The Truth About Storytelling: #1 People not Numbers (aka Emotion not Reason)
A sparrow knocked over 23,000 dominoes, spoilt a world record attempt, and was shot dead. Public outrage was swift; a tribute website immediately attracted more than 24,000 hits!
Ok, but why does the fact that around 150-200 species are made extinct everyday not evoke the same reaction? What did the martyred sparrow have that countless extinct species did not?
Why’s that so important? There are four main reasons…
- Giving isn’t rational
If big numbers motivated us to take action, if the decision to support a charity was rational, then every child in the world would already have been fed. We wouldn’t have needed a Live Aid 2; Comic Relief would have been a one off event.
Today a slew of neuroscientists like Gerald Zaltman are proving what savvy marketers have always known; that giving is not a rational choice, that 95% of human thought and emotion happens without our conscious awareness (no wonder Ken Burnett is so happy to acknowldege advertising wizard David Ogilvy as an influence).
Want proof? Paul Slovic ran a test offering people the following choice…
- Give $10 million to fight a disease claiming 20,000 lives and save 10,000
- Give $10 million to fight a disease claiming 290,000 lives and save 20,000
The first option won (!!!)
- Big numbers make us feel small
How many times have you heard someone say ‘there’s just nothing I can do?’
Big numbers present the unacceptable as an unalterable fact, producing a reaction called ‘psychic numbing’. Instead of feeling motivated to take action we are rendered inert by the insurmountable scale of the problem.
When told that ‘millions’ are starving or that a high percentage of people will die from such and such a disease we feel tiny; we just didn’t evolve to cope with catastrophe on such a scale. In the face of relentless and overwhelming tragedy what can a human heart do but break and close down? No one can grieve that much.
- I am not a number!
Slovic refers to statistics as ‘human beings with the tears dried off’ saying that ‘…numbers fail to spark emotion or feeling and thus fail to motivate action.’ Why? Because when large losses of life are represented simply as numbers we lose any sense of individuality, identification and empathy.
How can you picture ‘millions’ dying; it’s a fact but how can you feel it? Another test gave people the following options…
- To feed a starving girl in Mali named Roika
- To help millions of hungry children
Roika was given double the amount given to the millions of children (a further test putting Roika in a statistical context had a negative effect on giving).
- Stories are memorable
‘If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.’ – Rudyard Kipling.
8 million children under the age of 5 needlessly died last year and we don’t know their names – yet we all vividly remember the faces of Maddie McCann and Baby P.
A story is memorable; a series of statistics isn’t. If you want people to tell others about your cause it helps if they can remember it.
Which is more memorable?
Charity X was founded in 1996. We work in 114 countries, 365 days of the year. In the last 12 months we provided lifesaving vaccinations to 545, 115 children.
Your gift meant Sally got the vaccination that saved her life.
The key to action is not thoughtful deliberation; it’s emotion.
If you want supporters to engage, take action and spread the word then the identified individual victim, with a face and a name, has no peer. Countless psychological experiments demonstrate this clearly but we all know it as well from personal experience and media coverage of heroic efforts to save individual lives (we’ll examine this last point in more detail on Friday).
When telling your story, focus on a single, identifiable individual who personifies your cause. As Dan Ariely puts it, if someone activates our emotions ‘we get to care’. Use their story to show a supporter what they can do.
(Back to our martyred sparrow – the head of the Bird Protection Agency said ‘I just wish we could channel all this energy that went into one dead sparrow into saving the species’.)