The Truth About Storytelling: #4 Leaders not Followers

You’re a nurse. You studied for years. You’ve worked on busy wards with every kind of patient caring for every kind of condition. In front of you is a patient suffering from earache, and you’re asked to administer drops. Where do you put them?

That’s what I thought too, but a study into medication error found that one poor patient was receiving his ear drops rectally (yes, you read that right!) No doubt the poor patient was wondering the same thing as you; why would a qualified nurse not question such an obviously bizarre situation?

The answer’s in another social proof that we need to bring to our storytelling – we follow leaders.

The anal ear drop scenario took place because when the Doctor prescribing the drops for the patient’s right ear filled out his chart he wrote, ‘place in R ear’. The nurse, unwilling to question authority, went ahead and did as (she thought) instructed.

The same study found that the average hospital had a daily 12% error rate which they largely attributed to the ‘mindless deference’ of nurses, pharmacists and physicians to the person in charge of the patients case.

Of course this ‘mindless deference’ isn’t unique to the medical profession; we’re all guilty of it. In another experiment researchers arranged for a 31 year old man to cross the road at a red traffic light. The test variable was that some of the time he was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, the rest of the time he was dressed in a business suit and tie.

Three times as many people were prepared to follow him and walk in front of moving traffic when he was dressed in a suit!

Authority has a strange way of distorting our perception. Five groups of students in Australia were introduced to a man they were told was visiting from Cambridge University. To one class he was introduced as a student, to the second as a demonstrator, to the third a lecturer, the fourth a senior lecturer, and the fifth a professor.

After each group met him they were asked to guess his height and it was found that as his status grew so did his height!


What can we learn from all this? That, rational or not, when it comes to making decisions we seem to be pre-programmed to follow the leader. When in doubt we find a sense of security in purchasing the ‘leading brand’.

If fundraising’s about asking people to invest in their values and beliefs then we have to position ourselves as the best place to make that investment.

If we want people to take action then it’s not enough to just tell them what we’d like to do. We all want world peace, an end to poverty, hunger and disease, but why would they believe they can achieve those goals with us?

When we’re telling our stories we need to establish credibility and confidence by demonstrating what we have done. What change have we brought about? What milestones can we highlight? What can a supporter achieve with us that they won’t anywhere else?

So that brings us to the end of this short series on storytelling. We hope you’ve found it useful, and that the next time you’re looking for help telling your story you’ll get in touch with us. We’ve been the leaders in telephone fundraising for 21 years, raising over a £1 billion for causes like yours (see what I did there!?)


The Truth About Storytelling: #3 Together not Seperate

So what’s the flipside of our inertia in the face of large numbers?

We don’t want to take action unless we see large numbers of others doing so!

Take canned laughter. Can you think of anyone who’d tell you they like it? So why do the highest grossing sit-coms use it? Because experiments have found that using canned laughter causes an audience to laugh louder and longer.

It’s the same reason advertisers always let us know that their product is the ‘fastest’ or ‘biggest’ selling; that 9/10 people prefer their product. It’s also the reason we can walk straight past the unconscious man outside the tube without knowing if he’s drunk or had a heart attack; the person in front of us did (so did the person in front of them).

Social Proof

Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as ‘Social Proof’. Robert Cialdini says ‘…one means we use to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct.’

It looks like Oscar Wilde was right when he said ‘Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation’.

So how does this influence the way we ask?

If you want people to donate make sure they know that others are. Don’t ask them to join at the starting line, show them the finish line (show them the money!)

This point was made decisively in an experiment asking donors to help raise $3000. Some were told $2000 had already been raised, others just $300.

What happened?

Showing supporters that many others were involved produced a six fold increase in contributions and had a significant effect on both participation rates and average gift size.

