Facts don't change minds

The most useful business lesson from the Brexit campaigns

Question: What is the most striking lesson from the Brexit referendum campaigns in the UK?

Answer: Facts don’t change minds.

There are plenty of facts around. Many people have claimed that there aren’t any, but as Professor Michael Dougan argues: “there is an enormous amount of objective, detailed, hard, scientifically-tested evidence about the impact of EU membership on the UK.” (See his interesting video talk on myths in the debate – this quote is at about 7:15 minutes in.)

There are, alas, plenty of untrue facts around as well.

However, even if we just looked at the real facts, they wouldn’t change minds. In truth, we’re completely in the thrall of confirmation bias. We nod vigorously at the facts that support our argument, and simply ignore the rest.


That leads us on to question 2: How CAN you change someone’s mind, if not with facts?

Answer: Make them feel part of your group by pointing out shared interests, shared values and a common threat.

There have been two major trends from the recent polling and betting data since campaigning began in earnest. The first is a gradual swing towards Brexit. This appears to result from Vote Leave’s decision to focus on immigration issues rather than economic ones. The second was a short sharp reversal after the abhorrent murder of Jo Cox, as many of us reflected on who we British are and what we have become.

Correlation is not causation, but these two trends strongly suggest that we change our minds when we sense that we have shared values and that our ‘tribe’ is under threat.

Our sense of what our tribe is may shift, depending on the threat. We are North Londoners, and South Londoners are the enemy. We are townies, and those country-types are the enemy. We are English, and the Scots are the enemy. We are British, and Europe is the enemy. We are humans, and mosquitos are the enemy.

So in a referendum like this, the key thing is to be clear about who the tribe is, what the shared values are, and what the threat is. It absolutely doesn’t have to be negative. The threat doesn’t have to be the other side.

Sixty years ago, a pro-Europe campaign might have pointed to the threat of war, and the opportunity to prevent conflict among countries which have warred for centuries.

Twenty-five years ago, a pro-Europe campaign might have pointed to the threat of Russia, and the opportunity to bring social democracy to a dozen ex-communist countries emerging from Russian influence.

In this campaign, perhaps, it could have argued that the real threat comes from the future. The emerging global economic forces care little about our European heritage and outlook. We Europeans need to defend and extend our way of life. Specifically, that could include our deep commitment to employment protection, to consumer protection, to environmental protection, to scientific research, to the arts, to tolerance, to cooperation, to peace.

Maybe that would work better. Who knows? But facts – no, facts don’t change people minds.

The lesson for those of us in business? The best way to persuade people of our argument is not with a long list of facts. Instead, get people on board by building a sense of shared identity with strong overlapping values and by focusing on some external threat.

Jack Dorsey’s definition of leadership

Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter, on Leadership:

“I think I’m just an editor, and I think every CEO is an editor. I think every leader in any company is an editor. Taking all of these ideas and you’re editing them down to one cohesive story, and in my case, my job is to edit the team, so we have a great team that can produce the great work.”

This is similar, I think (hope) to what I offer: help to find the simpler, more powerful enterprise that exists somewhere within your current business.

Building an enduring business

Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger are famous for building Berkshire Hathaway into an enormous and highly profitable investment vehicle. They have half a trillion dollars’ worth of assets, and the vast majority of their investments have been highly profitable. How do they choose their investments? Well, of course, they’re highly selective, very professional and super-smart.

One of the many things they look for is a ‘moat’ – one or competitive advantages that allow a company to dominate its particular niche. If the moat is wide and deep enough, the business can build its business with less fear of losing share to any competitors.

It’s a great metaphor, and it begs the question: what’s inside a moat? Of course, it’s a company, and to extend the metaphor, that company is a castle.

How do you build a company that endures? With only a modicum of post-rationalisation, I present the CASTLE acronym.

C is for Culture. All organisations have a culture, whether healthy or unhealthy. The culture emerges from the way that people actually behave, and the stories they tell. You could plot cultures on a number of axes, a few of the most important being individualistic vs collective, conservative vs radical and profit-led vs customer-led. One of the most important thing about a company culture is that it will spit out people and plans that don’t fit. Enduring businesses tend to have strong, definite cultures with their own language and lore. Ask about the organisation’s heroes (the boffin inventor, or the patient salesman, or the marketing wizard) and you get a strong clue as to the culture of the company.

