5 Cognitive Biases That Will Improve Your Storytelling

January 15, 2018

We fundraisers live in the world of persuasion. That’s our job – to persuade folks to action, make donations, sign petitions, volunteer, spread the word, and change the world.

To do that successfully, we have to understand how to motivate people. There’s lots of research on how donor psychology and neuroscience impact the choices people make. We can work with those natural tendencies to persuade donors and prospects to give. Roger Dooley is a particular favourite of mine. He has an amazing list of dozens of cognitive biases that have been shown to increase conversions.

These biases influence everything – from the pictures you show to the gift strings you use to the conversion process you build. And, you can use a cognitive bias to craft powerful stories that grab attention and compel action. Read on to learn how!

1) Identifiable victim effect:

People relate better to a single person than to a large group of people. We Good Workers often call this, ‘the story of one’. It flies in the face of a commonly-held belief – “If only we can make people understand how many people are affected, surely they’ll give!”

Unfortunately, no such luck. Donors tend to be interested in how an individual human being is affected, rather than in how many people are affected. So tell the story of the individual.

2) Self-relevance effect:

People remember information better when it relates to them personally. First, make sure you choose a story that will be relevant to donors – something with urgency, timeliness, and emotion – and frame it in a way that makes sense to them. Next, make the donor a part of the story themselves, by positioning them (and their gift) as the solution. Give them a stake in the outcome of the tale!

3) Processing difficulty effect:

People have an easier time remembering information that takes longer to read and understand. This feels counter-intuitive to many people: we want to make our message simple and short, right? In some cases (like email), yes. But there’s a lot of power in giving the brain time to process a story and internalize it. It’s part of the reason 4-page letters perform so well!

4) Bizarreness effect:

When you tell your friends or family about your day, what parts do you share? Usually, the extraordinary, unexpected, almost-unbelievable stories are often the best ones. That’s thanks to the bizarreness effect, which makes those strange stories much easier to recall.

How can you use it? Carefully, of course – it can be a fine line. But if you seek out and design stories that break the norm, you’ll find donors remember them for longer.

5) Base rate neglect:

Humans prefer specific examples, rather than generic information. Statistics and charts can only go so far, and we tend to gloss over them in favour of examples our brains can really understand – examples that tangible, concrete, and contextualized.

Instead of speaking broadly about your programs or offerings, speak in specifics – what it’s doing, how it’s helping, and most importantly, how the donor is making a difference.

There are so many factors that influence the decisions people make. By understanding and incorporating some of these cognitive biases into your writing, you can tell better stories – motivating more donors to take action.

2 thoughts on “5 Cognitive Biases That Will Improve Your Storytelling

  1. Awesome Charlotte. Just the message(s) I need to circulate amongst my peeps at work so we build stronger meaningful connections!!

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Charlotte Field

Charlotte Field

Fundraiser. Digital native. Word wiz. Tea drinker. Pun maker. Kitten cuddler. Pronounces GIF with a hard 'g'.