Early in my career, I worked in the plastics industry as a process and product development engineer. At the time, I had a degree in chemical engineering, and I had just completed service as a nuclear engineering officer in the U.S. Navy. I had a pretty good technical background, and I knew almost nothing about polymers.
This lack of knowledge created a bit of a problem for me. I really struggled to understand why we did some of the things we did to modify our products and processes.
To help me understand, one of my mentors shared technical data with me that described all sorts of chemical and physical concepts of polymers. It was nice. It helped a little. But I still struggled to connect all the information to our practical applications.
One day, I went to him with my frustration, and he told me that I could think of polymers like a bowl of spaghetti with sauce on it. The different noodle lengths are like the different molecule sizes and the sauce is like one of the things we added to make the polymer easier to process.
With that physical representation in mind, I immediately had a clear way of thinking about, and remembering, some basic concepts of polymer chemistry. I called it the “spaghetti bowl model of polymer interaction.”
In that moment, my mentor converted abstract data into a mental picture that I could see when I needed to remember some basic polymer chemistry concepts. He converted facts (molecular weight, frictional coefficients and molecular entanglement) into a story with a picture (spaghetti and sauce in a bowl). He successfully applied a concept captured in a phrase that I later learned from a sales trainer: “Data tells and stories sell.”
Persuasion versus coercion
When I was a new leader, I quickly learned the practicality of this concept as I discovered how to persuade others to take actions that they did not necessarily want to take. In many of my first attempts at persuasion, I relied primarily on logic and reason. I thought that I could persuade people to take action if I could help them to understand the logical basis for my request. As I applied logic, I sometimes slipped into coercion rather than persuasion.
You can probably predict the outcome from most of those efforts: failure. I frequently got arguments and push-back from people and little or no real cooperation.
Convert data in stories people can grasp
Eventually, the lesson of the spaghetti bowl analogy for polymer chemistry became clear to me. Converting data and logic into stories and analogies dramatically improves the persuasive power of any presentation.
When you make presentations of any kind, whether they are one-to-one or one-to-many, remember this concept. Find ways to convert your ideas and concepts into stories and analogies that people can easily relate to and remember. Do this one thing, and you will improve the odds that people “buy” your ideas and take action on them.