A is for Ambition. Many organisations have some sort of goal. Often it’s a sales target. A sales target may be useful for operational purposes (we want to align our resources to meet our sales target, without too much wastage) but it’s a paltry form of ambition. The ambition I’m talking about is more of a cause. That might be massive (Google, organising the world’s information and making it accessible and useful; Pfizer, innovating therapies to improve lives) or it may be modest (my housepainter: give every customer a great paintjob!) Enduring businesses have ambitions which are closer to causes, and which transcend profit targets and even technologies.

S is for Strategy. A big word, that basically means: this is how we’ll play, this is where we’ll play and this is how we’ll win. Strategy is about making choices. Enduring businesses have obviously made the right choices in the past when they favoured (or stumbled over) big ideas, and pursued them relentlessly. They reject small ideas and complexity, unless it’s essential for competing, in which case they’ll learn to manage it rather than have it manage them.

T is for Tactics. There’s a big gap between strategy and tactics in many organisations – the problem of implementation. It boils down to: who will do what by when? Enduring businesses make this clear and joined up so that there is accountability.

L is for Learning. There’s a lot more data out there, but fewer people and less time to take it all in. There’s also less ‘permission to think’ among white collar jobs, as more processes, practices and policies are imposed from the centre. But learning happens at the edges. Companies that endure don’t just collect data. They allow people to change the business because they have formal and informal ways of learning from it.

E is for Economic model. Businesses, of course, are engines which are fuelled by money. Although I detest the narrow focus on shareholder value, it is unquestionably true that commercial organisations have to generate money in a sustainable way if they are to pursue their ambitions. Enduring businesses have a robust economic model which rewards their success and enables them to build a larger castle still.

In summary, an enduring business is one that…

  • Celebrates its heroes.
  • Commits to a cause.
  • Puts all its might behind a simple strategy.
  • Holds specific people accountable.
  • Allows the front line to change the company.
  • Builds a financial machine.

How an extraordinary USP was written

Angel And Devil Doodle DrawingIt was late in the evening. James sat alone in his office, trying to write down his company’s Unique Selling Proposition.

On his right shoulder was an angel, as bright and silvery as burning magnesium. If you squinted, you could make out her long robes and her long silver trumpet.

The angel spake. “James, the truth is simple. All you need is a single pure truth. Find that, and you have your answer.”

James started writing. ‘We combine technology solutions onto a single platform’.

On his left shoulder was a devil. Blink and you’d miss him: a whirl of red and black, of cinders and ash. He danced mesmerically on his cloven hooves.

The devil grinned. “C’mon James, give yourself some credit. It’s a little more complicated than THAT. Write it all down.”

James wrote a bit more. ‘We combine multiple technology solutions together to provide a seamless platform for an end-user to leverage’.

The angel protested. “This is hardly fair on your reader. He is busy. Use his language. And give him a simple reason to think of you.”

James crossed out everything he’d written, and started again. ‘A single platform.’

The devil threw back his head and laughed. “A single platform? Sounds like an abandoned railway station. Is that what you want? James, baby, you’re the expert, right? You gotta give ‘em the whole story.”

James went to work. ‘A single seamless, efficient and engaging platform for an end user to leverage when preparing or delivering or following up afterward’.

The angel stamped her feet and blew her trumpet. Out came a tiny, high shrill tone rather like a stationary mosquito. “Don’t bury the crucial message. Let clarity be your watchword!”

James crossed it all out again and wrote ‘Everything in one place’.

The devil produced an electric guitar, a Gibson Flying V that he stole from Keith Richards. He played a seductive blues lick and squatted on his haunches. “Gimme more Jimmy, gimme it all. Gimme more Jimmy, gimme it all… COME ON JIMMY BABY COME ON YOU’RE THE EXPERT YEEEAAAHHHHHHH”

James surrendered. He wrote in a frenzy, and then, seduced by the hypnotic rhythms, he stood. He stamped his feet and shook his head and played along savagely until at last he smashed his air guitar against a filing cabinet.


All of which is the only rational explanation I have for the following USP that I came across recently. I’ve anonymised it a bit by masking the industry sector, but other than that it’s word for word, honest:

“Our business’s USP is its integrated nature to combine multiple XYZ technology solutions together to provide a seamless, efficient and engaging platform for an end user to leverage when preparing for their XYZ, delivering their XYZ and collecting feedback afterward; complete with real-time analytics and dedicated account manager.”

“Goody, that’s just what I wanted,” said nobody, ever.  Unless they smell of sulphur.