What’s Your Animal Story?
Over nine billion animals killed for food each year in the U.S. alone… about three million healthy and adoptable dogs and cats euthanized in shelters … seventy-six thousand animals enduring painful experiments in labs without relief. For those who care about animals, the numbers tell a sad story.
Should you use these numbers to persuade others to take animal-friendly actions? Research suggests no. Actual stories about individuals are more compelling than statistics when motivating behavior.
Nick Cooney, of Farm Sanctuary, shared these findings when we both spoke at the Ivy League vegan conference. A study on a fundraising appeal tested versions with statistics, with a story and with both. The letter with the story drew significantly more donations than the one with statistics. It was even more successful than the one with both!
Chip Heath, co-author of Switch and Made to Stick, did an informal classroom study with graduate students. Only 5% of students remembered statistics from a series of their classmates’ presentations. Nearly two-thirds remembered the stories.
Why Do Stories Work?
Switch quotes The Heart of Change, “… behavior change happens in highly successful situations mostly by speaking to people’s feelings.… In highly successful change efforts, people find ways to help others see the problems or solutions in ways that influence emotions, not just thoughts.” As Cooney notes in his book, Change of Heart, “Stories allow for the use of emotionally powerful imagery, allowing for a shortcut to understanding. They allow people to emotionally insert themselves into the situation, making it more vivid.”
Stories in Action
That’s why adoption offers flood in from around the country for a dog from a high profile rescue. Meanwhile millions of others awaiting homes are ignored. Savvy shelters and rescue groups are highlighting homeless animals with stories on websites and in the media. The intent is to make emotional connections with prospective adopters.
An article about a cow who escaped the slaughterhouse, quotes Jenny Brown, co-founder of Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary on how stories can help people connect with animals they’ve never considered. “There is this phenomenon in our society when, where one gets away, everyone wants to cheer for that one animal, yet you might go home and eat … an animal just like that one that night and never put any thought to it.” A non-veg friend of mine posted the link on Facebook, noting that Jenny’s quote was “thought provoking.” I’d say that the story of the cow’s escape and ultimate transfer to the sanctuary in contrast with the fate of the other cows was “emotion provoking.” It also allows readers to note their inconsistency – without having it forced on them – a potentially powerful advocacy technique.
Putting Stories to Work
- Publicize individual animal stories. Shelters, sanctuaries, animal control, spay/neuter clinics, wildlife rehabbers, veterinarians, and other hands-on individuals and entities should maximize opportunities to share compelling stories with the public and media. If you’re not involved with these activities or organizations, you can still use their stories and materials to spread the word. Posting videos or articles about individual animals is a quick and easy way to engage people.
- Tell your story. Letting people know how you became involved in animal issues can also be a great way to tap emotions. As Karen Davis, of United Poultry Concerns, notes, “By framing your advocacy message in the form of a Personal Story of how you became aware of animal suffering, and what led you to change, you engage people’s interest without threatening them. You show by example that it’s possible and liberating to change one’s habits into something new and better.”
- Help people create their own story. In research for the project I did with The Humane Society of the United States on increasing spay/neuter, focus group participants presented with euthanasia statistics simply assumed that animals killed in shelters were strays or animals different from their own. The addition of the phrase, “What Happened to Your Pet’s Puppies?” or “What Happened to Your Cat’s Kittens?” enabled people to envision themselves and their animals’ offspring as part of overpopulation and euthanasia. That connection greatly increased the motivational power of the message.
Keep in mind when telling a story that the goal is to provoke an emotional response, not to get emotional ourselves, which can be off-putting. There’s also a fine line between evoking enough emotion that a story creates an impact vs. so much that people refuse to listen. If you’re working one-on-one, monitor the reactions you get to see if you should refine your stories. If you’re telling a story to many as part of a program or campaign, consider investing in research to test the results before you spend time and money on something that may not work.
What stories have you shared that have successfully moved people to animal-friendly behaviors? What stories could you share? Please stop by http://Facebook.com/AnimalImpact. to talk about your stories.
For more tips on crafting stories, check out “Tell Your Nonprofit’s Story More Effectively (with the Help of a Few Masters)” at http://www.nten.org/articles/2012/tell-your-nonprofits-story-more-effectively-with-the-help-of-a-few-masters.
Caryn Ginsberg’s shares the story of her path from volunteer to author at http://www.Animal-Impact.com/author. Peter Singer, Wayne Pacelle, Ed Sayres, Gene Baur, and others have praised “Animal Impact: Secrets Proven to Achieve Results and Move the World” as an essential how-to for animal advocates. Stories, tips, and ideas from over 80 advocates illustrate effective practices that are getting results. To learn more and to order, visit http://Animal-Impact.com.