PR and numbers – not a kind of magic

Last night I watched ‘Exposed: Magicians, Psychics and Frauds’, a documentary about magician and escapologist, James Randi, and his relentless investigations of those who claim psychic and supernatural powers.

I was struck by something said by Jamy Ian Swiss, another magician who appeared in the programme:

“People think they believe what they choose to believe. We don’t. We mostly believe what we need to believe.”

It seems to me that every PR practitioner would benefit from having that prominently displayed in their workplace. Especially if they are trying to change beliefs on the basis of numbers, data and statistics.

To me, Swiss’s words sum up the problems of hoping that a rational consideration of the facts will naturally overcome beliefs in which we have invested ourselves emotionally.

As internationally renowned psychologist, Daniel Kahnemann, says in his book, ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’:

“The confidence that individuals have in their beliefs depends mostly on the quality of the story they can tell about what they see, even if they see little.”

Setting out more or better information may allow individuals to see more, but will they change their minds? In line with Jamy Ian Swiss, does it satisfy some need? Or, following Daniel Kahnemann, are they able to tell themselves stories of greater quality?

New numerical information appears all the time – especially with the rise of big data and open data.

For PR practitioners this is a great opportunity – ours is a profession of communications, of telling stories. But it is also a great challenge. The profession needs to develop its skills in understanding and analysing data, so that the stories may be told.

A lot of this is not about new skills but gaining confidence in old ones, learned at school and largely forgotten. The basics of averages. The importance of understanding uncertainty. Identifying blips and trends.

Even with these skills, a percentage-packed press release will confuse more than it will enthuse. A dodgy bar chart is more likely to be ridiculed than admired.

So, PR professionals are going to need to train to get new skills in how to communicate the numbers effectively and compellingly. (My workshops can help!)

It’s either that… or try waving a magic wand!

  • My workshops are available both for in-house delivery and as open workshops onto which anyone may book.
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