Impressive Statistics v. One Good Story

As Christmas draws near, imagine what the holiday season would be like if it were reduced to a set of statistics:

One 5’10”, 300-pound man will fly around the Earth between December 24 and 25. He will visit approximately 91.8 million households, about 822.6 per second. To accomplish this, the jolly man will have to travel at 650 miles per second, which is 3,000 times the speed of sound.

Fortunately, Santa Claus has some fast flying reindeer; this is important since the average reindeer has a top speed of only 15 miles per hour, way too slow to get the job done. Santa’s reindeer are not just speedy; they are also mighty which is essential since the sleigh they will pull will be initially weighed down with approximately 353,000 tons of presents.

When Christmas and Santa Claus are reduced to a bunch of statistics (courtesy of Linda Harden’s article Is There a Santa Claus?), the result might be momentarily interesting, but hardly memorable or inspiring.

Part of what makes Christmas special are the stories. There is the story of the birth of Jesus. There are the movies such as The Miracle on 34th Street. There are the holiday songs that tell a story including The Little Drummer Boy, Frosty the Snowman, and Rudolf-the-Red-Nosed Reindeer. There are television shows including A Charlie Brown Christmas, Yes, Virginia, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

A good story draws us in. It stimulates our intellect and our emotions. A good story, well told, teaches and inspires. We remember great stories.

By now, I suspect you’ve already forgotten how many miles per second Santa must travel to deliver his presents. However, I bet you remember the plot to Rudolph or the Grinch. I bet you remember the nativity story.

My point is that, while statistics can be interesting and even compelling at times, people are more likely to be moved by stories. When we do fundraising, whether via direct mail or face-to-face, we should use fewer statistics and tell more stories.

Consider the following true story:

This past October, high school students from Lancaster, PA were scheduled to take a field trip to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, the partial shutdown of the US government resulted in the closing of the Museum. At the last moment, school officials contacted the much smaller Holocaust Awareness Museum in Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia-based museum only houses a miniscule exhibit compared to the museum in Washington. Predominately, the Holocaust Awareness Museum focuses on sharing survivor stories with schoolchildren through interactive programs.

After receiving the call from Lancaster, the Philadelphia staff sprang into action to find an available auditorium space and recruit two speakers for the program.

The students heard stories from Ernie Gross, 84, who survived both Auschwitz and the Dachau concentration camps. They also heard from Don Greenbaum, 88, who as an American soldier helped liberate Dachau in April 1945.

Student Kylee Legenstein, 17, told The Philadelphia Inquirer, “To hear it firsthand was really cool.”

Agreeing with his friend, Andrew Speitel, 17, said, “Anyone can go to the Holocaust Museum. But not everyone gets this experience.”

None of the students seemed disappointed at having missed the opportunity to go to Washington, according to reporter Jeff Gammage.

Stories can move people in ways statistics cannot.

Shortly after the news story ran, the Holocaust Awareness Museum held its annual gala. The event set a new fundraising record for the Museum. The net proceeds from the fundraiser will allow the Museum to provide programming for over 30,000 schoolchildren in the coming year.

The Museum could have proudly focused on the 265 school programs it provided this past year. While impressive, that statistic is not as compelling as the story of the one program for the Lancaster students. Not only did sharing stories educate and move the schoolchildren from Lancaster, the story of that one program inspired greater community support for the Museum.

Fewer statistics, More stories.

When sharing stories:

● Use real stories not composite or fictionalized accounts.

● Relate first-person stories when possible.

● Do not be afraid of the length of the story; folks will stick with you if the story is compelling.

● Avoid being exploitative and, instead, use stories to demonstrate how your organization is fulfilling its mission.

I’ll end with one famous quote from a classic holiday story I expect you remember well: “God bless us, every one!”

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

7 Responses to “Impressive Statistics v. One Good Story”

1. Great post, Michael. I am a huge advocate of connecting the dots through stories and telling donors how their generosity makes an impact. And most importantly, we must eliminate the industry jargon. When did we ever hear someone say, “I’m going to go out and civic engage!”

• Tina, thank you for your comment and your good suggestion regarding the need to eliminate jargon. I still slip up at times when it comes to using jargon, but I try to avoid it. If one really wants to test copy, s/he does not need to spend a lot of time and money with focus groups. All one has to do is show the letter or article to one’s mother. If she doesn’t understand it, it’s time to go back to the word-processor. 🙂

2. You are absolutely correct. Statistics do have their place, but a good story will be remembered and retold by many. BTW, I am working on blog about a lesson nonprofits should learn from Miracle on 34th Street.

• Richard, thanks for your comment. I’m looking forward to reading your blog post inspired by Miracle on 34th Street. I’m curious which film version you’re drawing inspiration from. 🙂 I’m partial to the 1947 version with Natalie Wood.

3. Excellent reminders. I’m passing to my colleagues!

• Beth, thanks for the comment. I’m glad to know you found this post share-worthy.