Couple this learning with what we already know about offering prospects and supporters hope, and then decide which phrase gets us where we need to go…

‘We can only reach half…’


‘We’ve already reached half…’

We Like People Like Us

There’s another condition that has an even more powerful impact on Social Proof; similarity. We do what we see others do, and the more they’re ‘like’ us the more likely we are to reflect their behaviour. Have you noticed how many TV ads are using ‘average person in the street’ testimonials?

A study by Columbia University psychologists offered compelling evidence by ‘dropping’ wallets in Manhattan. Each wallet contained cash, a cheque, various information providing the name and address of its ‘owner’ and a letter. The letter was written to the wallet’s ‘owner’ from a man who had found it and was in the process of returning it. So, everyone who picked up the wallet could see that a well intentioned individual had found it when originally lost and had every intention of returning it.

There was one variation in the letter; one was written in standard English, the other in broken English by someone identifying himself as a recently arrived foreigner. 70% returned the wallet when someone ‘like them’ had intended to do so, only 33% did when the person was ‘different’.

What Social Proofs can you add to your story? Can you tell them how people where they live are getting involved? Can you tell them how many young/old, men/women are excited about being a part of your campaign?

Impact on Giving?

If you want to see the impact of Social Proof in action, watch an experienced busker start their days work – the case will always contain a few shiny pound coins before they’ve played a note.

Two fascinating studies in ‘The Science of Giving’ show the buskers approach working just as well in our sector.

One was conducted by John Randall and Richard Martin who ran a series of experiments on donation boxes. Some boxes were empty, some displayed a few prominent notes. Their conclusion was that donation box composition tends to mimic the composition of the initial contents.

The second by Rachel Croson and Jen Shang ran a test during a public radio fundraising drive. When donors were told what the previous donor had given, giving was uplifted by 29%. When donors were told the previous donation was made by someone of the same gender it uplifted giving by 34%. And not only was there an initial uplift, but the higher giving continued in future years. (We’re really looking forward to do further tests on this and other areas of giving with Jen this year).

So if you want to up values make sure your other donors play a strong supporting role in your story.

There’s a reason it’s called Social Proof!

There’s one more ‘proof’ that we’ll look at on Thursday…

The Truth About Storytelling: #2 Hope not Hopeless

“Hope springs eternal in the human breast; Man never is, but always to be blest” – Alexander Pope

There are countless examples throughout history, but if we ever needed contempory proof that our natural response to human suffering was not measured or proportional it happened over the space of just a few weeks in 2010.

The United Nations rated the floods in Pakistan as the greatest humanitarian crisis in recent history. More people were affected than the 2004 South-East Asian tsunami and the earthquakes in both Kashmir and Haiti combined.

A few days’ later 33 miners in Chile were trapped down a mine.

One of these stories was a worldwide media sensation, dominating both tabloid and broadsheet headlines for months – the other was barely covered.

We saw the other day that the bigger the number the less we care, so aside from the identifiable victim and psychic numbing affect, what was it about a few dozen anonymous Chilean miners that engaged us in a way that the greatest humanitarian crisis in recent history did not?


What little coverage the flood in Pakistan did receive focused on the overwhelming scale of faceless despair. There was no sense anything could be done; the victims were doomed. We looked away with a familiar feeling of resigned hopelessness.

Contrast that with the sense of drama with which we avidly followed the minute by minute coverage of the Chilean miners. Their plight wasn’t a ‘story’ when they were simply trapped, but the moment a probe found they were still alive it was an international sensation. For 52 days we were gripped with the cliff-hanger suspense; the first handwritten note from a borehole, the messages of love to their families, endless theories of rescue scenarios.


 (29 miners died anonymously in New Zealand a few weeks later).

Hope mirrors our desire and we actively seek it. Despair mirrors our worst fears and we do all we can to hide from it.

There is a clear takeout for us here – focus on what can be done and people take action; focus on what can’t and asking for help seems pointless.

If our story’s main focus is on the problem then people are left with the feeling that there’s nothing they can do. If we place our greatest emphasis on the solution we’re giving them a clear, achievable goal and the ‘warm glow’ that comes from feeling they can make a difference.

