to being persuaded…

    1. Roger Dooley
      Twitter: rogerdooley
      says

      That would be interesting research. Odd how one finding always leads to the need for more studies…

  5. Marius says

    Hi Roger.

    That’s a pretty good hack that will help me a lot in the future.
    I’ve just discovered the blog but it seems I will spent good hours here reading articles.
    Thank you!

  6. Huw Sayer - Business Writer says

    This is precisely the lesson Florence Nightingale learnt when trying to persuade the British government to support her humanitarian efforts in the Crimea. She popularised the use of polar area diagrams (which are a bit like pie charts and are sometimes called Nightingale roses) to convey detailed information quickly and clearly. Aside from being a hard working pioneer of nursing, she was also a talented mathematician and a shrewd judge of human nature.

    Kind regards

    Huw
    @HuwSayer

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