Proof Problems: How too much evidence can kill your conversation

I was a member of the speech & debate team in high school. Each week as I would prepare to deliver my speech, I would watch as the debaters entered the auditorium. Each of them carried a loaded-to-the-brim briefcase full of proof – papers, books, charts and articles that all backed up their position in their upcoming debate. They were forces to be reckoned with, indeed.

Proof; it makes us feel confident, vindicated, powerful and “right”. But, when does demonstrating proof or evidence in our conversations make our audiences tune out? 

I recently coached a client who had to deliver some bad news to a team member. In preparation for that conversation, she printed, highlighted and circled page after page of proof to back up her position. “Whoa, easy rider”, I thought. “Let’s just back up for a hot second here and take a look at what you hope this data is going to do for you.” She believed she needed armloads of proof to justify the bad news she was going to deliver. And, while I totally understood her thought process, I had to ask her: “Do you need all this proof? Are you heading into a debate, or are you simply conveying a message and moving on?” After some discussion and processing, she chose to let go of all the proof in favor of having some structured points for her conversation. And, ultimately, choosing that route made her far more effective.

Data and proof are important parts of building a case, position or argument. We often need these points to buttress our main message. It’s when those points overwhelm our audience or lead them away from the main message, though, that we risk killing a conversation. Whether you’re giving a talk or getting on-camera for a video, remember to use proof only as a foundation or highlight. Imagine we’re building a sundae, mkaaay? Proof can be the banana on the bottom or the cherry on-top. Ya don’t want to also make the ice cream, chocolate sauce, sprinkles and whipped cream part of the proof. That’s a nasty sundae that no one wants to eat. Get my drift, here?

Use proof as a way to illustrate your message, not overtake it. Stick with two or three major points that build your case and then move on. Doing this will show your audience that you’ve surely given some thought to your ideas and that there’s more to you than just facts and numbers.