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Sticky Ideas Workshop (Part 6): Stories

Sticky Ideas Workshop (Part 6): Stories
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

    We humans are story-telling creatures. On the face of it, telling stories seems absurd, for anything other than entertainment, and yet throughout the various societies of humankind, and throughout all the history we’ve uncovered in dusty libraries and remote archaeological sites, humans have told stories not just to entertain, but to teach, to build and strengthen social ties, to convey the deepest truths of their personal, spiritual, and religious systems.

    Jesus told stories to convey the framework of his moral system; the walls of the tombs and other monuments of the Pharaohs are covered with stories; the stellae and chamber walls of the Central American civilizations are lined with stories; the oldest documents we know of are stories. Stories of kings, of gods and goddesses, of knights errant, of peasants turned heroes, of little girls who save empires, of wars between spirits and wars between nations and wars between families, stories of virtually all of humanity’s triumphs, failures, and mixed blessings have been passed down from generation to generation, added to and reshaped by their tellers.

    In a word, stories are important.

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    Beyond that, though, stories are sticky. Stories are far more easily retained in our minds than information presented in just about any other way. We might not remember what we said to our mother on the phone last time we talked, but we can almost all remember what Goldilocks said when she tried the bears’ porridge — and what the baby bear said when he found little Goldilocks asleep in his bed.

    Likewise, urban legends flow easily from our tongues, while facts about actual dangers seem to slip through our minds without ever getting a chance to take hold. Everyone knows the dangers of waking up in a bathtub full of ice with their kidneys out; few know the risk of E. coli transmission from eating at a typical buffet.

    And while we might goggle at the brilliance of Einstein’s formula E=MC2, it is the tale of the lowly patent clerk who daydreams the answer to one of the most pressing problems facing physicists in his time that really catches out interest — that, for most people, is what the figures E=MC2 really stand for, unskilled at theoretical physics as most of us tend to be.

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    How Stories Work

    There is a lot of research that suggests that the reason stories work so well is because their narrative structure mirrors the way we experience our actual lives. Life in its rawest form is, literally, one thing after another; by carefully selecting a start-point and end-point and filtering out details we deem irrelevant, the raw stuff of life is transformed into a narrative arc that builds to some climax, imparting along the way the teller’s point. Think of how we whittle the events of our daily experience down to a few stories when we get home from work, each illustrating the fact that our boss is a jerk, our co-worker is hilarious, our child is brilliant (aren’t they all?), our dog is the smartest dog in the world (again, aren’t they all?), police officers are unreasonable and inflexible, poor drivers should probably not be allowed to reproduce, and so on. We constantly transform the never-ending flow of life into stories, which seems to reflect the way our memory itself works.

    Stories, then, allow us to impart not just our conclusion, but the actual experiences by which we came to that conclusion. A well-told tale draws its audience in, walking them through the events relayed and, some research suggests, actually produces in our brains the physical response we would have experiencing the events first-hand. The Heaths relate the results of one study in which subjects were asked to read a story on a computer about a man going running. The stories were identical, except in half the stories, the runner takes a shirt off before going out for his run, and in the other, he puts a shirt on. The computer tracks the amount of time the reader spends on each sentence. Two sentences after the sentence about the sweatshirt, a reference to his shirt is made. Subjects reading the version where the character takes his shirt off actually took a longer time to read the same sentence as subjects whose story included the line about him putting it on. The readers of the story where he took the shirt off had not only imagined the scene, but they had in a sense “put the shirt away” and had to “go get it” to bring it back into the story!

    Other studies reinforce this kind of interpretation, including tests where students are asked to visualize themselves rehearsing some skilled action who then go on to perform equally with students who physically rehearsed it; both outperform students who neither rehearse nor visualize rehearsal. Or studies where subjects are asked to mentally replay the events leading up to some crisis (like a fight with a significant other) while other subjects are asked to visualize themselves having resolved the problem; the first group is far more likely to come up with and implement a course of action than the second. It seems that telling stories, even to ourselves, simulates real life well enough that it can create in us real world effects!

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    The Surplus of Meaning

    Although stories are generally pared down versions of reality, they still carry with them more meaning than just what the author or teller intends. Anyone who’s ever told a joke only to be asked “what’s funny about that?” or argued with someone over the meaning of a book knows first-hand that no matter how we trim the details of our stories there’s always a little more room for interpretation than we expected. Like life itself, stories offer more meaning than we imagine.

