If I told you that a fact, wrapped in an emotional story, is 20-times more memorable, would you believe it?
I didn’t at first. Even after I read this claim by Jerome Bruner (a cognitive psychologist in the book The Elements of Persuasion) I still found it hard to believe.
In fact, I had to experience it to believe it, and this happened a few summers ago at my son’s soccer game.
There I was watching his game in the rain. As the clouds grew dark, I heard thunder, and 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,” he responded, as he kicked the grass with his foot, “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.
But is 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.
But your memories couldn’t possibly be affected by emotion, or could they? Let’s do a quick thought experiment to find out. Think of the 3-biggest moment in your life? Go on, try it. I’ll bet each one packed an emotional punch, because that’s why you remembered them. Take 9/11, for example, almost everyone is able to remember where they were, and what they were doing when they found out. 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.
So, go ahead and provide facts to make your cause credible, but to make your message memorable, you need to add emotion to make people care. This explains why charities pull two times the donations when their letters are about one person vs. using facts about many.
How about your power point presentations or value propositions? Do they make customers feel anything, or are they just cold facts and figures?