The problem with conventional wisdom

“Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” People use this sentiment to sing the praises of gifted storytellers. When the tale is compelling, we often don’t care whether it’s true; the joy is in experiencing the telling.

In other arenas, the bar should be higher. Today, when nearly every fact since the dawn of time is only a Google search away, the opposite seems to be true: the sheer volume of information allows prevaricators to hide in plain sight for years (Williams, Brian) or to tell one whopper after another under the guise of truth telling (insert politician’s name here). In the latter case, people often want to embrace a different version of reality.

Problems arise, however, when an assertion is repeated ad nauseam without any attempt to provide any supporting evidence. One such example familiar to Illinois residents is the following: the state’s terrible fiscal condition and subpar business climate have caused families and businesses to leave in droves. Anyone who follows the political discourse would be forgiven for assuming that Illinois residents and executives are massed atop some high rise like diplomats waiting for the last helicopter out of Saigon.

Here’s the problem: the facts don’t support the established story about Illinois. A recent report, Who is Leaving Illinois and Why?, conducted by KDM Consulting, analyzed publicly available data from the IRS, American Community Survey, and other sources to examine outmigration (more people leave a state than move to it) for Illinois. Their findings refute the conventional wisdom quite effectively. According to their analysis, Illinois has had a nearly uninterrupted pattern of outmigration since the 1920s. And while Illinois does lose a total of around 65,000 people a year, that’s a rounding error for a state of nearly 13 million people. What’s more, outmigration to neighboring states has declined significantly since the 1990s, even though Illinois’ fiscal condition has worsened considerably since that time.

On the business front, some elected officials and policy makers have long decried the fact that Illinois is hemorrhaging jobs to neighboring right-to-work states. My company worked with several organizations on an issue of the Illinois Innovation Index that analyzed business locations, and once again the prevailing narrative wasn’t supported by the facts. From the Index: “In 2012, Illinois lost slightly more companies than it gained from business moves within the United States. However, the companies that relocated to Illinois were larger on average than those that left, resulting in a net increase of more than 1,400 jobs in Illinois—relatively small compared with the state’s employment base of nearly six million.” While the business climate definitely has an effect, it is one of many factors that executives consider when determining whether to relocate.

What does all of this have to do with business communications and thought leadership? Three takeaways come to mind.

1. If you are reading an article that frames the discussion solely with common tropes and accepted narratives, proceed with caution. Trends change and industries evolve, so without some supporting analysis these assertions could very well be outdated.
2. New analysis and data are differentiators, which explains why surveys are often so well received: they offer real insight into the strategies companies are pursuing as well as the rationale. Similarly, case studies provide real-world examples of the application or certain solutions as well as the tangible impact.
3. Perspective pieces that aren’t supported by data and analysis should be taken with a grain of salt. Anyone can have strong opinions, but the value comes when independent, objective sources lend them credence.

These same rules should apply to the content your company develops. Taking a more rigorous, fact-based approach will not only distinguish your ideas in the marketplace but also increase the perception that your company is a credible source for information and insight. And that will burnish your reputation and set you up to have more productive conversations with current and prospective clients.

Or put more simply, the best stories also have the benefit of being true.

Scott Leff

Scott is the founder of Leff. He's spent his career helping executives and subject matter experts tell their story in a compelling way. In the process, he's had the opportunity to work with C-suite executives, politicians, academics, and Olympians, not to mention dozens of talented writers, editors, and designers in the business world. Scott developed the concept of "lean content creation" as a cost-effective way to support comprehensive, integrated communication strategies.

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