By Tom Ahern, author of How to Write Fundraising Materials that Raise More Money, Seeing Through a Donor's Eyes, and Making Money with Donor Newsletters

Which approach raises the most funds:

1) A well-argued appeal that explains the problem and offers statistical proof; or

2) An emotional appeal that tells a sad story?

In short, which is better?

Answer: stories

Here's Professor Paul J. Zak writing in the Harvard Business Review, in an Oct. 28, 2014 article titled "Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling":

"Many business people have already discovered the power of storytelling in a practical sense – they have observed how compelling a well-constructed narrative can be. But recent scientific work is putting a much finer point on just how stories change our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors….         

"By taking blood draws before and after the narrative, we found that character-driven stories do consistently cause oxytocin synthesis." [Oxytocin is a neurochemical that motivates us to cooperate.] "Further, the amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted how much people were willing to help others; for example, donating money to a charity associated with the narrative."

Stories do that, statistics don't, as I explain in my books How to Write Fundraising Materials that Raise More Money and Seeing Through a Donor’s Eyes.     

The whole "statistics vs. stories" debate is pointless, according to the laboratory. And yet it's harder to kill than an urban legend. I guess because it all seems so obvious: "Some people like stories. Some people like numbers." Stories, numbers: even-steven.    

But even-steven is not true. 

Correctly, it should be stated: "ALL people like stories" — there's feel-good neurochemistry involved after all — "and a few people like numbers, too." That's the brain's true state. Storytelling is universal. It has been more important to human evolution than opposable thumbs, as Lisa Cron points out in her excellent book, Wired for Story.

Story: it is how we learn most of what we know.

In three words: 1) emotions 2) totally 3) rule

In a contest between two competent appeals for the same charity, one well-reasoned vs. one packed with emotional hooks … well, it's not even a contest, really. The emotional appeal will outperform the rational appeal by many multiples. Every time.

Why? The human brain's hard-wiring.

With the advent of Functional MRIs and other investigative tools in the late 20th century, neuroscientists were finally able to directly observe a phenomenon they'd suspected for more than a century: the dominance of emotion in human decision-making. The discovery would come as a shock.

As USC neuroscientist Dr. Antoine Bechara sums it up, "[T]here is a popular notion, which most of us learn from early on in life, that logical, rational calculation forms the basis of sound decisions. Many people say, ‘emotion has no IQ'; emotion can only cloud the mind and interfere with good judgment. But … these notions [are] wrong and [have] no scientific basis." Instead, "decision-making is a process guided by emotions."

As the New York Times reported back in 2007, "A bevy of experiments in recent years suggest that the conscious mind is like a monkey riding a tiger of subconscious decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories about being in control."

Making a gift to charity is a decision to act: a purchase decision prompted by empathy, desire, pleasure, anger, a host of other emotions; psychologists have delineated more than 100 states in the human emotional pantry.

Action is what we want.

But trying to cause action using reason is banging on the wrong door.

Top neurological researcher, Donald B. Calne, explains: "The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusions."

In other words, your reasoning might get me thinking. But it's your ability to touch my emotions that gets me giving. That's why you always lead with emotion in appeals, and follow with reason; not the reverse.

Tina Cincotti summed up the science nicely. "People act because you moved them emotionally — you made them feel something. MRIs show that it's our brain's emotional nerve center that gets activated first. It's not a rational, logical process where we weigh costs against benefits and make an informed decision. Your brain gets involved later, largely as a rubber stamp to make sure you don't do anything too wacky! But it starts with the heart. If you're not hitting your donors on an emotional level, then you're not raising as much money as you could."

The last word goes to Paul Slovic, a prominent psychologist. His research into "psychic numbing" found that big numbers tend to reduce response. Not as many act.

Slovic wrote, "Most people are caring and will exert great effort to rescue individual victims whose needy plight comes to their attention. These same good people, however, often become numbly indifferent to the plight of individuals who are 'one of many….'"

As to why, Slovic concluded, "The reported numbers of deaths represent dry statistics, 'human beings with the tears dried off,' that fail to spark emotion or feeling and thus fail to motivate action."

When you communicate with individual donors — whether it's in your appeals, newsletters, website, emails, Facebook postings — it's not accurate to say that statistics are poison. But close.

Tom Ahern is recognized as one of North America’s top authorities on nonprofit communications. He began presenting his top-rated Love Thy Reader workshops at fundraising conferences in 1999. Since then he has introduced thousands of fundraisers in the U.S., Canada and Europe to the principles of reader psychology, writing, and graphic design that make donor communications highly engaging and successful. He founded his consulting practice in 1990. His firm specializes in capital campaign case statements, nonprofit communications audits, direct mail, and donor newsletters. His efforts have won three prestigious IABC Gold Quill awards, given each year to the best communications work worldwide. Ahern is also an award-winning magazine journalist, for articles on health and social justice issues. He has his MA and BA in English from Brown University, and a Certificate in Advertising Art from the RI School of Design. His offices are in Rhode Island and France.