For years I’ve wanted to write an algorithm that would predict whether a story is emotionally compelling or not. This would be a major breakthrough for natural language processing. It would also allow us to automatically rate most of the narrative content on the Internet.
While I am not there yet, I am making progress. Using the wisdom of James Pennebaker from The Secret Life of Pronouns I was able to write a story point of view detector that seems to finally work. Not only does it tell what the story’s point of view is, it can also assign a confidence score to its prediction, as well as reliably detect stories that lack a dominant point of view (result is “none”), or share two alternating points of view (result is “mixed”).
That’s what goes into any good algorithm. If asked to decide between A or B (the simplest choice), there are actually four possible answers: A, B, Both, or Neither.
Storytelling: Seven Points of View
After many rounds of testing, I discovered 7 points of view:
This may come as a surprise to anyone who was taught about only three point’s of view (POV). Based on the evidence that people respond differently to these different points of view, they are distinct.
Emotionally Compelling: Mixed or “I” stories
The most powerful point of view if you want to tell an emotionally compelling story, according to The Secret Life of Pronouns is the “mixed” perspective, followed by first person singular (“I”) stories. “Mixed” perspectives alternate between two points of view. And after you realize this, it’s obvious. If you want people to connect with you, and find your point of view credible, you need to spend a little bit of time telling the story from their point of view.
What 98,447 stories can teach us
Below is a chart showing what fraction of stories are told from each of these perspectives for three large bodies of narratives. GlobalGiving requires that every project leader report back to donors four times a year for every project. The report is supposed to be informal, conversational, emotionally engaging blog-type writing. And since 2010 we’ve been collecting stories in East Africa written by regular citizens about some specific community effort they witnessed — the Storytelling Project.
Lastly, for the last two years I’ve been getting a “story of the day” by email from a project of my favorite Artist, Jonathan Harris of “I want you to want me” fame. His storytelling site, Cowbird.com, manually curates good stories from the thousands of submissions. Their 812 stories are a positive control group in this experiment, answering the question:
“From what point of view should an emotionally compelling story be told?”
It stands to reason that all of the 812 cowbird stories are good, and their point-of-view (pov) patterns are reflective of what makes for good storytelling as a rule. Let’s compare these three groups:
|GlobalGiving Project Reports (N=35,689)||East African Community Stories (N=61,946)||Cowbird.com Story of the day (N=812)|
|fourth “this org” 0.35||fourth “this org” 0.29||first singular “I” 0.514|
|first plural “we” 0.268||third plural “they” 0.197||third singular “he” 0.112|
|third plural “we” 0.126||None (no pronouns) 0.18||fourth “it” 0.108|
|third singular “he” 0.098||third singular “he” 0.117||None (no pronouns) 0.078|
|second “you” 0.069||first plural “we” 0.084||first plural “we” 0.07|
|first singular “I” 0.046||first singular “I” 0.078||second “you” 0.057|
|None 0.04||mixed 0.049||third plural 0.033|
|mixed 0.003||second 0.007||mixed 0.028|
As you can see from the table, there are dramatic differences. A graph of this makes the differences clearer:
How POV affects story quality: Three major conclusions
First, 51% of Cowbird stories are first person singular (I, me, my, mine), compared to 4.6% of GG project reports and 7.8% of East African stories. If you want to reach people emotionally, only your own story will work. Instead of you telling his story, have him tell his own story with “I” pronouns.
Second, Not enough (only 1 in 300) GlobalGiving project reports are told from a mixed point view. About 4.9% of East African stories and 2.8% of Cowbird SotDs have a more complex, mixed, alternating point of view. Had these reports been written to better reflect the beneficiary’s viewpoint, they could have raised 50% more money from donors (see below).
Third, too many GlobalGiving project leaders have a “fourth person” pov perspective. “Fourth person” is my name for stories that lack any pronouns at all, or contain a lot of definite articles (a, an, the). They tend to focus on objects over people and relationships. Fourth person (in my algorithm) also uses more organization only jaron (such as the words “ngo”,”cbo”, and “foundation”) than pronouns. All of these make for reports that read like cold blooded reports and not warm, personal, emotionally compelling stories. And if you read on, you’ll see these report raise 30% less money.
Since the point of communication is to affect each other’s lives, we should drop the old style reports in favor or just telling the truth and being authentic. But changing your pronouns won’t make your story better, if it was never your story to begin with. You need to actually help people tell their own stories, and be a steward of their words. For too long we’ve let organizations harvest the words of others to further their (organizational) objectives, and this algorithm will finally allow me to out the worst of the bunch and force them to shape up.
Your English teacher mistaught you; get over it.
When we want to inspire, engage, comfort, challenge and connect with each other, we use short, personal, evocative writing, with a good deal of “I” words. Yet from an early age we are exposed to bad writing, reflecting outdated “beliefs” about what makes writing good. The evidence here shows that good writing is less “professional.”
Which world do you want to build today? “Professionalized” language gave us global poverty, a financial crisis, and broken politics?
Creative and informal language gave us The Muppets, Neil Degrasse Tyson, and Doctor Who.
