As advocates, we are always striving for messaging that will change minds and motivate our audience to action. Part of this challenge includes finding that perfect balance of storytelling and data. Luckily, we don’t have to keep guessing as to the magic formula – there is research to guide us on this. Read on for four tips from messaging researchers that you can use to write your next advocacy piece with confidence.
1. Less is more
According to researchers at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, no matter how good or reliable the data is, less is more. As noted in their publication A New Way to Talk about the Social Determinants of Health, they found that people who were skeptical about an issue felt they were being sold or spun when the data was piled on.
“Less is more. If you can use two facts instead of three, use two. Or better yet,
use just one great fact.” – Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
2. Weave facts into a story
When we only give our audience data, we leave it up to them to interpret meaning, which means they will likely bend that information to fit into their own beliefs. Even though facts are by definition objective, the way people react to them on their own varies wildly.
Consider this fact:
- In Canada, 52.2% of children in foster care are Indigenous, but account for only 7.7% of the child population.
Depending on your previously held belief system, you may interpret this fact to support your belief that the system is failing Indigenous children and families… or that the system is doing a good job of keeping Indigenous children safe by removing them from unfit homes.
Facts alone will not change minds. They are best used to support – not make – our case.
Carmine Gallo says when it comes to persuasion, “Stories are the single best vehicle we have to transfer our ideas to one another.” In his article Stories literally put our brain waves in sync, Gallo highlights the research proving that when a group of people listen to stories, their brain waves sync up with each other and with the story teller. As Gallo states, “a listener’s brain mirrors a speaker’s brain when the speaker is telling a story about a real-life experience.”
Weaving the data we want to share into that story that has synced our brain waves greatly increases the likelihood of our listener interpreting the data in the same way as us.
It also increases the likelihood of our listener remembering what we’ve told them. In DataStory, author Nancy Duarte shares findings from one study where 5% of listeners remembered individual statistics presented in a 1-minute speech, while 63% of listeners remembered the stories told.
“Data doesn’t speak for itself. It needs a storyteller.” – Nancy Duarte
3. “Episodic” vs “Thematic” stories
Part of our job when deciding what kind of story to tell is to consider what the story says or suggests about who or what caused the problem, who or what is affected, and who is responsible for addressing it.
Susan Nall Bales is the founder of the FrameWorks Institute, a research group that helps nonprofits communicate about social change. The group cautions against the common practice of telling “episodic” stories, or stories that zoom in on an individual, saying this type of story may distort the reality of the issue. For example, the dramatic telling of one man’s experience overcoming addiction may work against us by individualizing the issue at the same time that we are asking our audience to understand the social and systemic nature of addiction and see their own role in combatting it.
Instead, Nall Bales and her team suggest we tell “thematic” stories – a different type of success story that starts with a serious problem that needed to be addressed, tells how a solution was found, describes how a group of ordinary people came together in a motivating display of teamwork, articulates how the problem was solved, and provides a takeaway. It is much easier for our audience to see their potential role in this type of story.
“For purposes of advocacy, a story is only as good as the impact it has on how audiences understand an issue or get involved.” – Susan Nall Bales
4. Give those numbers some value
The good folks at the FrameWorks Institute also talk a lot about shared values as a framing tool. In their publication Framing and Facts, they write that when we don’t lead with a value, our audience struggles to understand why an issue should matter to them. Values provide a rubric for people to evaluate issues and decide whether they should engage, so it is important that we find a value that resonates with our audience as a starting point.
“It’s not hard to make decisions once you know what your values are.” – Roy E. Disney
Putting it all together
Now to move from the theoretical to the practical and put these tips to work:
- Choose one strong, compelling fact that supports your cause.
- Identify a framing value that will provide context for this fact and has been proven to resonate with your audience.
- Weave that data and your compelling value into a “thematic” story that puts the social problem into context and highlights a community approach to solving it.
As I’m sure you can now recognize, data + values + story are together greater than the sum of their parts. Combined thoughtfully, they can provide a powerful message to help increase understanding of and support for your cause. Do you have any great examples to share? I’d love to hear from you!
Jennifer van Gennip is an Advocacy and Communications Strategist. She offers strategy and support for cause organizations to make sure they get heard. You’ll find more tips like these at www.jennifervangennip.com, or she can be reached by email at email@example.com.