Drawing inferences

I was looking through court submissions in my advocacy class today and thinking about the different ways that you can present a set of facts to achieve different results. The ability to tell a good story underpins the art of persuasion. You want your audience to piece together a story with a particular narrative, and you do that by tapping into the assumptions and expectations that we each hold, and leading the listener to the conclusion that you want them to reach in the end.

As much as I try to refrain from making too many judgments about situations or people that I don’t understand or know very well, it’s always interesting to notice the inferences that we draw about them. We judge people on the basis of almost every attribute. While it can sometimes be a helpful way of filtering information, it can also have very damaging consequences.

I was re-watching a TED talk by Sheryl Sandberg recently, and she made a point that really caught my attention:

What the data shows, above all else, is one thing, which is that success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.

A quick Google search on the topic strongly reinforces the idea that success and likability are in fact negatively correlated for women. What Sandberg didn’t say (but probably implied in her notion of success) is that this correlation applies in traditionally “male” roles – which include the majority of jobs in the corporate world.

The more I think about it, the more I realise that the perception is actually not too far off the mark. Hillary Clinton has been said to be caught in a catch-22 of female ambition: “to succeed, she needs to be liked, but to be liked, she needs to temper her success.”

What this all means is that the same story of achievement – but told with a character named Jack instead of Jill – completely changes the way we perceive them.

It’s quite scary to know that small things can change the story behind a person, and paint a different picture in our minds about the kind of person that they are. I guess that’s the beauty and power behind a story, for better or for worse.

Question is, how do we take control and start reshaping these stories?

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