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!?)


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