    The secret of stories’ success lies in this surplus of meaning; if stories only ever meant what they were about, they would’nt be applicable outside of the limited chain of events relayed in the story itself. But they’re not; stories are adaptable, the lessons they teach applicable to a wide range of scenarios unimagined by their creators and tellers. So, for instance, law enforcement agents get together in bars or elsewhere and swap stories of successful arrests, failed investigations, run-ins with institutional bureaucracies, dealings with other agencies, and so on. As they listen to each other’s stories, the are adding their colleagues’ experiences to their on “stock” of experience, ready to draw on not when they encounter the exact same circumstances — which, it’s clear enough would be useless — but when they encounter similar experiences. The experiences embedded into stories “flex” to apply well beyond their original context.

    In effect, then, stories take on the character of lived experience, which is far more memorable than, say, dry facts and figures. It might be useful to know the symptoms of crystal meth abuse, but far more compelling to know how a specific officer figured out that he was dealing with an addict. As communicators, it is to our advantage to leverage the power of stories for their innate ability to open up virtually direct access to our audience’s minds. What’s more, stories become the perfect vehicle for the other principles of stickiness the Heath’s have compiled: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, and emotion. Urban legends are perfect examples of this: simple (blunt, even) stories packed with details, usually backed by the authority of a relative, friend, or famous subject, and with a straight-to-the-gut emotional wallop that both surprises us and lingers on.

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    Thus we come to the end of this in-depth discussion of the principles and ideas in Chip Heath and Dan Heath’s book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. If you’re a writer, salesperson, marketer, freelancer, designer, advertiser, activist, politician, or anyone else charged with the task of influencing an audience, this book should be on your “next reads” list. I’ve made an effort in these posts to come up with my own examples and supplement the Heath’s work with ideas from other sources, leaving as much as possible the text of the book itself for you to discover. Enjoy!

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    Last Updated on January 15, 2019

    What Are Interpersonal Skills? Master Them for Better Relationships

    What Are Interpersonal Skills? Master Them for Better Relationships

    When I wrote my book Extraordinary PR, Ordinary Budget: A Strategy Guide, I was surprised at the various layers of review and editing necessary to get the book to publication. Before I ever submitted the manuscript, I enlisted a former colleague to read and copy edit my work. Then, I submitted my work to an editor at the publisher’s house, and once she approved it, she sent it to her colleagues and then her company’s editorial board.

    Upon editorial board approval of my book, my editor sent my work to reviewers in my field, then a developmental editor, then a designer and layout team and, finally, another copy editor. There were a host of personalities with whom I needed to interact along the way.

    It turns out that getting a publishing contract was just the beginning – a lot happens between developing a concept, writing the book, finding an agent and publisher, and getting the book on bookshelves or on Audible or Kindle. Through every milestone of the publishing process, my ability to interact with others was crucial. This underscored for me that no matter what or how much a person accomplishes, you never do it alone – everyone needs assistance from others.

    While I conceived of the book and wrote the manuscript, there is no way my book could have hit booksellers’ shelves without the dozens of people who were involved in the publishing process. Further, interpersonal skills can propel or stonewall success.

    Even as someone who has written hundreds of essays, press releases, pitch notes and other correspondence, writing itself is not a solitary endeavor. Sure, I may write in solitude, but the moment I am finished writing, there are always clients, colleagues, partners, peers and others who review my content.

    What is more, even as a published author and contributor for this platform, I try to never submit final copy (content) that has not been copy edited. I send everything to my copy editor, whom I pay out of my own pocket, for her review, edits and approval. Once she has reviewed my work, caught unbeknownst-to-me errors, I am much more confident putting my work out in the world.

    How Interpersonal Skills Affect Relationships

    It is clearer to me now more than ever before that interpersonal skills are needed in every profession and every trade.

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    People don’t elect leaders because the leaders are smart. Individuals are motivated to vote when they have a hero and when they feel they have something to lose. If they seriously dislike the other candidate, they are much more likely vote according to a 2000 Ohio State University study:

    “A disliked candidate is seen as a threat, and that will be motivation to go to the polls. But a threat alone isn’t enough – people need to have a hero to vote for, too, in order to inspire them to turn out on Election Day.”

    In a work setting, interpersonal skills impact every facet of your development and success. Trainers must collaborate with a design team or the company hiring them to facilitate the training. During the training itself, the facilitators must connect with the audience and establish a rapport that supports vulnerability and openness. If the trainers interact poorly with the trainees, they are unlikely to be invited back. If they are invited back, they may be unlikely to inspire cooperation or growth in their trainees.

