Heard about the girl who fell off a London bridge?

We’ve all heard the adage that stories sell, but did you know that claim has been scientifically proven? Jerome Bruner, a cognitive psychologist, said that a fact wrapped in a story is 22 times more memorable.

To prove the point, Michael Harris, Chief Executive Officer of Insight Demand (InsightDemand.com), a sales training company that helps salespeople tell better stories, presents this scenario to help you recognize how stories move people to action more than facts.

Imagine you are the vice president of sales for a major supplier of business software and you are in London for the most important presentation in your company’s short history. You spent $1,000 on a new wardrobe for this important meeting, and more than that on your flight and hotel accommodations.

As you cross the River Thames on foot over the Waterloo Bridge on your way to the meeting, you see a small girl fall off the bridge into the frigid water below. As she cries for help, you jump in to rescue her. Once you emerge from the river, you notice that your suit and shoes are ruined, but that’s quickly forgotten when you see the frightened girl’s eyes and you realize that she is about the same age as your daughter.

The next day, after a successful but wet interview, you’re flipping through The Economist magazine in the hotel bar. As you finish your drink, you notice an advertisement for relief victims of the Indonesian Tsunami. It states that for a fraction of the cost of your ruined wardrobe and your trip to London, your contribution could save hundreds of people. The ad is chockablock with facts about airlifts of medicine, medical supplies and water purification. The facts don’t grab you, and you’re quickly flooded with too much information. You disengage, look at your watch, and decide it’s time to leave for the airport.

“One personalized story about a girl on a bridge has infinitely more impact than the impersonalized generalization in The Economist, even if the impact of the generalization is 100 times greater,” says Harris.

Humans are wired to share stories. We have been using stories visually for 100,000 years and verbally for 10,000 years, he adds. “Stories are how we take a scenario out for a virtual test drive without having to risk the time or the danger to do it ourselves.”

Studies have shown that charities sending out donation letters, for example, pull two times the donations when the letter is about one person vs. using facts and figures about many.

Stories add emotion, but to add emotion doesn’t mean you have to make your story a tearjerker. Just make sure your stories make the abstract concrete, add emotion, and present a scenario that allows customers to draw their own conclusions.

Falling - Girl (2012). Illustration by Jessica Emmett. www.jessica-emmett.com.