The truth about sto­ry­telling: lead­ers not followers

You’re a nurse. You stud­ied for years. You’ve worked on busy wards with every kind of patient car­ing for every kind of con­di­tion. In front of you is a patient suf­fer­ing from ear­ache and you’re asked to admin­is­ter drops. Where do you put them?

Written by
Charlie Hulme
May 23, 2012
The more usual way to insert eardrops.

That’s what I thought too, but a study into medication error (Medication Error: Causes and Prevention, Davis and Cohen, G F Stickley Company, USA, 1983) found that one poor patient was receiving his eardrops anally (yes, you read that right). No doubt the poor patient was wondering the same thing as you: why would a qualified nurse not question such an obviously bizarre situation?

The answer is in another social proof that we need to bring to our storytelling – we follow leaders.

The anal eardrop scenario took place because when the doctor prescribing the drops for the patient’s right ear filled out his chart he wrote, place in R ear. The nurse, unwilling to question authority, went ahead and did as (she thought) instructed.

The same study found that the average hospital had a daily 12 per cent error rate, which they largely attributed to the ‘mindless deference’ of nurses, pharmacists and physicians to the person in charge of the patient’s case.

If you must cross the street at a red light, make sure you’re wearing a suit.

Of course this ‘mindless deference’ isn’t unique to the medical profession, we’re all guilty of it. In another experiment (Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion, Cialdini, William Morrow & Co, USA, 1993) researchers arranged for a 31-year-old man to cross the street at a red traffic light. The test variable was that some of the time this man was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, the rest of the time he was dressed in a business suit and tie.

Three times as many people were prepared to follow him and walk in front of moving traffic when he was dressed in a suit.

Authority has a strange way of distorting our perception. Five groups of students in Australia were introduced to a man they were told was visiting from the University of Cambridge. To one class he was introduced as a student, to the second as a demonstrator, to the third a lecturer, the fourth a senior lecturer and the fifth a professor.

After each group met him they were asked to guess his height and it was found that as his status grew so did his height. (Perceptual Distortion of Height as a Function of Ascribed Academic Status, P R Wilson in the Journal of Social Psychology, UK, 1968.)

What can we learn from all this? That, rational or not, when it comes to making decisions we seem to be pre-programmed to follow the leader. When in doubt we find a sense of security in purchasing the ‘leading brand’.

If fundraising is about asking people to invest in their values and beliefs then we have to position ourselves as the best place to make that investment.

Who is the most important?

If we want people to take action then it’s not enough to just tell them what we’d like to do. We all want world peace, an end to poverty, hunger and disease, but why would they believe they can achieve those goals with us?When we’re telling our stories we need to establish credibility and confidence by demonstrating what we have done. What change have we brought about? What milestones can we highlight? What can a supporter achieve with us that they won’t anywhere else?So that brings us to the end of this short series on storytelling. I hope you’ve found it useful and if you would like any help in telling your story, please contact me.

© Charlie Hulme 2012.

About the author: Charlie Hulme

Charlie Hulme is managing director of DonorVoice. He helps charities uncover what, of all the things they do, improves the strength of relationships  and what is harmful. Partners see a massive improvement in performance, value and retention.

Voted top speaker at the Institute of Fundraising’s National Convention in 2013, he writes frequently for SOFII, 101fundraising, the Institute of Fundraising and many others.

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