How Stories Unlock Empathy to Inspire Action

“Emotions travel five times faster than rational thought.”

I spotted this sentence in a BBC article about Facebook Reactions last week. Around the same time, I had a conversation with a journalist whose news team is trying to work out how to boost engagement with their stories on Facebook.

They’re finding that on social platforms – where individuals curate the content of their own media – the stuff that proves most popular with audiences is often very different to what a news editor might choose to run as a lead story.

His team aren’t the first to discover this. As far as I’m aware, cats’ interactions with boxes or vegetables have rarely, if ever, found their way onto the front page of The Times. But they do attract eye-watering volumes of social traffic.

When gaps like this emerge, it’s often a question of empathy. An audience will always engage with the story of a dog being rehabilitated after a car accident far more readily than a figurehead giving a speech about quantitative easing.

This is not because we care about dogs more than the economy.

It’s just that we can relate to the dog’s situation much more quickly than we can form an opinion about whether it’s a good idea for the Bank of England to create more money.

Humans are better at empathy than logic because, thankfully, it’s what we’re designed for. But our finest moments are when our emotional reactions move us to practical thought and action.

Like last September, when a photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s body after he drowned off the coast of Turkey sparked an outpouring of support for migrants and refugees.

This single image was a far more powerful prompt for widespread action than any newspaper op-ed or parliamentary speech.

Feelings happen to us. Thoughts emerge from feelings. And actions are thoughts that our feelings motivate us to make happen.

Great storytelling uses feeling as a springboard to action.

This cinema ad from Virgin Media is a brilliant example.  It takes an everyday task – researching a topic on a search site – and gives it an emotional story that makes it feel life-changing. And that's a powerful motivator to action.

[This post was originally published on 1 Feb 2016.]