During the Ethiopian famine in 1984, BBC reporter Michael Buerk broadcast a series of harrowing reports from the refugee camp at Korem.
These reports had a powerful effect on people watching on their sofas back in the UK – none more so than Bob Geldof, who picked up the phone, called Ultravox singer Midge Ure and said ‘we’ve got to do something’.
That ‘something’ turned into BandAid – then LiveAid. Geldof and his collaborators raised hundreds of millions of dollars and focused the attention of the world on the crisis in Africa. All because of Michael Buerk’s report.
Interestingly, Buerk had been broadcasting reports from Ethiopia for several weeks, but no one had really paid much attention up until then.
This was because all his previous reports had focused on the scale of the tragedy – and the scale was so vast that it was literally overwhelming: seven million people affected, thousands dying every week, mountains of corpses being burned to help prevent the spread of disease.
It was too big for people in the UK to get their heads round – the numbers didn’t really mean anything.
But the power of the close-up images inside the camp made it shockingly real for the viewing audience. They couldn’t understand ten thousand corpses, but they could understand a small child who was going to be dead before nightfall because there wasn’t enough food.
That’s because people don’t relate to numbers: they relate to people, to feelings, to their own experience.
Politicians know this (Joseph Stalin once drily observed that ‘one death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic’).
Stand-up comedians know it, too. That’s why they talk about things in specific, personal terms – ‘have you ever noticed how…’ – rather than abstract ideas.
Most businesses, unfortunately, don’t seem to know it. They still think ‘£100M investment in new warehouse’ is a brilliant story for their employee newsletter. Because they don’t realise that, to 90% of the people in their business, ‘£100M investment in new warehouse’ doesn’t really mean anything.
People understand the words: they just don’t understand what those words mean for them. Is it good or bad? Does it mean customers will be happier because the supply chain works more efficiently? Or does it mean there’ll be less money for other things (like pay rises)?
If you want people to pay attention, you need to stop trying to impress them with numbers and give them something they can relate to.