We often talk about letting the facts speak for themselves. But can they? A good story can be far more persuasive and memorable than any amount of data.

In the classic TV series Dragnet, Detective Joe Friday became known for the catchphrase “Just the facts, ma’am”. Ironically, this in itself is a bogus fact as, according to Snopes, he never actually said it. But fact-checking quotations is a topic for another day.

The implication is that Friday doesn’t want the witness to tell a story, but the opposite is true. If the witness simply gave the facts as a series of verbal bullet points, Friday would have a much harder time understanding what actually occurred. The facts would be devoid of context.

It’s the narrative that matters – how all the facts fit together. Perspective matters too. The facts as seen by one witness might be very different from the viewpoint of another.

In marketing, we’re often told that we should let the facts speak for themselves. Unfortunately, facts are extremely subjective things. 

And when it comes to data, things get even more complicated.

Influencing belief

While it’s commonly said that numbers never lie, they certainly don’t tell the truth either. If you’ve ever sat in a meeting debating what this month’s figures are actually saying, you’ll know what I mean. How you interpret and react to data becomes a matter of perspective.

Our brains don’t think in terms of facts and figures. We think in story. A good story can be far more memorable and persuasive than a good fact or a bunch of impressive numbers. It’s why people are often more willing to believe anecdotal evidence over hard data. 

For every statistic about the dangers of smoking, there’s always someone who rejects the science, insisting their uncle smoked every day of his life until he was a hundred and three.

You don’t think in statistics, you think in examples, in stories … You decide the likelihood of a future event on how easily you can imagine it.

David McRaney: You Are Not So Smart (2011)

Most people know the odds of winning a major prize in the lottery are virtually nil. Crikey, you have a higher chance of dying in a car crash on the way to the store to buy the ticket.

But that’s the last story lottery advertisers want to tell. Lottery marketing positively thrives on the power of story over numbers. We’re actively encouraged to imagine what it would be like to win the big prize, skewing our sense of what’s likely.

The news media covers stories of lottery winners, as anecdotal proof that someone just like you or me can win. 

TV ads bombard us with fictional dramatisations of winners suddenly able to afford that overseas trip or pay off their daughter’s mortgage, encouraging us to imagine how we would spend our winnings.

Newsagents display posters in the window announcing that someone bought a winning ticket there – as if buying a ticket from the same place somehow changes the odds. But, hey, someone did win by buying a ticket there, seeding the idea that we might achieve the same outcome by doing the same thing. Of course, what the poster doesn’t say is that the win was months ago and the newsagent has sold thousands of tickets since without setting off the publicity klaxons once.

Regularly seeing and hearing these stories makes winning seem, if not commonplace, at least more likely than a bunch of abstract numbers might suggest.

“You’ve got to be in it to win it”

I’m sure we’ve all heard someone justify placing a bet or buying a lottery ticket with, “You’ve got to be in it to win it”. 

The line is so potent not only because it’s catchy, but also because it tells a very simple narrative. 

There’s a hero (“you”), a quest (“win it”) and a basic form of cause and effect to get there (“be in it to …”), whether that’s buying a ticket, picking a horse or refusing to fold in poker. In short, the only way to achieve this goal is to do this thing.

Whoever first came up with the line is a genius – albeit perhaps an ethically dubious one. Marketing is all about how to frame the message, and the framing of this line is all about misdirection. 

Technically, it’s true. You can’t argue with the logic of the argument as stated. A one in 134 million chance is still better than no chance at all. But by omitting the sheer scale of those negative odds, the line becomes almost affirmational. Plus, it skips over the fact that being “in it” comes at a cost, so that the vast majority of ticket-holders end up out of pocket.

The marketing is telling us a story – and that story can be incredibly persuasive because of how the brain works. We’re just not being told the whole story.

I don’t mean to hold up lottery advertising as an example of how to frame your own messaging. Far from it. Instead, accept this as a cautionary tale of how narratives can just as easily distort the truth instead of revealing it. 

Lottery advertising leans into story to distract us from the facts. The real power is in combining the two: using story to bring your facts to life; using facts to support and prove your story.

Statistics are people too

Numbers are dehumanising. Statistics might reveal a truth about the world, but that doesn’t mean it’ll feel true.

The Victorian Government knew this when it set out to lower the annual road toll within the state. Between 2016 and 2020, the Victorian Road Traffic Accident Commission ran a road safety strategy called Towards Zero. Alongside the huge infrastructure investment, the Commission ran a campaign to address the pervasive idea that there is an “acceptable” number of deaths on the roads.

It’s a belter, innit? 

Presented purely as a number, the statistical road toll conceals the real people behind it. On a rational level, we know the numbers represent people lost. But that often isn’t enough to motivate us to change our behaviour. 

Unless someone has already experienced such a loss in their immediate circle, the statistic is easy to dismiss as something that happens to other people. It’s outside of their realm of experience.

Driving real action, real change, requires an emotional connection to the information – something that numbers alone can’t provide.

If it’s not already clear, our brains just don’t handle numbers well; big numbers even more so. Sure, we can do maths, crunch numbers and draw insights in an abstract sense. But when applying big numbers like probabilities to our daily lives, a million to one feels pretty much the same as a thousand to one or even a hundred to one. And as the lottery and road toll examples demonstrate, whether we think those slim odds are worth chasing or dismissing can depend on whether we are emotionally invested one way or the other.

Logic shmogic. This is the Affect Heuristic, a mental shortcut we all share that relies on emotion to inform our decisions rather than concrete information. Even simple stories or narratives can give us that essential emotional connection with facts and numbers.

Paul Slovic, a researcher from the University of Oregon, demonstrated this with a simple experiment. He invited two groups of people to complete a short survey, with each person rewarded $5.00 for their time. Unbeknownst to the participants, the survey was irrelevant. The real experiment began when Slovic invited them to donate some or all of that $5.00 to a charitable cause. 

Slovic presented the first group with the story of Rokia, a starving child from Malawi. To the second group, Slovic presented the statistics on famine in Malawi, where more than three million children suffer from malnutrition. Members of the first group donated $2.83 on average. The second group donated 50% less.

The story of a single victim, someone the participants could imagine and empathise with, was far more persuasive than three million children presented as a statistic.

Bringing facts and numbers to life

Facts and numbers are still extremely valuable to your marketing. But if you want your information to truly stick in the minds of your audience, you need to bring them to life in some way. 

Follow up a fact with a real-world example, or illustrate a stat or trend with a “for instance” scenario. Supplement your product specs with case studies that demonstrate the benefits in action. Weave your own experiences and anecdotes into your content to add a personal, relatable perspective.

However you go about it, stories are the sugar that helps the medicine go down.