Facts Are Stubborn Things… (or Are They)?

By Hope Eyre on Oct 9, 2012

5 Minute Estimated Read Time

My mother’s preferred form of maternal bonding is to call and quiz me on articles from The Economist.

“Hello?”

“Did you read this week’s Africa section in The Economist?”

“No.”

“Go read it, then call me back.”

“I’m fine Mom, thanks.  And you?”

“There’s an article on cyclical famine preparedness in border countries along the southern Sahara and the role of NGOs in hindering the proper buildup of food resilience.  Go.  Read it.”

“I can’t right now, Mom.  I have a dinner date.  With a man.”

“He can’t possibly be more important than starving children.”

“Er… not when you put it that way.”

Tucked away in her remote corner of the Adirondacks, she’s a septuagenarian on a constant quest for facts and analysis on the geopolitical issues of the day.

It’s a hobby.

Need to grasp the long-term socioeconomic implications of persuading the world that WMDs existed in Iraq?  Save your call to Donald Rumsfeld.  My mother can explain it better without devolving into the unknown unknowns thing.

Don’t know what to make of quantitative easing?  No problem.  She is Larry Summers without the snark.

How wonderful that a woman nearing her ninth decade, living where she does, has mastered both the glut of media sources and the digital vehicles through which they are now available to arrive at a place where she can speak on topics this complex with authority and nuance.  Right?

Wrong.  My mother, for whom technology is anathema,*  gets her facts the old fashioned way.  She goes to the library and checks them out.

She doesn’t consider herself properly informed until she’s read three or four books on her subject and carefully triangulated the available information to produce as near to an unbiased picture of reality as she can.  Truth… or close enough to it.

It’s at that point that my phone rings.

Which brings me to my topic.  Facts.  They may have been stubborn things at one time, and for my mother they still are, but in popular and, overwhelmingly, in political culture they appear to have become permanently subjective.

I don’t think this is remotely a new observation, but election season certainly has brought the concept into sharp relief no matter who you are:  The 99%, 47%  or 1%.

Our high-speed, time-compressed, gadget-laden culture with its Baskin Robbins array of media outlets – all available via smart phone – has trained us, somewhat anyway, to treat facts with an air of casualness akin to dorm-room sex.  Passion certainly.  Careful consideration?  Not always.

My ‘80s journalism school days certainly seem quaint.

What I’m wondering is whether our casualness with the facts has so permeated popular and political culture that it’s sneaking into our work lives.  Fine if you’re a carnival barker, bad if you’re a statistician.  Worse if you’re a business leader with customers, employees and shareholders depending on you.  If you’re a politician, apparently we’ve given you a pass.

Also, and I’m not sure yet, but I think our selling skills may need to adjust as a result.  We’ll debate that later.

This entire train of thought hit me the other day when, during a random dinner conversation, I confidently rattled off a variety of facts on banking behavior among the wealthy vs. the lower and middle classes. Everyone nodded.  Then I stopped and thought, wait a minute, do I actually know any of that to be true?   I’d been doing banking research for a client, but not on the wealthy.

So where did the facts come from?

Let’s think.  Newspaper. Blog. Opinion column. Comments posted to an opinion column.  American Banker.  Federal Reserve Bank research.  Wikipedia.  I don’t watch network evening news, so that wasn’t it.  OH!  The Economist… no, the phone would have rung.

Was it from a political speech?  Did I watch it, read it or hear a sound byte.  Live or quoted.  All or part of it.  Where?  NPR, CNN, BBC, Fox News, The Daily Show, Glenn Beck (Glenn Beck video clip shown on The Daily Show). 

Was it recently?  And even if I’d heard or read it recently, was the originating thought from someone who’d uttered it during the Carter administration?  Was that made clear at the time?

What had I been doing when I gathered these facts and filed them away?   Boarding a plane within earshot of an airport TV?  Quietly doing research at my desk?

Or was I on the couch scanning Google results, listening to a conference call (on mute), singing away to Nine Inch Nails, texting my sister and Skyping my friend Rose while a Dr. Who episode played in the background.  (Ok, that’s a bit extreme.  I wouldn’t have been listening to the conference call.)

I’d rattled off facts like I was an authority, but couldn’t remember where they came from or how I knew them.  Which means I don’t know if they were actually true.  And I’m a consultant.  My job depends on projecting credibility, which I do very well.  So no one questioned me.

They certainly seemed true.

There are too many facts to choose from and they assault us from everywhere.

To lower the din, and who can blame us, we tune our gadgets to the media sources that validate our points of view.  That gives us a feeling of control.  So does reserving the right to reject the facts if we don’t like them.

And it’s possible we’re now complicit in allowing our political candidates to melt the facts down so as to make them more malleable.  When they do that, we often like them better.

No one is immune, not even my mother.  Though, having been born to a generation for whom multitasking is not a concept and the accepted standard for fact delivery was Walter Cronkite, she is adept at producing more antibodies than the rest of us. 

She also has the time.  Her career has finished, her children are grown and my father does the housework.  You by contrast have deadlines, toddlers, in-laws, dry cleaning, an empty refrigerator, home remodeling and one car in the shop.  Oh, and you forgot to pay the gas bill.

My point is this.  I wonder if we’re so used to the taste of Fact Subjectivity, that we occasionally offer facts up in conversation exactly the same way we’re forced to take them in as a mere matter of fact-glut survival.  Either semi-unexamined or, well, modified to suit our taste.  And in doing so, we are simply mirroring our current technological and media reality. 

If we are, then how aware are we of doing it?  Mostly, vaguely or not at all?

It’s like finding enough time to cook.  It’s messy, it’s hard work, it’s time-consuming and we have to clean up afterwards.  Life dictates that we just order out sometimes, choosing our facts off an enormous Chinese Menu of preferred media sources and  sharing them, family style, with the rest of the table.  We may or may not check for MSG.  It just depends.

But back to my banking facts.  The ones I spit out,  clearly on autopilot, without consciously assessing their credibility.  It was just a random conversation, so what’s the big deal?

No big deal at all.

Unless I’d been selling to a prospect who knew more than me.  Or worse, based on her particular Chinese menu, was convinced she knew more than me. 

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

We’ll debate whether our current technological and media reality necessitates a change in selling behavior in next week’s blog entitled ‘Malleable Chinese Menu Autopilot Assault?  Enough With the Mixed Metaphors, I have a headache!

*  My father has on more than one occasion found her sternly lecturing the toaster oven on its consistent lack of performance.  He simply follows the air of disapproval wafting from the kitchen like the scent of a Sunday roast, and he swears he’s witnessed the thing shudder in response.  After he’s plugged it in for her.

Hope Eyre

Written by Hope Eyre

Hope Eyre is a sales effectiveness expert who takes a roll-up-the-sleeves approach to building winning sales organizations. She regularly works side by side with sales teams around account segmentation and planning and has helped numerous complex organizations rethink they way they serve their largest accounts. Hope’s specialties include sales transformation, sales capability development, leadership development/coaching and performance management. If “sticky” could be a word to describe a consultant, it would be a perfect descriptor for Hope, as clients like to keep her around.

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