Individual stories trump hard statistics

Take it from Mother Teresa and Joseph Stalin, personal experiences engage people better than loads of data.

Christopher Graves, global chairman, Ogilvy Public Relations
Christopher Graves, global chairman, Ogilvy Public Relations

There was probably only one thing Mother Teresa and Joseph Stalin agreed on. And it’s an important insight for communicators.

Stalin said: "The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic." Mother Teresa confessed: "If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will."

Researchers found we can care deeply for one single individual who represents a plight, but our concern drops off precipitously once we are asked to care about more than one person. Behavioural scientists call this the ‘identifiable victim effect’, and ‘psychic numbing’. Companies and agencies tend to ignore this human bias and end up with faceless narratives crammed with key messages.

First, when looking to engage the public with a cause, learn from a mountain of research proving the power of this phenomenon. It teaches us that telling the vivid story of one individual, rich in detail and background, overpowers any attempts to persuade or move people using statistics or facts. In fact, when you combine the story with the facts as a kind of combo pack, interest and sympathy drop off. When trying to enlist others in your cause, start with that single story.

You can leverage this finding beyond causes and charity. Consider telling your corporate story not from that old-school, omniscient narrator voice, or from a scripted CEO statement, but instead by revealing the true character of your company by telling employee stories, one individual at a time. Don’t try to mash up a whole team or collage of voices, or try putting words in the employee’s mouth.

Find someone who genuinely embodies the company values or legacy, and just let their story breathe — irrelevant details and all.

In this cynical age, everyone can smell and reject scripted "messaging". Have the courage to tell a real story.

Christopher Graves is global chairman of Ogilvy Public Relations, chair of the PR Council and a trustee of the Institute for PR. Follow or Tweet him at @cgraves.

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