In 2009 I received a newsletter that made a lasting impression on me. The Goodman Center told of a study exploring the effect of numbers versus stories on donations made to an organization addressing hunger. In the experiment, one group of students was asked to give money to an organization based purely on statistics of hunger in several countries, and the other was asked to give money based on a story of one child facing hunger and starvation that this organization could help.
Which group gave more generously?
As you may have guessed, the one that read the story.
We often turn to numbers when we talk about the impact we are trying to make. We want to convince people of the terrifyingly large scope of the problem. Unfortunately, this often triggers a sense of helplessness in the people we are talking to. We also want to convince people of how much work we're doing and how much value their investment or donations are making by talking about the numbers of people we are serving.
But there are two problems with numbers. They both involve context.
Here's an illustration:
According to the World Health Organization, approximately 36.9 million people were living with HIV/AIDS at the end of 2017. Let's say a business provides health care to people living with HIV/AIDS in Swaziland, where 220,000 adults or 27% of the adult population is living with HIV/AIDS. In 2017, that business provided health care to 200 people living with HIV/AIDS.
In the first case, the problem affects what some might say is a "mere" 0.5% of the global population, and this business helps a "mere" 0.09% of the population living with HIV/AIDS in Swaziland.
"Except," you may say, "the number of people suffering from HIV/AIDS is that low because of huge investments in prevention and treatment over the past 15 years. And it's a terrible disease that causes great suffering. Nobody should become infected with HIV/AIDS." And if you were the founder of that business, you would say, "yes, but that's 200 people whose health would have degenerated but who are now LIVING a more healthy life with HIV/AIDS."
Can you see how numbers can work against you?
The problem with either of these sets of numbers - those around the scope of the problem, or those around the numbers of people you have "served" - is that both are meaningful only if the LISTENER deems them significant.
When you tell a story, whether about a problem you're trying to solve or about a positive change in the life of someone your business has served, you get to communicate what is significant. You're not leaving it up to your listener to assume or to do math in their head or to throw up their hands in exasperation at the hopelessness of the situation. (Of course, this includes the caveat that truthfulness in communicating either is paramount!)
Sometimes you may feel it's really, really important to give numbers. Annual reports are a good example. Though the study I mentioned above show that engagement is highest with stories alone, if you feel the numbers are important, then including them with a story will result in more engagement than numbers alone. Make your determination on your audience - as communicators for our businesses, we need to communicate what OUR AUDIENCE NEEDS to hear, not WHAT WE (feel we) need to say.
What can you do to learn about what information to give to what type of audience or group?
First, start to notice when other businesses or organizations try to get YOU to engage, and notice what your role is in that engagement. Take some notes. Get some inspiration.
Second, experiment. When you plan to communicate in some way - a speech, an interview for a podcast, an article - define what kind of engagement you would like from the audience. Articulate your hopes or goals ahead of time. Experiment with using just story or story and numbers, and let the results guide you in which to use in what context.
Third, if you need more stories about the changes that have happened in the lives of people affected by your work, this article I've written on how to hear from those you serve about the most significant changes that have occurred because of your work. Maybe you'll find some new stories to tell!