The dark side of stories
“There’s nothing more powerful than a good story.” – Tyrion Lannister
We are wired for stories. Literally. When a story falls into place in our noggin, our brain gets a hit of dopamine. Like pigeons in a lab pecking away at a button until the reward – a seed — pops out, we work to create or comprehend satisfying stories. And instead of a seed we get a neurochemical dose of happy.
As fundraisers, we use stories to arouse empathy in donors, or arouse rage, or arouse whichever emotions are required to secure a gift. That’s good fundraising.
But like all good and powerful things, stories have a dark side. And when we are trying to navigate complexity, the power of stories can work against us.
Stories, or ‘simple stories’ as she puts it, are one of Jennifer Garvey-Berger’s four mindtraps. Each mindtrap is a natural and innate biological tendency to think, feel or react in ways that once served us well as a species.
But in complex situations, including fundraising, they can backfire.
When our brains receive a series of seemingly disparate bits of information, we respond by trying to turn it into narrative. This is not a conscious process. It’s running in the background. When we can make the puzzle pieces fit, boom, we get our chemical reward.
But what happens when the information you’ve collected about your situation isn’t enough to make a story, which is nearly always the case? Without thinking about it, we fill in the gaps with assumptions, beliefs, guesses, and often fears. And once we build the story and get our hit of dopamine, we can no longer separate the facts from the bits we made up. The whole gets locked into place.
And then confirmation bias takes over. We unconsciously seek out evidence to support the ‘truth’ of our story and unconsciously ignore data that might undermine it.
In complex situations, stories can trap us into thinking we know enough to make strategic and tactical decisions. Our belief in our own stories narrows our field of vision and limits options and choices we might have for moving forward.
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
Let’s make this a little less abstract. Here are some simple stories we’ve encountered in the fundraising arena:
Stories about who your donors are and what makes them tick. These can become organizational mythology, and they drive all kinds of decisions, not all of them good.
Stories about your colleagues. The ED hates fundraising. The communications staff think they know how to do our job. We are not seen as professionals by the program staff. My team hates me.
Consider this: you are the hero of your story, and the person – a colleague perhaps — you’ve cast as your villain is the hero of hers. People rarely think they’re the bad guy.
Stories about why something did or didn’t work. We heard a lot of stories ‘explaining’ why this past year-end fundraising season was anemic. Heck we told some of them ourselves. We make wild inferences from open rates or click-through rates, forgetting the bajillion variables that have contributed to the outcome.
Remember, by definition a complex environment means causes and effects cannot be ascertained in advance or predicted. At least not with certainty. How can you know why donors were less generous last December when the donors themselves probably can’t tell you what motivated them to cut back?
One key to not letting yourself get trapped by a story you’re telling yourself is to simply recognize the story may not be right. Another way to escape the trap is by consciously thinking of two or three other equally plausible narratives. And if you’re story has a bad guy, retell the story in your mind but cast your antagonist as the hero. I’ve tried all these approach3es with coaching clients and I can attest to their potential effectiveness.
Stories are fundamental to who we are. But proceed with care and caution