Mentors 9/18: Clearly Separate Opinion From Fact

I’m in the home stretch of my next book co-authored with Sean Wise, titled Startup Opportunities: Know When To Quit Your Day Job, so I thought I’d procrastinate a little this morning and write another Techstars Mentor Manifesto blog post.

This one is about the ninth element, Clearly Separate Opinion From Fact.

We live in a world of assertions. Many of us, including me, often have a fuzzy line between opinions and facts. We interpret facts to fit our opinions, but then make our opinions broader than the underlying data. Opinions are formed from a single fact, rather than a set of several, or a lot of facts, to form a clearly substantiated opinion.

Entrepreneurs, investors, and anyone who plays a mentorship role often asserts an opinion as fact. I know that I fall into this trap regularly, both on the asserting and receiving end. I often catch others doing it and, when I challenge them based on my own data, they quickly revert to a position that they are expressing an opinion. But, in these cases, if I hadn’t challenged them, everyone else hearing the statement would view it as fact.

Now, opinions are extremely important. But they are different than facts. This is especially important for a first-time entrepreneur to realize. It’s equally important for a mentor to realize.

When you are expressing an opinion, it’s useful to frame it as such. When you are stating a fact, make sure your mentee knows it’s a fact.

In addition to separating opinions from fact, you should separate data from facts. While data is factual, the conclusion from the data is often an opinion. It’s easy to assert the data as a fact but this isn’t helpful and is often detrimental, since it’ll be incorporated into the mentee’s mind as a fact that they will start to extrapolate off of it as a fact.

As humans we get trapped in the fact / opinion / data matrix all the time. As a mentor, be careful and err on the side of being clear about what you are stating. Your goal is to help your mentee, not to be recognized as the smartest person in the room.

  • Rick

    If we do what your suggesting. 90% of the web’s content will have to be deleted!
    Also if you don’t go off opinion then you’ll not ever invest in any company. People won’t ever create things that “become big”, no new recipes will be invented etc.
    But it would be nice if people would *always* say “In my opinion…”
    In fact you should have labeled your post “In my opinion everyone should clearly separate opinion from fact.”

    • I’m not suggesting, in any way, that opinions are bad. They are extremely useful and interesting – well – some of the time. But they are very different than facts and should be used / interpreted differently.

      • Rick

        Except when it’s my opinion. When it’s my opinion it’s interesting *all* of the time!
        So little is fact and facts are so hard to express correctly that it becomes trying to carry on a conversation based wholly on fact. But that would be nice. Just imagine being able to state things via facts so that there would be no ambiguity in your statements.

      • I think this quote applies : “the plural of anecdote is not data” – stories and advocacy is not the same as evidence/data.

  • Chuck

    In my opinion, a good leader should be able to separate
    facts from opinions and act accordingly.

    • Very true, but it takes a long time and a lot of experience to become a good leader. That’s the essence of a mentor/mentee relationship – the mentor is trying to help the mentee on her development process into greatness.

  • Great post. So important to remember. And you are right, important to remember when you are the person providing the opinion. Many times because of conviction and experience people will confuse your opinion for fact.

    • It’s especially true when the mentor has a strong sales gene in him/her. My partner in my first company (Dave) was very good at calling me out in these situations by saying, simply, “Stop selling me.”

  • It is tremendous that your shared this. It is so important that everyone remembers this. Every business situation has distinct attributes and the environment changes constantly. The advice based on the environment in the last quarter might not fit this quarter.

    While I want to agree with Chuck when he is talking about an experienced leader, in the context of mentors and mentees the highest potential mentee – one who is a phenomenal young leader – might still be star struck by the charismatic serial entrepreneur who means well, but doesn’t appreciate one tiny, but crucial nuance in the mentee’s business plan.

    • Chuck

      In my opinion, after opinions have been clearly separated
      from the facts, a mentee making vertical progress, who is assembling and leading a team to change the world, should possess the ability to distinguish when information/advice is useful or not, regardless
      of the source of the information/advice. How else could the mentee bring the vision to fruition?

      • But the mentee will not always be correct, in the same way that the mentor is not always correct. The goal should be to maximize the clarity of what is being expressed, whether it be fact, opinion, data, or a guess. Ultimately, the mentee/entrepreneur gets to decide what to do – two of the common phrases from mentors at Techstars is “It’s only data” and It’s your company” – signaling that the mentor is not advocating a specific decision be made.

    • The star struck problem is a big one. I’ve heard so many times from the back channel that “Brad Feld didn’t agree with mentor X on thing Y.” Well – that’s totally fine – I could easily have been wrong, especially if I was expressing an opinion. If it’s just an opinion of mine, decide whether you agree or not, regardless of who I am. Weighing it based on my experience is fine, but recognize that it could still be wrong.

  • Favorite quote –

    “If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.” — Jim Barksdale, former Netscape CEO

    • Yup – that’s a classic from the pre-Internet bubble era …

  • Nodding throughout, and if I may add, I’ve been using optionality as a way to present various opinions on a given topic, and watching the entrepreneur’s reaction. They typically lead you to the better one.

    • The Five Whys and Optionality are two of my favorite techniques.

  • When speaking about facts at emerging topics which are usually the topics startups deal with then you are constrained at a certain point in time only to past knowledge. Many times facts takes some time to get established so there is usually another gap in time from now the time the facts represent reality. So in a way for future directions you have to rely on opinions. Of course the more facts you have to base a theory on the better you are though still you are in opinion land and in a way gamble on a certain foreseeable future which can be right or wrong.

  • Thanks for writing this. And, I like this statement very much. It is beautiful “We interpret facts to fit our opinions, but then make our opinions broader than the underlying data”

  • Dave Linhardt

    I completely agree with your fact / opinion / data framework. When I joined 1871, I found myself deeply engaged with startup entrepreneurs, most of whom were first timers. We would meet weekly in a YPO-like format, “What keeps you up at night?” discussion.

    After hearing a lot of opinions, including mine, I realized opinions are just that; opinions. Further, I’m not really helping an entrepreneur by just giving her my opinion. What the entrepreneur really needs is a way to find her own answers.

    This led me to the methodology I teach @FounderSensei. We call it Insight-Driven Iteration. It’s basically a process for finding your own answers for how to build your startup.

    It’s a little spooky how similar our thinking is in this area. It seems like we independently come to the same conclusions in a few key areas.

    When engaging with entrepreneurs, it’s helpful to remember two things 1) by definition entrepreneurs see the world differently and this is precious and 2) entrepreneurs want to find their own answers and that’s how it should be.