Is “Hard Data” The Best Way to Make Your Case?

In building a case for support for our institutions, advancement professionals typically rely on one of two approaches:  a fact-based, quantitative, logical approach, or a story-based, qualitative, anecdotal approach.  Depending on the predilection of the author of the message, a reader or listener quickly can see a fondness for one approach over the other.  If the author or creator of the message is a “facts and numbers” person, you will most likely see or hear numbers and percentages showing how many students/clients/families served.  You will probably see charts detailing important trends around cost to raise a dollar to show efficiency.  You may even see a table that benchmarks the institution with others on key metrics.

On the other hand, if the author of the message is more qualitative and anecdotal in her approach, you will see little in the way of “hard-data.”   Instead, you will find one component to her message:  stories.  Stories of those served and stories of those who have given.

Which approach is more effective?  A “hard-data,” quantitative approach or a softer, qualitative, anecdotal approach?

I have written previously about the importance of “The Human Storyline” — the notion that we, as humans, are moved by stories that follow the familiar arc of “everything is ok, something bad happens, a struggle to overcome ensues, and a hero emerges to make everything better.”  Many well-known and important stories throughout human history and across cultures follow this general theme.  Clearly this is a softer, more qualitative, and anecdotal approach to moving people.

But recently I read Thomas Kida’s book entitled, “Don’t Believe Everything You Think.”  In it he writes,

“Research demonstrates that we prefer to rely on stories instead of statistics.  As an example, one study had people view a  taped interview with a prison guard.  Some saw an interview with a guard who was humane, while others saw a guard who was extremely inhumane.  Half of the subjects then received information indicating that the guard was either typical, or not typical, of the majority of prison guards.  It turned out that the information concerning how representative the guard was of guards in general had little effect (emphasis added) on individuals’ opinions.  Instead, people relied more on the information conveyed in the single interview, and ignored how unreliable or unrepresentative that interview might be (page 37).”

Or think about this:  Research also has shown that doctors who treat patients that smoke and develop serious medical conditions because of their smoking habit are far more likely to quit smoking themselves than are doctors in general practice.  Of course, all doctors have access to and understand the data on smoking, but it is those who experience the stories and personal effects in their patients who are most likely to quit.

If you still don’t believe that anecdotes and stories capture our attention more effectively than does “hard data,” simply reflect on that most ubiquitous of human past-times:  gossiping.  You will note that the most memorable, juiciest tales are never peppered with statistics, numbers, or trend data!

In specific circumstances, “hard data” is needed to make your case.  Foundation proposals, for example, typically ask for metrics that evidence effectiveness and efficiency.  But on the whole, if you are attempting to create the most compelling case for support about your institution, you are far better off starting and ending with rich, robust stories.

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