Just the facts? The way you say it matters
|2 January 2012||Posted by Donn King under Communication|
“Just the facts” is a phrase not only a part of American culture, but part of a values system–as if the facts can be separated from the expression of facts. Here’s the reality: there is no such thing as facts apart from the expression of those facts, and the expression of facts inevitably changes the perception. The mere selection of facts, of which facts to focus on, changes perception.
For instance, Scott Shane notes a very important dichotomy in the way people talk about tax increases on businesses (as if a tax increase on business doesn’t just get passed on to the rest of us anyway–but that’s a different point). In his article Less than a Tenth or More than Four Fifths? he says, “The share of small businesses and the fraction of small business income hit by tax increases are usually very different numbers.” Both are simply facts, and yet the choice of which to focus on in a talk or a paper yield very different impressions.
For context, here are the numerical facts:
[N]umbers from the U.S. Treasury show that a tax
increase on businesses earning more than $1 million per year would affect less than 7 percent of small companies but would hit 81 percent of small business income.
You can see the possibilities immediately. Want to advocate for a tax increase? Focus on the fact that it would affect a small percentage of businesses. Want to argue against an increase? Focus on the fact that it will affect a huge amount of small business income.
Which is “correct”? Which is the more “accurate”?
You might say that a fair speaker will be sure to mention both–but how much more is there related to this that would also sway perceptions? Alfred Korzybski noted that you can’t possibly say all there is to say about something, so you inevitably have to pick and choose.
Don’t delude yourself. You can’t report “just the facts.” Awareness of your own limitations, as well as the limitations of language, will help you to at least communicate with integrity.