If I told you that a fact, wrapped in an emotional story, is 20-times more memorable[i], would you believe it?
I didn’t at first, and neither do most people. That’s why we continue to throw facts against the customer’s wall, and watch them stick like they are coated with Teflon.
In fact, I continued to load customers up with facts until I personally experienced the power of an emotional story to make a dull fact unforgettable a few years ago at my son’s soccer game (see video of story live below).
As I stood watching the game in the rain, the clouds grew dark, and I heard thunder. That was when Scott, the CEO of Colgate, warned: “If there’s lightning, we’re in a bad place.”
“But we’re right next to the skating rink,” I countered, “and it’s surrounded by tall metal light-posts. Won’t they act as lightning rods?” “Maybe,” said Scott, “but they need to be grounded; otherwise, lightning can travel horizontally, and then… we’re toast.”
Oh please, I lamented, not another overly cautious warning. As Scott droned on about the dangers of lightning, I drifted away, and thought that Scott may know a lot about toothpaste, but meteorology… I don’t think so.
And then he told a story, and everything changed.
He recounted how he, three friends, and four caddies were playing golf in Columbia. Like today, there was rain, but it was the lightning that forced them to seek refuge inside a nearby kiosk. Inside, there was an idyllic scene that looked like it came out of a Coca-Cola commercial. One of the caddies, with his white teeth and dark skin, was sitting on an ice-box, sipping a Coca-Cola. When suddenly, there was lightning, and it struck a tree 20-yards away. It then traveled horizontally into the kiosk, and then it continued to the ice-box.
“Oh no,’ I asked, “Was the caddie OK?” “No” Scott said “he died.”
“That’s terrible, did you see it happen?” And right then, I wished I could have reached out, pulled back my words, and eaten them. But I couldn’t. I saw Scott look down at the ground, pause, and then he slowly responded “Yes.” And as he kicked the grass with his foot, he then said quietly, “and he was just a child.”
After a couple of minutes of watching the game, Scott went on to explain the dangers of lightning. The only difference was, this time, I actually listened. In fact, I’ll never forget this emotional story about the poor boy that died. And I’ll also always remember the fact that lightning can travel horizontally.
Research Backs Up Why A Fact Wrapped In A Story Sticks
But is this just a moving story, or is there scientific proof to back it up? Yes, there’s proof. Dr McGaugh, at the University of California, for example, discovered that if he injected rats with strychnine, a poison that simulated adrenaline, they remembered better. It only worked, however, if he injected them after the event. It may seem odd that you could improve learning after the event, until you put it into the context of our evolution. Imagine early man stumbling upon a tiger as it emerges from a cave. The man runs for safety, hides behind a rock, and his body is pumping with adrenaline. And it’s the release of adrenaline that helps him to “remember that cave” so that he’s able to avoid the tiger and survive. And the amount of adrenaline released is dependent on the intensity of emotion and the level of surprise.
That’s why almost everyone is able to remember where they were, and what they were doing when they found out about 9/11. Why? Because we were shocked that it could happen, and we were filled with intense emotions of empathy and fear.
Facts and figures, on the other hand, are too abstract. You can’t see or feel them, so they don’t feel like they affect you- either directly or indirectly. For more information, see my HBR article “When to Sell with Facts and Figures, and When to Appeal to Emotions.”
The fact that lightning could travel sideways wasn’t memorable until I was shown in concrete terms how it affected a real person, the little boy, and that made it emotional. That’s why charities pull two times the donations when their letters are about how the facts affect one person vs. many.
So could your salespeople pull two times the sales if they showed how your product affected one person vs. many? Would customers buy more if your product no longer felt abstract but real, and your value no longer felt generic but personal?
[i] Jerome Bruner, Cognitive Psychologist, The Elements of Persuasion p 125.