(1) Changing your point of view really DOES affect your ability to raise money with a project report
I took those 35,689 project reports from thousands of GlobalGiving partner organizations and compared the dominant point of view in each report with the amount of donations that came from people clicking on the GIVE BUTTON in those reports. The results were striking:
|Effectiveness of project reports in raising money||None||third plural (they)||fourth (this org, it)||first plural (we)||third singular (he)||first singular (I)||mixed||second (you)|
|Total $$ raised||255.5||254.5||319.8||362.3||356.4||393.3||419.9||462.9|
|Donations per report||9.2||6.7||7.9||8.9||9.1||10.9||13.4||13.6|
|Average $$ per donation||41.2||50.8||57.9||69.6||55.8||75.6||51.7||59|
|Number of reports (N)||757||2683||7860||6082||2270||1109||106||1504|
Note: These data include reports where nobody gave any money after reading reports (23% of all reports). This may not seem like a great way to raise money (50% of reports raised less than $100), but in the aggregate, $7.58 million was raised in precisely this way between 2007 and 2014. It represents the best example of giving tied directly to feedback loops in international development.
Some caveats: These are not true “controlled” experiments. Nobody forced these organizations to adopt a first or third person perspective, and we did not show half the donors one or the other version. So it could be that people who are naturally better at raising money tend to choose to use pronouns differently from those who don’t. And it turns out that women write these reports 2:1 over men. And what people talk about has a big influence over how much money one can raise. Here’s an estimate of how project theme affects donor giving after they read a fresh report:
The smartest way to fix your point of view is to talk to others and share their stories, instead of only writing from your perspective. And Globalgiving has for years been helping organizations listen, act, learn better. In fact we’re giving away money to encourage organizations to do this.
The Gap: The green line near the center shows what fraction of stories have each of 6 points of view. The blue and red lines represent more donations and more money raised from a “you”, “I” and “you and I” mixed perspective. There is a huge gap between how most organizations speak and what donors respond to.
(2) Humans are not very good at determining a story’s point of view
In order to validate the accuracy of this algorithm, I ran 406 of the 813 Cowbird stories through an experiment on Crowdflower. Crowdflower is a distributed tasking site where you pay people a few pennies to do a bunch of simple tasks.
In my task, the person would read two Cowbird stories, select the point of view for each, and then choose which story was the more “emotionally compelling” one. The secret life of pronouns predicts that “mixed” perspectives and “I” stories are more compelling to readers than “you” | “we” | “he” | “they” stories. So I tested our data set and had three people do the test for each comparison. Inter-subject agreement is an important part of seeing whether this task is easy or hard for humans.
Now I know from reading Cowbird that most of the stories actually are “I” stories, and my algorithm predicted 51% of these stories to be first person singular as I expected to see. The “mixed” perspective was much lower – only about 2%. But these are very short stories, and switching perspective isn’t as easy in 100 words, so 2% sounded reasonable.
The results from 406 human story comparisons:
Q: Select the story’s point of view (POV) from these 6 choices:
“I” –FS 118 0.29 vs algorithm: 0.514
“we” –FP 100 0.25 vs algorithm: 0.07
“he” –TS 64 0.16 vs algorithm: 0.112
“they” –TP 79 0.19 vs algorithm: 0.033
“the org” or “it”–4th 35 0.09 vs algorithm: 0.108
“mixed” –mixed 10 0.02 vs algorithm: 0.028
- The humans were 40% LESS likely to choose first person singular than the algorithm, and three times MORE likely to assign first person plural to stories.
- Both humans and the algorithm agreed when assigning “mixed” and 4th person perspectives.
- Humans tended to want to assign stories to each POV more equally than a computer. (If given 6 choices, we seem to think that the stories SHOULD match up with categories equally. Same bias is seen on standardized tests.)
- These humans were not very reliable, because the humans only agreed with each other 11 out of 406 times. 2 out of 3 agreed 50% of the time on what the perspective was.
Q: Of these two, which story was more compelling?
Same result. They agreed with each other 36% of the time. If choosing randomly, they would agree with each other 33% of the time, so that confirms that these Crowdflower humans are really very random and not worth the $16 I paid to test this data set on them. Had I asked 5 interns to do this, I would have gotten more agreement, because they care about agreeing with each other more than the $0.05 I was paying these folks to do a simple (though enjoyable) task.
It also confirms that seeing a story’s point of view is not so easy. If it was trivial, they would have agreed with each other more. Agreeing on which of two stories is more emotionally compelling is much harder, and likely impossible for any algorithm well at predicting what humans like. Even “human algorithms” are terrible at doing it.
A good story is more a matter of taste than of process, but people DO give to projects more often when stories are told from the right point of view – the beneficiary’s.
Practicing what I preach
Old habits die hard. I ran my own algorithm against this blog post and it predicted that I am writing from a “fourth person” perspective with an 80 percent confidence rating.
OUCH! I soooo suck as a writer. Or so my computer tells me.
So I went back into this and changed some of my “you” and “we” statements to “I” statements and ran it again.
The Result: “fourth person”, 92% sure, 108 pronouns, 6.3% of text is pronouns
Pronoun counts by POV type:
[('fourth', 40), ('first singular', 31), ('second', 17), ('first plural', 10), ('third plural', 7), ('third singular', 3)]
The reason why I failed? I used too many “its” and “these” and “those” and not enough “I”s in it.
Oh well. [I'm] Hitting the publishing button now.