March 25, 2022 / Esther Choy
As the war continues in Ukraine, people are brainstorming ways to help. Matching programs to raise funds. Divesting from Russian companies. It all feels like a drop in the bucket as the refugee crisis balloons. The daily updates are overwhelming and hard to conceptualize: 90% of Mariupol city has been destroyed by Russian airstrikes with over 400,000 still remaining in the city. Staggering numbers and statistics of war arrive on the front page. But another form of storytelling is also at work in the news. And it is powerful.
The image of a pregnant woman being carried out of a bombed out hospital in Mariupol, who later, with her unborn child, died, stopped many people in their tracks and donations to aid organizations ticked up. Anyone who has ever been pregnant or known a pregnant woman immediately feels the woman’s distress as she holds her belly amid the rubble. AP described it like this: “Images of the woman…were seen around the world, personifying the horror of an attack on civilians.”
Giving statistic human-scale stories
She has become a symbol. The single person that is representative of the bigger story that draws people in and moves them to act. In psychology, they call this the identifiable victim effect — that is “identifiable victims have been shown to elicit more distress than unidentified victims.” This kind of empathic distress is associated with greater action.
The flipside is compassion fade, which “describes the reduction of compassionate feelings and actions toward multiple victims compared with those toward single victims.” Researchers note that as the number of victims grows, the response of compassion and distress become overwhelming and acting on those feelings become less likely. Together, these two concepts demonstrate just how impactful the story of a single person is. Dictator Josef Stalin understood this human characteristic in a grim way when he said: “The death of one Russian soldier is a tragedy. The death of a million is a statistic.” (The irony of the source of this quote is not lost.)
Stories of a single character
Our brains are wired for understanding the story of a single person. This is not only effective in philanthropy, but when explaining statistics associated with complex research. In her recent New York Times article, sociologist Ilana M. Horwitz explains her longitudinal study following 3,290 teenagers for 10 years using this tactic. She found that “teenage boys from working-class families, regardless of race, who were regularly involved in their church and strongly believed in God were twice as likely to earn bachelor’s degrees as moderately religious or nonreligious boys.” To help her readers understand this curious statistic, Horwitz uses the example of a particular person in her study. By using the details of this one person’s experience, she is able to illustrate how an active religious life breaks the cycle of despair experienced by nonreligious and moderately religious young men.
A similar tactic of the singular is commonly used in marketing when companies create personas of their targeted audiences. As marketer Abdullah Malik describes “Personas humanize target audiences with quantitative and qualitative data, which help marketers…in making precisely focused marketing strategies.”
The power of the persona came to life recently with a marketing agency for nonprofits. They were working on pitching millennials as a target audience for a particular fundraising campaign. With their vague ideas about millennials, the nonprofit didn’t understand that this audience. They didn’t realize millennials could be a new and significant donor base. The marketing agency turned the data about millennials into a story using the persona of Taylor. Taylor is a 25-year-old grad school student making $30K as a barista. She is looking for a way to get involved.
The case study continues her story: “The issues she sees on social media and YouTube concern her. The environment, increasing hunger, the pandemic, abuse of children and women feel too big – as if she can never make any kind of a meaningful difference by herself. She’s seeking a tribe that can help change the world but doesn’t know how to find them.”
By crafting the statistics about marketing to millennials into a story, the marketing agency was able to demonstrate to their nonprofit client how and why their proposed fundraising strategy would reach millennials.
The Science Behind Storytelling
Neurobiology can help us understand why our brains are more responsive to an identifiable persona over even the most compelling statistics or pieces of data. Professor of neuroscience and economics Paul J. Zak found that stories that bring data down to a human-scale — the identifiable victim or persona — cause the listener of the story to produce oxytocin. Oxytocin is a neurochemical signal in the brain that tells us “it’s safe to approach.” It works by enhancing our empathy for the person at the center of the story. Oxytocin moves us to approach, or act, because we feel the other person’s emotions and understand their experiences.
Zak explains, “my experiments show that character-driven stories with emotional content result in a better understanding of the key points a speaker wishes to make and enable better recall of these points weeks later. In terms of making an impact, this blows the standard PowerPoint presentation to bits. I advise business people to begin every presentation with a compelling, human-scale story.”
As author Alan Weiss has observed, “Logic makes people think; emotion makes them act.” For this reason, leadership storytelling can be defined as the strategic sequencing of facts and emotion. In leadership storytelling the human-scale story of one customer or team member can be very powerful and lead to action.
Take this example from a client in the business supply and equipment industry. A sales manager shared this story with a prospective customer to demonstrate the company’s value and culture:
A small business was running a factory and a part broke on Friday. The business owner called around and wouldn’t be able to find the part until the next week, shutting down manufacturing. Then he called us. We had the part, but our local store was two hours away from him. The store owner offered to meet the business owner halfway on Saturday morning so he could get the production line up and running again. This is what sets our company apart!
The sales manager could have just said, “We are dedicated to customer service.” But this story illustrates their dedication in a much more memorable and meaningful way.
With so much information available everywhere, our brains have had to figure out how to quiet the noise and focus on what is important. Stories cut through the noise and ask us to listen with our heads and our hearts. It’s the figure of President Zelenskyy whose impassioned speeches have illustrated the bravery of his people. It’s the marketer’s persona of the first-time mom preparing her home for the arrival of her baby. Stories transform data and facts into something useful and memorable. Stories draw people in, engage empathy, and prompt action.
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"This is an amazing and insightful post! I hadn’t thought of that so you broadened my perspective. I always appreciate your insight!" - Dan B.
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