Earlier this year, I read an article in The Washington Post Sunday Magazine about a tanker that had caught fire 800 miles off the Hawaiian coast.

Fortunately, a cruise ship happened to be going by and was able to rescue the 11 crewmen.

However, as they pulled away, a passenger heard the sound of a dog barking. The captain’s dog, Hokget, had been left behind.

When the cruise ship got to Hawaii, the crew held a press conference. The captain said how grateful they were to be rescued, but all he could think about was his dog abandoned, alone, on the tanker.

The world mobilized. Emails and donations flooded in. $5. $500. $5000.

The U.S. Navy actually changed the exercise area of the Pacific Fleet to search the part of the ocean they thought the tanker might have drifted.

The Coast Guard dispatched a C-130. Miraculoulsy, after searching 50,000 square miles of open ocean, they located the tanker and flew low to see if there was any sign of life.

Sure enough, there was a brown-and-white blur racing frantically up and down the deck. The crew couldn’t land so they dropped their power bars, pizza and oranges so Hokget would have something to eat.

More than a month later, a quarter million dollar (!) rescue mission was mounted with the donations that had poured in from around the globe.

Against all odds, they were able to save Hokget and bring him back to Hawaii.

Here’s the question.

Why did people from around the world mobilize to save the life of one dog – when there are thousands of people in their own cities, states and countries who also desperately need food, water and shelter?

The answer, posits Shankar Vedantam, the author of the article, is something called THE EMPATHY TELESCOPE.

Simply said, we can put ourselves in the shoes of one person – we can’t put ourselves in the shoes of many.

Our mind (and heart) can’t comprehend mass numbers. It’s too overwhelming. Our mind shuts down. Our eyes look away.

One person (or dog) is doable – a magnitude of millions is not.

What does this mean for you as a communicator, business owner or non-profit leader?

Where is your dog on the tanker?

What do you care about? Your cause? Your company? A new idea? If you try to get people interested by talking about the thousands of people you serve or the millions of people who will benefit; it will be almost impossible for anyone to grasp the essence of your message. The numbers simply won’t equate.

It is far better to talk about ONE client you serve – ONE person who will benefit. Tell the story of that one person – who will act as a universal stand-in for everyone.

Now, your listeners, viewers and readers can relate. Now, they can PICTURE what you’re talking about.

Next time you’re preparing a sales presentation; writing a blog post or article; creating a fund-raising campgain or working on your web copy – keep this in mind.

Where is your dog on the tanker? Where is your Hero Journey story of a single person who has a problem or challenge; deals with it successfully and returns home triumphant?

Tell the story of that one person (or dog) so vividly; people experience it as if they’re there; as if it’s happening right now.

And yes, this can be done with integrity as opposed to being manipulative. The goal is to remember that sweeping terms will go over people’s head – in one ear, out the other.

If you want to win buy-in, use a single individual’s real-life example to engage your audience’s emotions and mind’s eye so they viscerally “get” what you’re trying to get across.

That will capture their imagination and intrigue your audience. Better yet, they will care about what you care about because they SEE what you’re saying.

Curious about what happened to Hokget?

Here’s the link to that article in case you’d like to know, (as Paul Harvey used to say) . . . the rest of the story. http://bit.ly/7tfBYN

Do you have a favorite example of an individual or organization who captured the interest and empathy of their audience through a “dog on a tanker” story?

I’d love to hear it.