Which Sells Best, Stories or Stats?

Do this: Write down the word “baby.”

Now, how does that word make you feel?

Try it with another baggage-friendly word like “family” or “war.” Or any other phrase that gets your inner emotional stew simmering.

Done? Good. No, dear reader, you haven’t stumbled into a 1970′s sensitivity training group.

There will be no hugs here. And no massaging your chakras (I mean, really … who does that in public?)

Rather, I’m just trying to warm you up for today’s issue. See, I’m reading “Made to Stick.” (Okay — listening to it as an audio book, during the morning run. But in print or audio, I recommend you get a copy too.) And this morning, the book gave me a shocker worth sharing.

So now that I’ve got you “primed” to receive (I’ll explain what I mean in just a second), let’s begin …

Which Works Best, Stats or Stories?

Carnegie-Mellon, says the book, did a study. They invited participants in to take a survey. The topic wasn’t important — something about tech products — but what mattered was the small payout. Each participant got paid with five $1 bills.

They also got an unexpected letter and an empty envelope. The letter asked for donations for an international charity called “Save the Children.” But different groups got different letters.

One letter dripped with grim statistics. In one African country, it said, 3.2 million stand on the brink of starvation. In another, 2.4 million have no easy access to clean water. In a third, almost 4 million need emergency shelter. Each problem was gigantic and serious.

The second letter had only a story. “Rokia,” it said, “is a 7-year-old girl from Mali, Africa. She’s desperately poor and faces a threat of severe hunger or even starvation. Her life will be changed for the better as a result of your financial gift. With your support, and the support of other caring sponsors, Save the Children will work with Rokia’s family and other members of the community to help feed her, provide her with education, as well as basic medical care and hygiene education.”

Which worked better?

Now, dear reader, I know your momma raised no dummies. You’re going to tell me that the Rokia letter cleaned up. And you’d be right.

On average, Rokia’s letter took in $2.38 in donations from the test group. The stat-soaked letter took in only an average of $1.14. But that’s not the big surprise, is it? No, of course not. (What kind of storyteller do you think I am, after all?)

See, the study didn’t stop there …

How Less Really Can Mean a Lot More

The researchers then called in a third group. You’ll get paid for taking this survey, they said again.

Only this time, instead of giving the participants only one letter with their cash — everybody got both the story AND the stats together.

Great, you might say.

Heart AND head. A real one-two punch. Wouldn’t that net you both the bleeding hearts and the brainiacs, all in one sweep?

As it turns out, no.

Not only did combining both approaches fail to gas up the giving engines … it doused the pitch-power of the story-only approach with ice water.

The combo group, on average, gave almost a dollar LESS than the story-only group alone.

Just $1.43.

Isn’t that amazing?

I thought so.

But even more amazing was the last part of the experiment. This time, just to make sure of their conclusion, the researchers invited in a fourth group.

This time everybody would only get the stronger Rokia letter. But beforehand, they would complete an exercise.

Half the group would finish some simple math problems. The other half would answer a word challenge like the one I gave you at the start of this issue: Give word, write down feelings.

What happened?

Incredibly, the group that got “primed” with the emotional exercise gave an almost equal $2.34 … but the analytically “primed” group AGAIN gave less, for an average of just $1.26.

These were unrelated calculations. But somehow just putting on a thinking cap was working like one of those tinfoil hats that crackpots wear to block out alien mind-reading waves (I’ve got to get me one of those).

Nearest the researchers could figure is that, while analytical thinking can shore up beliefs or activate a reader’s capacity for focus, it actually stymies action.

To get someone to act, they need to go beyond beliefs to the feelings they HOLD about those beliefs. Feelings inspire action.

And I don’t just mean that in the “touchy-feely let’s all hug a kitten and light a vanilla candle” kind of way. All persuasion works best when it focuses most on core emotions, not cerebral abstractions. I know this charity, “Save the Children,” pretty well by the way. My wife and I have a Danish friend who works for them.

She’s a talented photographer.

Whenever there’s a crisis, her boss dips into the funds and puts our friend and her camera on a plane. Burned out post-war zones, post-tsunami and typhoon disaster areas, dirt poor African villages — she’s been there, capturing a personal, eyewitness view.

Why?

Because in the charities well-tested experience, those individual on-the-scene images raise more money than a boatload of shocking statistics ever could.

I know that I’m going to try to work more of the “story of one” effect into my future promos. Maybe you should too.

JOHN FORDE’s copy has made untold millions for clients in the financial, health, and travel industries. And he’s also personally trained dozens of other now-successful writers and mentored many million-dollar controls.

John is also the proud recipient of the “Ouzilly Award for Sterling Copy” and the “2008 AWAI Copywriter of the Year” award as well as a 2009 “Most Valuable Player” award from Agora Financial Publishing.

John is also a published author and a favorite speaker at AWAI’s FastTrack to Success Copywriting Bootcamp. He currently divides his time between the U.S. and Europe, with his wife and two young children.

John is also the founder and editor of the weekly industry e-letter, The Copywriter’s Roundtable, considered by many to be one of the best in the industry (http://www.copywritersroundtable.com).

Professional Writers’ Alliance EXCLUSIVE: John takes us behind the scenes of a winning control in “First to Final”: The Evolution of a Successful Sales Letter.

A lot of new writers think professional writers simply sit down at a typewriter and pump out winning copy effortlessly, time after time. They wish that were the case …

In reality, every writer has a first draft he or she most likely would rather forget.

But, it's the process from that shaky first draft to the final product where so many writing and selling lessons are learned. Which is why we'll be asking top writers like John to share this experience with you – by taking you from first to final draft – and telling you about everything in between.

Learn more about The Professional Writers’ Alliance, including how membership need not cost you a dime.

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

At last, a professional organization that caters to the needs of direct-response industry writers. Find out how membership can change the course of your career. Learn More »


Click to Rate:
Average: 5.0
Published: March 28, 2011

Guest, Add a Comment
Please Note: Your comments will be seen by all visitors.

You are commenting as a guest. If you’re an AWAI Member, Login to myAWAI for easier commenting, email alerts, and more!

(If you don’t yet have an AWAI Member account, you can create one for free.)


This name will appear next to your comment.


Your email is required but will not be displayed.


Text only. Your comment may be trimmed if it exceeds 500 characters.

Type the Shadowed Word
Too hard to read? See a new image | Listen to the letters


Hint: The letters above appear as shadows and spell a real word. If you have trouble reading it, you can use the links to view a new image or listen to the letters being spoken.

(*all fields required)