The Secret Sauce to Storytelling?

In a world where “storytelling” has become a buzzword, we are always looking for ways to make our stories stand out in the crowd. While there are many ways to make a story stand out, one tactic in particular seems to have above average success: the Identifiable Victim Effect. 

What is the Identifiable Victim Effect?

The identifiable victim effect describes the likelihood that we feel greater empathy, and an urge to help, in situations where tragedies are about a specific, identifiable individual, compared to situations where the victims are a larger, vaguer group of people.

In other terms, we are more likely to want to support Beth, a young girl who has become homeless and needs a new outfit, after hearing her personal story than we are to support the roughly 216,000 homeless women after hearing that statistic. 

In a recent Clubhouse chat with our partners at Weinstein Carnegie Philanthropic Group, legendary reality TV star and philanthropist Ethan Zohn was being interviewed. In response to the question, “what is the secret sauce of storytelling?” Ethan replied, “Humanizing the work.” 

When we use a name and tell a story, we are building a bridge between the mission and the supporter. The impact becomes tangible in a way that leading with large statistics could never do. 

In Classy’s article on the Identifiable Victim Effect, they also go on to add that people are more likely to support a story that has momentum versus one that seems like it hasn’t begun yet. 

“In a field experiment examining donations to Habitat for Humanity, Small and Lowenstein aptly demonstrated this effect. The researchers presented participants with one of two options: some were asked to donate to a family receiving a new home when the family had already been selected and the rest were asked to donate to a family receiving a new home when the family hadn’t yet been selected. As it turns out, donations were significantly greater when the family had already been determined. The fact that the family was selected enhanced the tangibility of the appeal and gave donors more confidence that the project was already on its way to being successful.”

When it comes to telling great stories, using the identifiable victim effect can frame donor engagement:

  1. Make the story about a central figure/journey.
  2. Humanize and personalize- appeal to the five senses to bring your story to life. People relate to sights, sounds, feels vs. time or numbers. 
  3. If you can show the story and solution already has momentum, people will be more likely to support. 
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