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Peggy Conlon Headshot

Why Stories Stick When Facts Fall Short

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Flickr: USDAgov
Flickr: USDAgov

How many of you can tell me what percentage of female high school students get pregnant each year? My guess is that most people don't have that statistic readily available off the top of their head. But how many of you can tell me the story of a teen mom? Whether it's the circumstances around her pregnancy, her name, where she's from or what happened to the child -- the individual stories around an issue are often hard to forget.

That is the power of narrative. It can draw us in, prompt us to action, change our mindset and entertain us, all at the same time. To harness the power of storytelling you need to find unique moments that can move your audience and combine them with the tools that can truly bring your message to life. You will ultimately generate action.

We explored this topic during Advertising Week at the Ad Council/Google panel, moderated by Google Managing Director Tara Walpert Levy, where representatives from The Goodman Center, Publicis Kaplan Thaler, It Gets Better Project, and the documentary Brooklyn Castle provided a thought-provoking look at the best in digital storytelling.

Why is storytelling so powerful? Andy Goodman, Director of The Goodman Center and author of Storytelling as Best Practice, boldly asserts it's the power of narrative to change minds where data cannot. Goodman provided the example of anti-death penalty activists who tried to work against public support of capital punishment. They found that providing audiences with information on the number of death row inmates who were later proved innocent had little to no effect. However, once they started telling those inmates' personal stories and providing access to the details of a few real people, the tide of public opinion turned. Goodman quoted author Annette Simmons; "Facts don't have the power to change someone's story. Your goal is to introduce a new story that will let your facts in."

As more and more marketers and producers capitalize on storytelling to sway an audience, how do you make yours stand out? How can you keep people from tuning you out? Brian Pines, director of the It Gets Better Project and CEO and president of Hypomania Content, underscores the importance of authenticity. You can't set out to create a viral video or phenomenon, it happens organically when you tap into a genuine sentiment. Be true to your own voice, or the voice of your characters, and the audience will follow.

Katie Dellamaggiore spoke about the need of avoiding cliché and bringing something surprising and unexpected to the table. That is exactly what she has done as the director and producer for the award winning documentary, Brooklyn Castle. The movie follows students from Brooklyn's I.S. 318, a school that, despite having more than 70 percent of families live below the poverty line, has won more national chess championships than any other in the country. Her story succeeds in part because she's managed to take a typical archetype, the popular athletes and marginalized chess players, and flip it on its head.

As the Chief Creative Officer and President of Publicis Kaplan Thaler, Rob Feakins partnered with the Ad Council and U.S. Army to create a PSA campaign, "Boost Up," aimed at high school dropout prevention. In the effort to document the lives of a handful of high school students that represent the 7,000 kids who drop out of school each day, Feakins was faced with a daunting task -- how do you choose whose story to follow?

The key is to hone in on the universal in the specific. You want to capture those voices that come from a unique perspective but allow everyone to relate. Most people aren't in the position of balancing homework with the demands of being a single parent and holding down a full time job. But we can all understand the anxiety of juggling competing priorities, and that understanding can motivate us to act. As Mother Theresa said, "If I look at the mass I will not move. If I look at one I will."

At the end of the day, with all of storytelling's advantages, can statistics still serve a purpose? Of course. As Goodman advises, move their minds and attitudes with narrative, "then hit them with the numbers. Data just lets you know that there's always more than one story to be told."