Persuading Through Data And Stories
When you’re aiming to persuade your audience about an idea or argument, how much do you make use of stories? And by story, I just mean a human example – nothing long or elaborate needed. You’ve probably heard about storytelling in presentations, and there are many different resources to help you use them effectively.
But in my work with clients I still often see reluctance to go beyond the data – and don’t get me wrong: facts, logic, data, they’re all crucial. But numbers don’t engage your audience unless they understand where the numbers come from and what they mean. We retain information most efficiently when it attaches to an emotion – no emotion = very low or no recall. So adding the human aspect and persuading through data and stories – giving an example, case study, anecdote – is going to greatly increase both audience engagement and retention…and we all want that!
Think back for a moment to a recent presentation you heard…even one a year, or few years ago. What you do remember most? I’d bet it’s a story. And possibly an individual’s story. Which brings me to my main point today, about how nonprofits are leveraging this idea. My aim is to show you the power of using an individual’s story to engage your audience, no matter what topic you’re delivering.
How nonprofits are persuading through data and stories
NFPs or nonprofits have learned that telling the story of one person who needs your help will attract more donations than using data alone. OR even data and story together. (This is unusual by the way, that data and story combined aren’t the winner – in general my best advice to you is to use both. There’s a specific challenge around asking for donations which I discuss below).
So why do stories work so well? We’re basically hard-wired for them. Chip and Dan Heath, authors of ‘Made to Stick’ say this:
“Hearing stories acts as a kind of mental flight simulator, preparing us to respond more quickly and effectively.”
And using the story of one person, the “identifiable victim effect” to use nonprofits donation goal language, works. To give you an example using a research experiment:
This experiment was conducted at Carnegie Mellon University in 2007 by researchers Deborah Small, George Lowenstein and Paul Slovic. Students – thinking they were being surveyed on their use of technology – who received a fact-based appeal from Save the Children donated $1.14 on average.
Students who read the story about Rokia – a 7 year old girl starving in Mali, Africa – donated an average of $2.38, more than twice as much.
“When it comes to eliciting compassion,” researcher Paul Slovic says, “the identified individual victim, with a face and a name, has no peer.”
I remember myself reading an article years ago in the Age about homelessness. Research had found that people struggled to relate to the homeless as a group. But when they were asked to think about which of two soups a homeless man might prefer for their evening meal, their compassion and ability to relate hugely increased. It certainly worked for me.
And the very fact that I can remember the example probably 10 years later shows the way humanising the individual person created strong personal impact.
We struggle to relate to large numbers
It’s so hard for us to relate to big numbers, millions affected, that we often turn away. So what happens in the nonprofit, donation-seeking arena when we use data and a story together?
What can happen in nonprofit donation-eliciting when we use story and data together?
Let me quote directly from Andy Goodman who wrote about this study in Contributions Magazine.
“In a third experiment (that was part of the same study), students who completed the technology survey were given an envelope with five dollars and a different solicitation from Save the Children. This letter told Rokia’s story but also included statistics about persistent drought, shortfalls in crop production, and millions of Africans who were going hungry.
While students who had read Rokia’s story alone donated an average of $2.38, those who read the story plus the data donated an average of $1.43. Slovic attributes this nearly 40 percent fall-off to what he calls the “drop in the bucket” effect. When people read about Rokia, he explains, their emotions are engaged and they are inclined to give. But when they also read about the millions who are in distress, “the data sends a bad feeling that counteracts the warm glow from helping Rokia,” he says. People may still give, but they will give less.
Even with these results, Slovic adds, good causes may be able to combine stories with data to positive effect. If you tell a story about someone your organization has helped and then explain that she is just one among hundreds currently benefiting from your efforts, the supporting data may have a different impact. In this instance, says Slovic, the data “will indicate that [your] organization is trustworthy and effective. Donors care about that.” He is quick to add, however, that this is an assumption on his part that has not been confirmed by research.
‘If I look at the mass I will never act,” said Mother Teresa. “If I look at the one, I will.'”
So if you need to persuade your audience, it’s worth remembering this. Using a story – particularly one person’s – is one of the most effective ways to engage your audience. However, unless you’re working in the donation-seeking area, I recommend persuading through data and stories to maximise your message’s impact and appeal.