An ancient technique that makes UX research findings sticky
Crafting compelling presentations using ethos, logos, and pathos
A UX research presentation is not a dry reporting of facts.
Yes, we communicate findings and recommendations. But few fates are worse for a report than sitting on a shelf, unused. To have a real impact on the products we support and the people who use them, we must persuade stakeholders to our point of view on the data.
Effective communicators throughout the ages — from Cicero to Churchill — have used principles of persuasion known since antiquity. Following principles first articulated by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his Rhetoric, good speakers build convincing arguments by establishing their credibility and trustworthiness, guiding their audience toward their logic and reasoning, and connecting with them on an emotional level.
Let’s look at how researchers can practice and master these skills to give presentations that have an impact.
Building trust with your audience
Picture two people giving talks on the same topic.
One reads verbatim from slides full of dense, technical jargon in a dull, monotonous tone — often hesitating, making mistakes, or getting confused about what comes next. The other has clearly rehearsed the material, shows enthusiasm for and mastery of the subject, and is able to explain complex problems in a way that even an outsider can understand.
All things being equal, the clearer, more engaging speaker will be seen as more reliable and authoritative. A researcher summarizing the literature put it this way: “A highly confident speaker is viewed as being more accurate, competent, credible, intelligent, knowledgeable, likable, and believable than the less confident uncertain speaker.”
And we find credible experts more persuasive than the uninitiated.
This pillar of persuasive speech is known as ethos, or the ethical appeal.
One of the first and most important ways to establish your ethos is being professional and well-prepared. So know your material and rehearse it before the talk. Avoid typos and other embarrassing mistakes.
If possible, start establishing your credibility before the presentation, or even before the research engagement. Each interaction with your stakeholders is an opportunity to build trust and rapport. Do you have a long history of research in this problem space, for instance? Then draw from prior studies to showcase your experience. Having conducted the study, you know more than your audience about the participants' experiences within this specific context, regardless of whether you consider yourself an expert on the topic.
Walking through the method and participants can also help establish your reliability and credibility. What research questions was this study designed to answer, and how? Perhaps just as importantly, what questions were left off the table? Note the language stakeholders use to frame their problems and questions, and mirror it — even if you feel another phrasing would be more technically accurate. For better or worse, we trust people who are like us.
Your audience will listen once you establish yourself as a relatable, credible authority.
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Building a compelling argument
In a court of law, a rational argument can have a profound human impact in fines paid or time served.
Our users' and organizations' outcomes can be significantly affected by UX research, even if the result is less dramatic. As lawyers present evidence and arguments to prove their case, we must do the same.
This foundation of rhetoric is known as logos or the logical appeal.
One way to present a rational basis for your claims is through classical hypothesis testing. In this method, you state expected results up front based on prior studies or desk research and associate specific measures with those expectations. With a large enough sample size, you can then statistically test whether those measures align. This allows you to make claims such as one product being more usable than another based on the SUS or QXscore.
Although UX researchers don't usually perform controlled experiments, we often use multiple sources of evidence and make hypotheses based on observations.
Showing the validity of your claims is a critical part of building a convincing argument. To that end, supporting data points and charts or graphs that summarize and illustrate the data are crucial in building a convincing argument. You can also use reputable external sources, such as survey data from institutions like the Pew Research Center, to support your claims.
Even if your logic is sound, it serves no purpose unless the audience understands it. Using clear, plain language and devices like analogy and metaphor helps others follow the thread of your reasoning. And be sure to anticipate objections that may linger in your stakeholders’ minds, addressing them head-on in your presentation.
Showing the validity of your claims is a critical part of building a convincing argument.
Building an emotional connection
In their Nobel Prize-winning work on human irrationality, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky showed that people aren't solely creatures of reason. The framing effect — one of many reliable biases they identified — shows how word choices emphasizing the pain of loss or the thrill of gain can influence what might be straightforward, logical decisions.
Pathos, or the emotional appeal, is a powerful persuasive tool for connecting with your audience emotionally to encourage their buy-in.
Vivid language brings findings to life. Compare the following: “Participants strongly preferred design B to design A,” vs. “Participants loved the new design.” Which is more memorable? Give thought to your headlines and titles, as evocative names can make your findings stickier and give them a longer shelf life.
Many UX researchers use a narrative framework based on the hero’s journey — a structure familiar to many of the great stories and epics of history — to build their presentations. While this approach can work well in some cases, it’s not always the ideal format and may be too restrictive. Either way, you can make findings more relatable for the audience by incorporating stories that illustrate them.
Exploit the power of humor and surprise. Sharing an unexpected finding or funny story from a usability test or interview can illustrate a point and make it more memorable. If it doesn't induce a groan or undermine your ethos, researchers might also consider adding relevant GIFs and memes.
You should use video clips and quotes from participants to humanize the results or to highlight a particularly glaring problem. Participants often use charged language to show how a defect in the product makes them feel. They may sometimes express delight at a new feature or a proposed solution as well.
Whether by using compelling stories or evocative language to describe surprising, humorous, painful, or delightful moments, give depth and humanity to your findings to make your presentation stick.
Bringing it all together
UX research presentations aren’t just about sharing data and results. They should also persuade stakeholders to take action based on the findings. Throughout history, effective communicators have used persuasive techniques to do just this:
While leveraging these three pillars can make findings more memorable and relatable, it does not guarantee the validity of the research. If you use these tools to amplify shoddy or half-baked work, it’s likely to backfire.
More powerful than any single persuasive pillar is the effective use of all three. By combining the classical tools of rhetoric, UX researchers can make findings more understandable and persuasive to ensure they have the desired impact.
Thanks to Summer Harvey and Thomas Stokes for reviewing drafts of this article.
A mantra for confidence
During one of the toughest courses from my time in graduate school, a student was called on to present. He got up, shuffled through a few thrown-together slides, muttering and staring at his feet. Our no-nonsense professor proceeded to humiliate him in front of the rest of the class, saying: “Face your audience and tell them what you know!”
Ironically, this turns out to be decent advice. If you know more about the subject than your audience, you shouldn't be afraid to stand in front of them and share your knowledge. The professor's rough delivery made it memorable, but the message remains clear: trust yourself and your expertise.
A few longer treatments that expand upon the topics discussed here:
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath
Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama by Sam Leith
Storytelling with Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic
The Minto Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing, Thinking, & Problem Solving by Barbara Minto
Further subcategories for each appeal discussed in this 1985 manuscript by Ulla Connor and Janice Lauer (h/t Arnas Aleksandravičius)
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I love this approach, using the Greek principles is quite an interesting approach to presenting
This is so thoughtful thanks for sharing, Lawton. However, I believe that most tech folks especially decision makers just don't get the nuances of grammar and sentence structure. No one cares and quiet honestly most people who work in the tech industry even the people who are native English speakers, can hardly write complete and correct sentences. So all this effort is pointless and meaningless, if stakeholders cared for just nuanced reportage on users and user insights then we won't be the first victims of these mass layoffs.