The Power of Stories

Lately we’ve been seeing some reports on a decline in donations and giving in Australia. As we work with NFP organisations who rely on donations and support it is important to question why these trends are occurring and what can be done to overcome these challenges.

A piece of advice that we often find ourselves giving to organisations during strategic work is to ‘tell more stories’ in order to increase donations and improve elevator pitches. But stories should be utilised more broadly as well.

We see that sometimes we can get so caught up in proving the logical impact of our work with data and statistics, that we forget to provide the real human context that a story gives. Stories bring the statistics to life, they show why the work really matters and allow people to connect with the information in a deeper way.

There are 5 major reasons to heavily utilise stories in your organisation regardless of your sector:

1. Stories are the ultimate communication tool

When you hear 10,000 people have been affected by an Earthquake on the news, you shake your head and say ‘that’s terrible’ but really we can’t relate to this. It is beyond comprehension. But watch a 3 minute story about one person’s devastating loss from the earthquake and we are hit with the raw emotion and human toll of the event.

Logic and analysis rarely define how we make decisions – it’s hard to think about a system that proves this point more than the legal one. In big cases lawyers are focused on the narrative, the perception and the storytelling as much as the evidence. They know that whoever tells the best story wins the minds of the jury.

Keep stories in mind next time you are preparing a presentation or trying to articulate a strategy.

2. Create influence and motivation

Motivation is a very complex thing, one that keeps leaders up at night wondering: How do we motivate our team to perform? How do we motivate our supporters to donate? The answer might just be stories.

Adam Grant from Wharton University replicated a study 5 times where he improved a call centre’s fundraising performance. He did so by bringing in a student who had benefited from the scholarship fundraising to talk to the call team for just 10 minutes about the positive impacts the scholarships had already had on his life.

The results were indisputable: a month after the first study, time on the phones was up 142% while fundraising increased by  172%. Funds raised was even improved 400% compared to the control group in a later version of the study.

Hearing stories from the people that we serve and help is a surefire way to reinforce the desired values and purpose of an organisation. It also seems to have a huge impact on motivation both internally and externally, even if we only hear the stories for 5-10 minutes.

3. You gain insights from stories in feedback

Beyond inspiration and motivation, hearing stories from the people we serve is powerful for generating insights. Creating feedback loops is an effective way to capture these stories. The insights will be far richer than any broad survey data or analytics and often reveal small tweaks that will have huge impacts for your customers.

An example is the Nurse-Family Partnership in the USA who exist to help mothers stay healthy during pregnancy and learn how to raise children. They created a feedback loop to hear stories directly from their beneficiaries instead of the traditional rigorous controlled trials of the past. The nurses quickly learned many of their assumptions were wrong. For instance they thought mothers did not want to use technology and preferred personal communication. However mothers identified text message as the first preference for communication as they told stories of being so busy and how central the phone is to them. These stories helped the charity better connect with mothers and most importantly, improve their service to them.

4. We actually remember stories

Dan and Chip Heath authored a great book called Made to Stick. The book explores why some ideas ‘stick’ and others die. They identified one key component to creating a sticky idea: Storytelling. They believe that stories make ideas more memorable and they set out to prove it.

Chip teaches a class at Stanford university and decided to run a test. He gave his class a bunch of statistics and information on violent crime in the USA. He then split the class in two groups: Members of one group had to each present a 1 minute presentation proposing that violent crime was a serious problem in the USA while the other group argued that it wasn’t a serious problem. 

After the presentations Chip distracts the students with a 10 minute video on another subject. Then he abruptly asks the students to write down everything they can remember about the speeches they had heard.

Here is where things get really interesting, to quote Chip:

“In the average one-minute speech, the typical student use 2.5 statistics. Only one student in ten tells a story. Those are the speaking statistics. The “remembering” statistics, on the other hand, are almost a mirror Image: When students are asked to recall the speeches, 63% remember the stories. Only 5% remember any individual statistic.”

This really demonstrates how powerful stories are, especially when we are learning. If you want information to be retained, use stories. This applies to everything from onboarding new staff to providing support for customers.

5. Stories add meaning and we really value meaning

As human beings we look for meaning and narrative in most things. When something has meaning to us it increases in value. A fascinating experiment was undertaken called Significant Objects, where the basic goal was to prove that you could take a simple object of little value and make it worth more by giving it a story and endowing it with meaning.

This experiment played out by auctioning off thrift store objects that were worth a few bucks each via eBay. As opposed to your standard eBay listing, the item descriptions were written as short stories by 200 different contributing writers. The hypothesis was proven emphatically. The objects were purchased for $128.74 in total but sold for a massive total of $3,612.51when paired with stories. For example this Russian Figurine cost $3 but was sold for $193.50 or this Globe Paperweight cost $1.49 but sold for $197.50 with a moving hand written story. All proceeds of the project were distributed to non-profit organisations.

Behavioural economist Dan Ariely gives his take on the Significant Objects experiment:

“The power of stories: spend a fantastic weekend somewhere, and no matter what you bring back – whether it’s an upper-case souvenir or a shell off the beach – you’ll value it immensely, simply because of its associations. This explains the findings of the Significant Objects Project, and also how other things like branding works.”

The main point

Don’t underestimate the power of stories to inspire, teach, motivate and influence. Use them wherever you can, both internally and externally. Analytics and data are important for organisations to utilise, but without human context and stories the information has far less impact.


Look out for an upcoming insight about how to create great stories for impact.

By Luke Schoknecht | Director

Original image by Tim Bogdanov