    Solopreneurs interactions with clients and subcontractors, and those interactions will, in part, support or adversely impact their business. If you enjoy a career as an acclaimed surgeon or respected lawyer, your interactions with patients, clients, health insurance agencies and a team of other practitioners – many of whom are shielded from public view – will improve or decimate your practice.

    As a hiring manager, one of the things I consider when interviewing candidates is their interpersonal skills. I assess the interpersonal skills they display in their content and face-to-face presentation. I ask probing questions to learn how they interact with others, manage conflict and contribute to a team atmosphere.

    When candidates say things like, “I prefer to work alone” or “I can hit the ground running without assistance,” I bristle. When candidates appear to know everything and everyone, I wonder if they will be receptive to learning or open to feedback. Could these statements be indications that these individuals lack interpersonal skills?

    It stands to reason, then, that interpersonal skills are among the most valuable and the bedrock of all talents and skills.

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    What are Interpersonal Skills?

    Interpersonal skills range from emotional intelligence, empathy, oral and written communication to leadership to collaboration and teamwork.

    In sum, interpersonal skills are skills that enable you to interact well with others. They include teachability and receptiveness to feedback, active or mindful listening, self-confidence and conflict resolution.

    From a communications standpoint, interpersonal skills are about understanding how colleagues prefer to communicate and then using the appropriate mediums to meet respective needs. It is about understanding how to communicate in a way to get the most out of different people.

    For instance, in my career as a public relations practitioner, part of what I am constantly evaluating is which colleagues, clients and members of the media prefer email, text or phone calls. I am assessing how much frill to use with each person depending on what has worked in the past and depending on what I know about the person with whom I am interacting.

    Making these decisions and being disciplined enough to follow each person’s known preferences helps me better connect with the various individuals in my orbit. Is this tiring at times? Yes. Is it necessary? Absolutely.

    How to Improve Interpersonal Skills

    There are tons of resources to teach interpersonal skills. I love books such as Leadership Presence by Belle Linda Halpern and Kathy Lubar, and The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman.

    There are also a host of books and articles on emotional intelligence, which is the ability to manage one’s emotions and perceive and adapt to others’ emotions. Emotional intelligence is likewise a critical component of positive interpersonal relations. You can learn more about it in this article: What Is Emotional Intelligence and Why It Is Important

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    Active and mindful listening also support improved interpersonal skills. I recommend you take a look at this piece: Active Listening – A Skill That Everyone Should Master

    I have further found that humility helps a ton with interpersonal skills. It takes humility to admit you have more to learn and that you can learn from the people around you. In fact, everyone with whom you interact has a lesson to teach you. And employers are increasingly looking for team members who are lifelong learners, meaning they believe there is always room for growth and professional and personal development.

    Forbes contributor Kevin H. Johnson noted in a July 2018 article,

    “That’s why, when anyone asks what the next ‘hot’ skill will be, I say it’s the same skill that will serve people today, tomorrow, and far into the future—the ability to learn.”

    Don’t overlook introspection.

    While interpersonal skills may seem simple enough, introspection is critical to learning where and in what ways you need to grow.

    Through introspection and observation, I have learned that my interpersonal skills suffer when I am sleep deprived, because then I am short-tempered and irritable. I’ve observed this connection over a significant period in my life. Unsurprisingly, it is also true of others. Fellow LifeHack contributor, health coach and personal trainer Jamie Logie noted:

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    When you are chronically sleep deprived, it really does a number on you. A lack of sleep can keep your body in a constant state of stress and over time this can get pretty ugly. Elevated stress hormones can be involved in creating a bunch of pretty nasty conditions including anxiety, headaches and dizziness, weight gain, depression, stroke, hypertension, digestive disorders, immune system dysfunction, irritability.

    Additionally, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development reported,

    “Sleep deprivation can noticeably affect people’s performance, including their ability to think clearly, react quickly, and form memories. Sleep deprivation also affects mood, leading to irritability; problems with relationships, especially for children and teenagers; and depression. Sleep deprivation can also increase anxiety.”

    The point is, even as you are identifying ways to improve interpersonal skills, think about what is getting in the way. While sleep deprivation is a trigger for me, your stumbling block may be different.

    The Bottom Line

    You cannot fix what you do not know is broken. Even as you work to understand and apply interpersonal skills, spend some time in mindful meditation to get clear on what is holding you back from developing solid relationships.

    Featured photo credit: Austin Distel via unsplash.com

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