What resonates more: hearing the story of one person who lacks access to affordable health care or statistics about the millions of Americans in need?

A study from the University of Oregon might hold the answer. When students were told the story of a starving African child named Rokia, they donated 50 percent more money than students told about the widespread effects of starvation in Africa, including the fact that five million children suffer from malnutrition.

This study demonstrates the grip that individual stories hold on listeners, as well as the difficulty humans have at comprehending large-scale suffering. Strange as it may seem, we are captivated by stories about one person’s adversity, yet shrug our shoulders when we hear statistics about the suffering of millions.

This finding has important implications for how we conduct public education around the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Telling one individual’s story might just be the most effective way to educate the public about the benefits of national health reform.

This really hit home for me when I heard a Connecticut woman named Jenny Bass tell her story at a Washington, DC press event in December announcing rules for a new rate review process — a consumer protection that will prevent insurance companies from drastically increasing premiums. Jenny talked about how her insurance costs kept going up and up, to the point where her family could barely make ends meet and was in danger of losing their small business — a farm they had run for generations. Jenny’s story was powerful and moving; it stayed with me long after I stopped watching the press conference.

If a government official had taken Jenny’s place at that podium and instead cited statistics about the number of Americans affected by premium increases, there’s no way I would have been as interested or engaged in the issue.

Of course, many health care advocates already know the power of stories: A recent report from Community Catalyst’s New England Alliance for Children’s Health initiative listed storytelling as one of the seven key strategies New England advocates used to enact children’s coverage expansions. Many communications firms, such as the Herndon Alliance and Spitfire Strategies, have been preaching the benefits of storytelling for years.

This isn’t to say that data and statistics don’t have their place in the public debate. However, it’s absolutely essential to understand the power that individual stories have in illustrating a reality that is true for millions.

Many advocates may be looking to remind Americans about the ACA’s many benefits. Instead, we should look to one of humankind’s oldest traditions: telling a story.

Interested in learning more about how to capture and tell a great, story? Check out Community Catalyst’s Story Banking Guide.

— Maia Fedyszyn, Program Associate New England Alliance Children’s Health