Now available: Design for Impact by Erin Weigel

“The single, most powerful communications tool you have”


That’s a quote from Andy Goodman in a talk on storytelling as a way to communicate the value of a non-profit’s work. It’s the story of changing a presentation from facts, figures and tiny print to a story. It’s not that facts and figures aren’t important. Or that you don’t have to have the data to back up your work. It’s that you need to start with something that lets the audience understand the result before you launch into how you got there.

The story he tells is about an organization that changes the lives of young people through their programs. But it could just as easily be about how a new design idea will change the experience.

How often have you heard a presentation that started with something like “if we deploy a new content management system with semantic tagging, we can enable a fully personalized experience”?

There’s a place for discussing the technologies and techniques that make our ideas possible. But, if you are trying to explore a new idea, start with a story about the world it will create. Once the audience is excited about the idea, you can back up and talk about what it will take to make the idea happen.

Goodman’s newsletter, free-range thinking, has a report on a study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University. It compared the impact of two charitable appeals. One started with facts and figures, the other with the story of one child.

Which one would appeal more to you?


Food shortages in Malawi are affecting more than three million children. In Zambia, severe rainfall de?cits have resulted in a 42 percent drop in maize production from 2000. As a result, an estimated three million Zambians face hunger.

Four million Angolans–one third of the population–have been forced to ?ee their homes. More than 11 million people in Ethiopia need immediate food assistance.


Any money that you donate will go to Rokia, a 7-year-old girl from Mali, Africa. Rokia is desperately poor and faces a threat of severe hunger or even starvation. Her life will be changed for the better as a result of your financial gift. With your support and the support
of other caring sponsors, Save the Children will work with Rokia’s family and other members of the community to help feed her, and provide her with education, as well as basic medical care and hygiene education.

In the study, the second was more effective. People who saw the Rokia’s story (and a photo) donated almost twice as much money. A story – a recognizable person to donate to – is more compelling than what the authors call “statistical victims.”

This sounds a lot like what makes personas work. Even though a persona is a composite person rather than a single, real, example, the principle is the same: It’s easier to connect to a story than to statistics.

  • See the video of Andy Goodman’s speech
  • Read Sympathy and Callousness: The impact of deliberative thought on donations to identifiable and statistical victim, by Deborah Small, George Lowenstein, Paul Slovic

Special thanks to Ginny Redish for pointing me to this resource.