Why you should stop citing statistics and start telling stories.

Stories RuleEvery time we feel it necessary to make a case, we default to the numbers. It happens when we want to justify what we did or even what we want to do.

“Let me show you the research numbers on this. I have a scatter chart that will blow you away!”

And by ‘blow away’ we usually mean that you may nod approvingly, but if asked 15 minutes later to repeat those numbers, you’d do what most of us do. Scratch our heads and say something like, “I don’t remember it exactly, but I think it was pretty good?”

That’s not an indictment. That’s simply an observation about us humans. The numbers fall out of our brains. In their excellent book Made To Stick, Chip & Dan Heath cite a study that illustrates this point:

“When students are asked to recall speeches, 63 percent remember the stories. Only 5 percent remember any individual statistic.”

I don’t expect you to remember that stat. Only that stories are more memorable than numbers. It’s just how we’re wired. In fact, in my experience, anybody who can seem to remember detailed statistics is either lying or trying to sell us something. Or both.

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Wait a minute, what about that thing about stories?

The most interesting fact from that finding above was that a majority of the students remembered the stories.

In my firm’s work with Water.org, I saw this phenomenon come to life in a simple example. Water.org has some startling statistics about the global water crisis. For example, 2.3 billion people around the world lack access to a toilet. That’s billions with a ‘b’. That is a blow-you-away statistic. Except, when people would try to repeat that statistic from memory, they could never quite get the number right. For the most part, they’d remember it was in the billions, but there were lots of errors with the real number. And honestly, the point kind of lost its impact as the one delivering the fact fumbled with the statistic.

The funny thing is that they could tell you without hesitation that more people have access to a cell phone than a toilet.

See what just happened there? Turn the statistic into a story and suddenly you have something that is memorable. Something that is humanly relatable. And, ultimately, irresistibly shareable.

Because stories are human. And we humans like things that are, well, human.

The availability of data gets a lot of attention in today’s world. Don’t get me wrong. It’s incredibly important. But its full potential can never be realized unless we transform those numbers into stories.

I have some data in a PowerPoint that proves it. But I’d rather just tell you a story about it.