Earlier this year, I read an article in The Washington Post about a tanker that had caught fire 800 miles off the Hawaiian coast.
Fortunately, a cruise ship happened to be going by and was able to rescue the 11 crewmen.
However, as they pulled away, a passenger heard a dog barking. The captain's dog had been left behind.
When the crew ship got to Hawaii, they held a press conference. The captain said how grateful they were to be rescued, but all he could think about was his dog Hokget, abandoned and alone on the tanker.
The world mobilized. Emails and donations flooded in. $5. $500. $5000.
The U.S. Navy actually changed the exercise area of the Pacific Fleet to search the part of the ocean they thought the tanker might have drifted.
The Coast Guard dispatched a C-130. Miraculoulsy, after searching 50,000 square miles of open ocean, they located the tanker and flew low to see if there was any sign of life.
Sure enough, there was a brown-and-white blur racing frantically up and down the deck. The crew couldn't land so they dropped their power bars, pizza and oranges so Hokget would have something to eat.
A month later, a quarter million dollar(!) rescue mission was mounted with the donations that had poured in. Against all odds, they were able to save Hokget and bring him home.
Here's the question.
Why did so many people mobilize to save the life of one dog - when there are thousands of people in their own cities, states and countries who desperately need food, water and shelter?
The answer, posits Shankar Vedantam, the author of the article, is something called THE EMPATHY TELESCOPE.
Simply said, we can put ourselves in the shoes of one person - we can't put ourselves in the shoes of many.
We can't comprehend mass numbers. Our mind gets overwhelmed and shuts down. Our eyes look away.
One person (or dog) is doable - a magnitude of millions is not.
What does this mean for you as a communicator?
What do you care about? Your cause? Company? A new idea?
If you try to get people interested in your priority by talking about the hundreds of people you serve or the thousands of people who will benefit; it will be difficult for them to grasp the essence of your message. The numbers simply won't equate.
It is far better to talk about ONE client you serve - ONE person who will benefit.
Tell the story of that one person (who will act as a universal stand-in for everyone) and then scale up.
Now, your listeners, viewers and readers can PICTURE what you're talking about. Now they can relate.
Next time you're preparing a sales presentation; creating a fund-raising campgain or working on your web copy - keep this in mind.
Where is your "Dog on the Tanker Story?"
Where is your Hero Journey story of a single person who has a problem or challenge; deals with it successfully and returns home triumphant?
Tell the story of that one person (or dog) so vividly; people experience it as if they're there and it's happening right now.
And yes, this can be done with integrity as opposed to being manipulative. The goal is to remember that sweeping terms will go over people's head and come across as wah-wah rhetoric. Regardless of how vaild or valuable your message is, it will go in one ear, out the other.
Next time you want to win buy-in, paint a word picture with a single individual's example to engage your audience's mind's eye so they SEE what you're saying.
That will capture their empathy and imagination. Now, they'll care about what you care about.
Want to know more about Hokget and The Empathy Telescope? Here's the link to that article in case you'd like to know, (as Paul Harvey used to say) . . . the rest of the story. http://bit.ly/7tfBYN
Do you have a favorite example of an individual or organization who captured the empathy of their target customers with a "dog on a tanker" story?
I'd love to hear it. Send it to us at Sam@SamHorn.com and with your permission, we'll feature it in a future blog or ezine.