From the Lab: It’s All in the Details

In The Science of Speaking, I repeatedly note that it’s better to use specific examples—particularly human, emotional examples—because specifics are more convincing than generalities. In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath cite a particularly good example of this: a classic experiment in which Jonathan Shedler and Melvin McManus simulated a trial for custody of a child.

In terms of relevant factors, the case was designed to be closely balanced, with 8 arguments for the mother and 8 against her. The only difference between the two conditions of the experiment was that in one case, the arguments for the mother included more vivid details, and in the other case, the arguments against her did.

For example, one of the basic arguments for the mother read: “Mrs. Johnson sees to it that her child washes and brushes his teeth before bedtime.” In the vivid condition, this detail was added: “He uses a Star Wars toothbrush that looks like Darth Vader.”

While the fact that the son’s toothbrush resembles Darth Vader has absolutely no bearing on her fitness as a mother, in the condition in which this detail was added, jurors were significantly more likely to side with her. As the Heaths note, this is because the details “boosted the credibility of the argument. If I can mentally see the Darth Vader toothbrush, it’s easier for me to picture the boy diligently brushing his teeth in the bathroom, which in turn reinforces the notion that Mrs. Johnson is a good mother.”

 

Therefore, whenever you have the opportunity, cite specific examples using vivid details. Although it may seem like a minor thing to you, the effect on your audience may be actually be major: a few details may mean the difference between success and failure.

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