Stats Versus Stories: Inspiring Your Audience to Action

  • 2.4 million pounds of plastic enters the world’s oceans every hour.
  • 48,000 gallons of oil are consumed every second.
  • In Canada, 26 million tonnes of garbage was sent to waste disposal facilities in 2008.
  • Each Canadian produces about 1,031 kilograms of waste per year.

Chipotle's "food with integrity" story is refelcted by its Platinum LEED certification.

Behavioural change psychology tells us that statistics don’t inspire people to action. Even in the face of 300 million children suffering from malnutrition, most people are able to look away. It isn’t because we as a society are generally cruel and callous. Humans simply aren’t wired to absorb and process such large numbers, much less to act on them. We don’t have a mental model for 26 million tonnes of anything. This is why statistics don’t elicit emotion the way that individual cases do. An explicitly identified individual is easier to feel compassion for than a number, no matter how big. The kind of reasoning that simply focuses on facts and figures doesn’t trigger the moral emotions that motivate us to act.

Why should this be important to us? Far too often, communicators are encouraged by clients and other stakeholders, to design messaging within tight boundaries of creativity. Statistics might be appropriate for an academic audience, or for government actors. However, we must be cognizant of tailoring our messaging to the audiences who will receive it.

Writers and artists have long recognized the power of narrative. Whether through music, painting, dance, creative writing, storytelling, or various combinations of these media, we as communicators can elicit our audience’s emotion – and get our message across – by telling compelling stories. For example, if we are designing a campaign to encourage drivers to take public transit, we might include a statistic indicating that 48,000 gallons of oil are consumed every second. However, it would be more effective to begin with a story about Dave and Tammy who began carpooling to work together, saving money and reducing their carbon footprint.

American restaurant chain, Chipotle, is a brand that is getting a lot of attention for its unique storytelling. Chipotle recently commissioned (notice, they don’t tout this as advertising) a short film entitled, “Back to the Start”. Rather than use overwhelming statistics about animal cruelty in factory farming to deliver their “food with integrity” message, Chipotle used music (Willie Nelson singing Coldplay’s, “The Scientist”), art (stop motion animation) and film (directed by Johnny Kelly) to inspire its audience to identify
their personal values with the brand.

The success of this campaign doesn’t necessarily mean that Americans will give up their McDonald’s anytime soon. Having the emotional capacity for experiencing empathy doesn’t mean we’ll use it. But as with Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign in 2010, it is likely that Chipotle’s brand awareness and sales have increased since the launch of the video.

Storytelling is a strong marketing tactic to create brand awareness, change behaviours and sell a product. What story will you tell today?

Bryna Jones is the Director of Communications at Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited, and a member of the International Association of Business Communicators. Bryna’s project experience includes communications and marketing planning, advocacy campaign development, social media strategy, government relations, and project management. She also has considerable experience in copy writing and public speaking.


About Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited

Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited (HSAL) is a multidisciplinary strategic planning and public affairs consultancy, focused on environmental and land use planning, stakeholder relations (including communications, facilitation, public consultation and engagement), socio-economic impact assessment, communications, engineering and related services. We have the expertise to predict and decipher technical and public policy issues, and significant experience mitigating them, building consensus and attaining even the most complex approvals. For more information, visit
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