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How-to Library • Featuring articles from past issues of Contributions

Stories or Data: Which Makes the Stronger Case?
And what happens when you use both?

by Andy Goodman

Imagine you’re a college student studying in your school’s library when a woman approaches holding a clipboard. She says if you’ll complete a short survey about technology – how you use computers, cell phones, iPods – she’ll give you five dollars. You make a quick calculation (a tall latté and a muffin for very little effort), and follow her to a study hall where about a hundred other students are gathering.

You complete the questionnaire and receive an envelope containing five singles. As you pocket the cash, you notice the envelope also contains a letter from Save the Children asking you to donate some of the money to help fight hunger in Africa. The solicitation contains statistics about food shortages in Malawi, lack of rain in Zambia, and the dislocation of millions in Angola. You make another calculation (skip the muffin) and drop a couple of bucks in a donation box conveniently located near the exit.

Outside the study hall you run into a friend who’s just completed the same survey. “Did you give your money to Rokia, too?” he asks. When you look at him quizzically, he shows you the letter that was in his envelope. It’s also from Save the Children, but instead of using numbers to make the case for a donation, the letter tells a story:

“Rokia, a 7-year-old girl from Mali, Africa, is desperately poor and faces a threat of severe hunger or even starvation. Her life will be changed for the better as a result of your financial gift. With your support, and the support of other caring sponsors, Save the Children will work with Rokia’s family and other members of the community to help feed her, provide her with education, as well as basic medical care and hygiene education.”

Moved by this appeal, which includes a picture of Rokia, your friend has donated all five dollars. And as you look at the two letters side by side, you begin to realize that the research project you just participated in wasn’t really about technology after all.

Lesson One: A Story Beats Data

This experiment about “the identifiable victim effect” was conducted at Carnegie Mellon University in 2007 by Deborah Small, George Lowenstein and Paul Slovic. The reactions of the two students are fairly representative of the results. On average, students who received the fact-based appeal from Save the Children donated $1.14. Students who read the story about Rokia donated an average of $2.38, more than twice as much.

“When it comes to eliciting compassion,” Paul Slovic says, “the identified individual victim, with a face and a name, has no peer.” Put another way: people relate more to personal stories than to numbers, and when the numbers are particularly large (e.g., millions displaced and going hungry), we simply cannot relate and instead look the other way.

But what happens if you combine stories and data? Will this produce an even more persuasive argument, one that engages both the emotional and rational sides of the brain? Slovic and his colleagues tested this scenario as well, and the results may surprise you.

Lesson Two: A Story Beats a Story Plus Data

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.” The research conducted by Slovic and his colleagues has the same message, one that is not without a measure of irony. If you truly want to persuade people, tell them a story. On this point, the data is clear.

Andy Goodman is a nationally recognized author, speaker and consultant in the field of public interest communications. Along with Storytelling as Best Practice, he is author of Why Bad Ads Happen to Good Causes and Why Bad Presentations Happen to Good Causes. He also publishes a monthly journal, free-range thinking, to share best practices in the field.



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