In his excellent article in the FT, Tim Harford talks about “The problem with facts.” One interesting example he mentions is the famous claim during the Brexit referendum: “We send the EU £350m a week”.

He quotes Andrew Lilico, “a thoughtful proponent of leaving the EU”. At the time of the campaign Lillico felt that a more defensible figure should have been used, say £240m. In retrospect he feels the £350m figure was much more effective. It meant that the Remain side, by continually trying to rebut the figure, kept the focus of discussion on the (large) amount of money the UK was giving to the EU. Whatever the accuracy of the figure, the main point people remembered was that a lot of money goes from the UK to the EU.

The question this raises is what should have been the Remain side’s tactic? Should they have let this (in their eyes) blatant lie pass without being corrected? Or should they have found another way to rebut it?

Storytelling instead of rebuttal

This question is relevant in business. What happens when we are the subject of what we consider “fake facts”? This could be on a personal level, a company level or even as an industry. What do we do when someone unfairly questions the integrity of our firm? How do we react when someone tells us that the entire financial services sector is untrustworthy?

Complex situations require a mix of responses but one weapon we should not forget is storytelling. When you spend all your time in rebuttal mode you are a character in someone else’s story. If you can make your own story interesting and insightful you can move the discussion to the area you want to cover.

Basics of storytelling

In a previous post I spoke about the “Villain, Victim, Hero” formula and its potential to create a memorable story. This is one good option. Another is to think about the basics of a story: plot, characters and a problem that needs to be overcome. Get some structure into your message, find one or more characters that people will care about and show how you are overcoming some kind of challenge.

If you listen to Radio 4’s Today programme when they interview CEOs you hear this in action. The interviewers will challenge them with facts/judgements about their latest results. The CEOs who go into rebuttal mode may win the battle of facts but lose the war of public opinion. Listeners will only remember the negatives. Alternatively they can use the question to tell an authentic story about the challenges their company has faced and how they are dealing with it.

Of course you can use this for the purposes of confusion or distraction. But given the choice of the fact-rebuttal cycle or a battle of competing stories, I know what I would rather listen to.