The moral implications of why we respond to hope and not to despair matters less to us as fundraisers than accepting the fact that we do (as Lenny Bruce put it ‘There is no “what should be”, there is only what is.’)

There’s an ironic flip side of our inertia in the face of large numbers which we’ll look at next Tuesday.

There is hope…




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?

An identity.

Why’s that so important? There are four main reasons…

  1. 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 (!!!)

Want further proof?

  1. 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.

  1. 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).

  1. 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’.)


Want To Get Inside Your Donors’ Brains? Try Storytelling…

Everyone in the sector’s talking about storytelling (again).


Of course storytelling is nothing new, only the logistics change; from cavemen drawing on walls to Kindles. The New York Times recently reported on research that we are pre-programmed to respond to stories – that the brain tells itself stories to make sense of daily events.


So why’s storytelling so important to us in fundraising? Well, everyone knows that emotion drives charity giving, but what drives emotion?




They have the power to enthral and inspire us (it’s why novels always outsell textbooks; why an episode of EastEnders dealing with, say, alcoholism, child sexual exploitation or HIV massively overshadows the ratings of a documentary tackling the same issues).


Corporate’s have always been great at using story telling techniques to get their message over, but how well do we do it in the third sector?  Not great according to a recent PhD analysis which concluded that the majority of fundraising messaging was overly formal, cold, detached, and abstract.


But we’re getting better. We can all think of great stories being told in direct mail or online appeals, but what happens when we switch to the oldest (and most powerful) method of all; one human being talking to another?


Let’s be honest; how much thought do we really put into the massive difference between what’s read or said? If our (honest) answer is ‘not much’ then we’re missing an enormous opportunity…


Research by the Neuroscience Institute of Princeton University shows that stories cause the brains of the speaker and listener to synchronize! No wonder Third Sector’s latest ‘Giving Trends’ research says that the telephone is the most effective way to solicit donations.


So, over a short series of blogs we’ll share methods we’ve learned, from over 3 million fundraising conversations a year, on how you can tell your stories most effectively to inspire new donors and increase engagement with existing ones. In a short series of blogs we’ll look at some of the key elements that so powerfully transform fundraising presentations into inspirational conversations


  • People not Numbers
  • Hope not Despair
  • Together not Separate
  • Leaders not Followers

Look out for our next post on Wednesday, and please share your thoughts with us on what makes a good story.


Pell & Bales offers 21 Free campaigns: apply now!

As part of our 21st birthday celebrations we will be running 21 campaigns to charities free of charge! Not only will you get the phone calls, but also the expert account management, planning, strategic advice, analysis, fundraiser training and post call fulfilment that we offer to all of our clients!

The story went to press earlier this week. To those that have applied already thank you for your inspiring stories, your passionate requests for support and some really great fundraising ideas. To those that haven’t yet applied I look forward to hearing from you soon!

We not only want to help 21 charities and their causes with this project. We want to create 21 examples of great, innovative fundraising that we can share with the sector. We will explore new ways of speaking to supporters, new fundraising techniques, products and platforms. What makes things even more exciting is that this project coincides with our recent investment in new technology: technology which allows us to integrate SMS, email and inbound calling with our traditional outbound calling system for the first time.

For those that have never used the phone, let us demonstrate why it is such a powerful channel: not just how it delivers some of the strongest, if not the strongest, response rates of all fundraising techniques, but also the incredible insight you can gain from speaking directly to hundreds of your donors. Simply tell us your fundraising challenge, opportunity or target audience and we will help design a campaign that best suits your needs.

For those with existing telephone programs, perhaps you are looking for something new and innovative. This is an opportunity to explore loyalty and stewardship calls, donor get donor, event fundraising, donor advocacy or how you might enhance your calling by integrating SMS, email or online.

Please apply directly to me via email, by Friday 16 March, providing details on why you would like to be involved and the type of telephone campaign that you may be interested in.