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The Danger of Single Example Learning

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 17, 2016

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At most events I have been to, I have observed the same pattern. The speakers who get the best reaction from the audience are the ones who speak from their own experience and tell great stories. As a professional speaker myself, I know that this is completely normal and there is a lot to be said for this approach. As a researcher and events professional, however, part of me wonders whether we might be setting ourselves up for a fall.

 

To understand the danger of learning from the experience of one person, we need to understand a very basic research concept. If you want to research a phenomenon, there are two broad approaches. The first is to look really deeply into one particular example.

 

The advantage of this approach is that you can draw a wealth of information and can uncover insights that would simply not be visible any other way. A really good example is that of a researcher friend of mine, Jiqing Dong, who looked at communication inside a single interpreting agency. The depth of her analysis is incredible and it offers some amazing food for thought.

 

The disadvantage of going deep is that you can never be sure that you have found something that is valid in any other situation. Sure, you might discover the secrets behind this single event drawing crowds of thousands but how do you know that those same secrets will work for you or anyone else?

 

An alternative approach is to look at several examples on a more superficial level. The classic example of this is a survey. Hardly a day goes by when someone doesn’t want ten minutes of your time to get responses on your social media habits, political affiliation, response to a website redesign or something else.

 

The advantage of going wide is precisely that, if you have done your work properly, your results will tell you something about general trends and principles that apply to a large number of cases. Researchers can and do generalise on the basis of representative surveys, which allows us to know things like the fact that the whole discussion over “what Millenials want” is a load of nonsense, as any generational differences we perceive are simply continuations of existing trends.

 

The disadvantage is, of course, that in drawing from many examples, you have to limit the amount of information you get about any one example and often, you also have to limit the range of responses. You might learn, for example, that your twitter posts get more clicks if they go out between 6 and 7pm but you won’t know what people were doing at that point or their emotional reaction to the post.

 

All this is a rather long way of saying that, if we fixate on the insights of one person and on their experience, we can fall into the trap of trying to extrapolate from their experience to our situation when the two are not at all linked. Sure, there might be a corporate conference company turning over £150 million per year but their techniques might not apply to a sole trader wedding planner.

 

Stories of “how I did it” are fun to hear and read but they might not actually give you anything more relevant to your work than a case of the warm fuzzies. Much better to gather a number of case studies of people in similar context from you and learn from a multitude of counsel. While no two examples are the same, the more we look for patterns and trends, the more we gain relevant insights into our own work