Content marketers often rely on numbers to convey information and motivate consumers: web pages devoted to lengthy tables of technical specifications; white papers packed with charts and graphs; blog articles that reduce complex topics to lists of statistics. And there’s no doubt that such data-rich content can work—to a point. However, numbers aren’t nearly as persuasive, nor as easily understood, as we would like to believe.
In short, numbers exist in a different reality—at least as our brains perceive them. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a dab hand with a calculator or hold a doctorate in advanced mathematics, no amount of numbers and statistics will have the same impact on your beliefs or decisions as a well-told story or a human face.
Numbers dehumanise; stories humanise
Last year, the Transport Accident Commission of Victoria released a new initiative to educate the community and lower the road toll. The first stage involved a campaign to tackle how people perceived the annual road toll.
I still get chills watching this. The video is so powerful because it shows the emotional impact on one person when he sees beyond the numbers to the people they represent.
Numbers and statistics are useful, of course. They allow us to measure improvement (or otherwise), identify trends, predict likely outcomes and a host of other useful applications. However, they force us to think in the abstract—we see the numbers and not the people behind them. We certainly don’t see the stories behind the people behind the numbers.
Logically, we know a road toll statistic represents people, but we’re emotionally disconnected. Also, most of us, thankfully, haven’t experienced a major accident on the road. With no direct impact on our lives, it’s easy to dismiss such numbers; “I’ve never had an accident, therefore, I never will”. Our subjective experience can override what the numbers tell us, despite this being quite illogical.
These heuristics and biases (and we all have them) make an abstract concept such as a statistical road toll much harder for us to imagine, let alone inform our decisions. That’s why almost all of the vox pox responses in the wider campaign confidently suggest the road toll will be fine if the number was just a bit smaller. They’re treating it as a numbers problem and not a human one—”Bigger number bad, smaller number good”. Any improvement in the number is seen as positive or even acceptable, while forgetting that any number other than zero suggests we are willing to allow people to continue DYING in return for the convenience of being able to drive.
“I am not a number! I am a free man!”
Psychologists have proven this dehumanising effect of numbers in experiment after experiment. Paul Slovic achieved some startling results in his research, as described in Rolf Dobelli’s brilliant book How to Think Clearly.
Two groups of people were each given $5.00 to complete a short survey. Once each group had completed the survey, Slovic then asked for donations to a charitable cause. He showed the first group a picture of Rokia, a starving child from Malawi. On average, each of the group members donated $2.83. The second group was given the statistics about famine in Malawi, where more than 3 million children suffer from malnutrition. The average donation dropped by 50 percent.
Mr. Spock may have famously said, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” but then he has a purely logical brain. For us, the plight of one boy can outweigh the statistics of three million equally afflicted children. Slovic gave a face to the problem, allowing the first group to relate to a story instead of statistics.
Another example. In 2009, defence secretary Robert Gates lifted an eighteen-year ban on media showing images of the coffins of fallen soldiers—a ban intended to conceal the human cost of war. The statistics were freely available, of course. The numbers of war dead were still widely reported throughout the years of the ban. However, as Dobelli writes, “…statistics leave us cold. People, on the other hand, especially dead people, spark an emotional reaction.”
Counter-intuitive, I know. The facts are exactly the same in both cases, whether we read a number from a graph or count the coffins marched across the tarmac at an army base. However, the way we apply meaning to those facts—and therefore how we react to them—is dependent on our ability to personify the information.
It’s just how our brains are wired. We evolved in a world where knowledge was restricted to what we experienced first hand through our five senses and survival depended on empathy with the group. And we developed a rich storytelling tradition to pass on knowledge and experience in ways our brains could imagine and understand. Numbers—particularly large ones—really didn’t matter to us until our individual worlds grew so much larger and more complex that we needed to create abstract concepts to make sense of what our brains couldn’t process through those five senses. But no matter how complex the world and abstract our thinking becomes, our brains are still the same parochial, emotional and self-centred grey blobs as before.
As marketers, we have to stop treating people as logical Mr. Spocks who can be convinced by facts and data alone. Evidential proof—including data—is still important to give our stories authenticity but it is the human story that our brains latch onto.
So, avoid using too many statistics and spreadsheets in your content, except to back up and qualify your stories. Instead, personify your message by telling the story of one person really well—someone the reader can identify with—and you may find your content is more persuasive and memorable than any number of graphs, surveys and tables of numbers.