In our last blog post, we learned that lawyers, non-profit marketers, advertisers, educators and others use stories effectively to explain and convince. But why do audiences respond so well to stories? The answer, according to brain science, is our brains need information to be packaged as stories.
In a faraway land, a boy went to learn at the feet of a wise man day after day. The wise man always instructed the boy through stories. One day, the boy asked “Master, why do you always teach through stories? Would it not be faster to teach me directly?”. To this, the wise man answered “Please bring me some tea.” The boy rose and prepared a cup of tea in a white china cup. The wise man took the cup from the boy and sipped it, then asked “Why did you bring me a cup when I only asked for the tea?”
A story is like a cup; it’s the brain’s natural container for holding knowledge. Brain scientists believe we are highly skilled at converting stories into meaning. All experiences in life are experienced as a sequence of events: I pet the strange dog at the park, he bites me, I run away. I wear my lucky tie to school, I get an A+ on my math test. We store our life experiences as stories so we can recall and use them later. If I see a dog tied up outside a drug store, I remember my last dog experience and what happened. Stories keep us safe.
Brain scientists speculate there are many ways to “package” a message. At one extreme, we can package information as logic, including data, lists and analysis. Our brains process logic with the left brain, testing the arguments carefully and finally arriving at a reasoned acceptance or rejection of the message. At the other extreme are stories, which are processed in the right brain, the domain of visualization and emotion.
Educators, lawyers, advertisers, brain scientists and others have conducted hundreds of studies over the past 40 years to understand how to use stories to help students learn, sway juries and make you more likely to buy. From these studies, we have learned there are at least four benefits to communicating through stories:
1. Makes our message more understandable
The most important benefit of stories is they make our message more meaningful. Through experience, we have become experts at drawing life lessons out of stories: don’t drink orange juice right after brushing your teeth, don’t speed on that stretch of highway, don’t talk politics with Phil. You can tell me something, but if you tell me a story, I can figure out the lesson myself.
Lists of facts are difficult to understand and remember later because they aren’t in a story format. Tell me I should always lock my front door and I’m sceptical. But tell me you were burglarized when you left your front door unlocked one day and that easily fits into my warehouse of stories.
In research with juries, we’ve learned jurors cannot interpret a list of facts until it is sorted into a story. An isolated piece of information, like “Johnson stabbed Caldwell”, is not enough. We need to know about the series of events that led up to that stabbing to understand the players’ motivations and make a decision about guilt. In the same way, your audience will best understand your message after they organize it in their own minds into a story form.
2. Increases trust
Stories create a bond between the teller and the listener. Sociologists believe every person fundamentally feels alone in the world. We crave connecting with others who have had similar experiences as us, which we learn by listening to each others’ stories.
I learned this lesson when I was a leadership coach at the University of Chicago, responsible for coaching two groups of MBA students on their leadership skills. I found when I gave them feedback to improve their performance, they were attentive but defensive. But when I told them stories about how I had faced similar challenges as a leader, they became much more open to my feedback. As a workshop leader, I’ve learned the quickest way to build rapport with learners is to tell them a story.
3. Makes your message spread
Because stories are easier to understand, and easier to remember, they are also easier to share. History shows that knowledge is passed through generations via stories.
In one study, researchers found 50% to 75% of word of mouth travels in the form of a story. Do you want your idea to become viral? Then find a way to package it as a story..
4. Makes the audience more likely to agree (and less likely to disagree)
One of the most important benefits of stories is that they make your argument more convincing. There are two reasons for this: stories touch emotions and make the audience more likely to agree, and stories also turn off counter-arguments and make your audience less likely to find reasons to disagree.
Let’s discuss disagreement first. Facts encourage people to process information critically and think of reasons to agree and reasons to disagree. But stories are processed differently. Stories relax the audience, encourage them to use their imagination and emotions and result in what is called “narrative transport” or a “storylistening trance” where critical thought is suspended and fewer counter-arguments are generated. In a way, stories act like a snooze button on critical thought.
Let’s look at one study which proved this theory. Two hundred and fifty university students looked at shoe ads. Ads that told a story, and invited the reader to “imagine” using the shoes, were about 30% more persuasive than ads that just listed the features and benefits.
But here’s the kicker. When the study was repeated, and a different group of students was told to view the “story” ads critically, the storytelling advantage disappeared completely. You can break the storylistening trance by paying attention to the meat of the argument.
This may be one reason that executives are suspicious of stories; they know stories can be used to persuade and distract an audience from critical thinking.
Stories also make us more likely to agree, for a couple of reasons. First, “storylistening trance” is caused by making the listener transport themselves into the story, using their imagination to “see” the characters, the setting and so on. Great speakers invite their audiences to “imagine” and they paint a vivid mental picture. One study found speakers who use picture words were the most effective at creating the storylistening trance, especially when the pictures caused the listener to look back on their own personal memories, especially childhood memories. The story of the ghost who lived in the closet is easy to visualize and conjures images of our own terrified nights in our bedrooms.
Stories also make us more likely to agree because our brains are hardwired to look for the lessons in stories and apply them to new situations. If I’ve been bitten by a dog before, I will behave more carefully with each new dog I meet. If I tell you that we’ve tried something in the past and it didn’t work, you are likely to believe it won’t work this time. That’s how the brain works; it compare new experiences to old experiences to determine what is likely to happen and how should we behave. Analogies and metaphors are an example of using stories to persuade. Martin Luther King Jr. makes great use of metaphors in his historic speech, such as “Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood”. Great persuaders are masters at using metaphor and analogy.
Fundamentally, we think in stories. Organizing your presentation as a story does the sorting for your audience so they can understand and repeat your message better. And telling a truly engrossing story that creates a storylistening trance makes them more likely to agree with you by appealing to emotion and analogy, and by reducing the number of counter-arguments.
But that may be the reason stories are not welcome in the boardroom, where million-dollar strategic decisions must be made. Executives don’t want their inner critics turned off, don’t way to be swayed by cherry-picked analogies and don’t want their emotions to be swayed. They want to see your analysis. They remain firmly rooted to the bedrock of logic and do not want to be persuaded over to the quicksand of stories.
Still, there are elements of storytelling that fit into a boardroom presentation. But before discussing those specific recommendations, let’s first agree on what we mean by “story” and especially stories that can trigger the storylistening trance. That’s the topic of our next blog article.
About the author: Bruce Gabrielle is author of Speaking PowerPoint: the new language of business, showing a 12-step method for creating clearer and more persuasive PowerPoint slides for boardroom presentations. Subscribe to this blog or join my LinkedIn group to get new posts sent to your inbox.