Everyone knows emotion drives buying; it’s a central tenant of business conversation and storytelling. So why do some stories work better than others? Empathy.

Most brand stories are using it wrong.

Paul Slovic, a research psychologist at the University of Oregon, has dedicated his life to understanding why people send an outpouring of donations when they see one suffering child on the news but there’s very little response to reports of mass atrocities.

He concluded that when listening to a story, the human brain is very good at caring about one individual. As the number of people increase, our ability to empathize decreases. Even shifting from one to two people makes a huge difference.

He recently did an experiment, not yet published, in which he had people visualize American money totalling $1. Options to picture included: 100 pennies, 10 dimes, four quarters, and a dollar bill. Overwhelmingly, everyone pictured the dollar. The solo object was significantly easier for people to visualize and connect with.

This study, along with multiple others, reveals that human beings emotionally connect with stories about one specific person.

This finding is counterintuitive to most brands who tell stories about groups of people or a general person like a “young bride” or a “high level executive.” Science (and screenwriters) know that stories about groups and categories don’t prompt emotional attachment or drive action.

To get the most out of your brand’s story, modify it based on these questions for each conversation:

  1. What kind of person does your listener want to impact?
  2. Picture 1 of those people. What does he or she look like and care about?
  3. Think of a reference to make the person more specific. Do you have a friend, family member or movie character that fits this description?

Use that person as the main character to talk about your brand and at the end of the conversation, if it feels necessary, mention all the other people your band impacts.

Try this approach and notice a big shift in the engagement of your listener.