Give the People What They Want: A Story

Free-Range Thinking | December 2000

Even if you have reams of evidence on your side, remember: numbers numb, jargon jars, and nobody ever marched on Washington because of a pie chart. If you want to connect with your audience, tell them a story.

There’s a maxim in public speaking that holds true whether you’re addressing five people or five hundred: in a two-hour speech, people will remember a 2-minute story. Ten thousand years of conditioning may have something to do with it. As a species, we evolved in a story-telling culture: that’s how each clan preserved its most important lessons and ensured they would be passed on to succeeding generations. Even today, we read stories to our children beginning at very early ages, implicitly teaching them to look for the narrative structure that can bring order and meaning to a seemingly random jumble of events (otherwise known as “life”).

Which makes me wonder about all the presenters and public-speakers I see these days who don’t tell stories. When they were children and bedtime rolled around, did their parents deliver a PowerPoint presentation with bulleted arguments against building a house out of twigs or straw? Or does the explanation lay deeper in the past – perhaps a fork in our species’ evolutionary road that somehow separated the Story-Tellers from the Clan of the Bar Graph?

Don’t get me wrong here: I’m not suggesting that everyone must become Garrison Keillor, Spaulding Gray, or whoever your favorite story-teller may be. Rather, I simply want to reinforce the importance of telling stories if your goal is to educate, persuade, or in any way connect with your audience. Just consider the following:

People are hardwired to respond to stories.
While several millennia of conditioning are enough to explain our affinity for stories, there may be a biological component as well. In his book Wise Up: The Challenge of Lifelong Learning, Guy Claxton reports that a team of neuroscientists believe they have identified a nodule in the brain whose sole purpose is “to look at [our] thoughts, experiences, and behaviors and make sense of them in terms of the ongoing narrative of [our own] life.” In other words, stories may have both nature and nurture on their side.

Individual stories are more convincing than sets of data.
University of Michigan psychology professor Richard Nisbett has conducted clinical tests to verify this point. In one such test, he introduced a group of people to a prison guard and then presented the group with hard data describing what most prison guards are like. In every test, the data presented a contradictory image to the one projected by the guard (e.g., if Nisbett brought in a mean and surly guard, the data would show that most guards are friendly.) In test after test, the group ignored the hard data: If the guard was mean, the group concluded most guards were mean; if he was nice, they believed most guards were nice – the individual “story” always trumped the “facts.”

Stories bring the invisible and abstract to life.
Overflowing landfills are situated safely out of sight – and were, consequently, out of mind – but they landed on front pages in the 1980’s when a lonely garbage barge named Mobro couldn’t find a place to dump its load. As it sailed from one unfriendly port to another down the East Coast, USA Today and other news outlets tracked its progress, simultaneously telling a story that ultimately helped make recycling a household word. More recently, both presidential candidates trotted out an assortment of simple, real-world stories to illustrate complex positions on education, Medicare, and social security. Even when the stories weren’t entirely true (as with that poor girl who supposedly had to stand in class), they still spread quickly and helped frame the debate.

The viral marketing of ideas depends first and foremost on stories.
For an idea to pass from one person to another, it must be contained in something that can be easily transmitted, just as a disease will spread within a human population via a highly-contagious virus. A good story is precisely that kind of container. As Malcolm Gladwell points out in The Tipping Point, “It is safe to say that word of mouth is – even in this age of mass communications and multimillion dollar advertising campaigns – still the most important form of human communication.” After all, when was the last time someone sidled up to you with a sly look in his eye and said, “Have I got a juicy statistic to tell you.”

Every day, the media pump out thousands of stories about how we are treating the planet, how we treat each other, how we take care of ourselves. In this daily deluge are stories that are small enough to be easily digested, simple enough to be told and re-told, but sufficiently clear and compelling that they can illuminate larger issues. As a professional communicator, your job is to find those stories and to use them to help your audience appreciate the importance of your work. Believe me: people are waiting to hear them, and have been for about 10,000 years.

 free-range follow-up

A Helping Hand for Placing Op-Eds

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