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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 July 8, 2020

    How to Say No When You Say Yes Too Often

    How to Say No When You Say Yes Too Often

    Do you say yes so often that you realize you aren’t really happy about this, wondering how to say no to people?

    For years, I was a serial people pleaser. Known as someone who would step up, I would gladly make time especially when it came to volunteering for certain causes. I proudly carried this role all through grade school, college, even through law school. For years, I thought saying “no” meant I would disappoint a good friend or someone I respected.

    But somewhere along the way, I noticed I wasn’t quite living my life. Instead, I seem to have created a schedule that was a strange combination of meeting the expectations of others, what I thought I should be doing, and some of what I actually wanted to do. The result? I had a packed schedule that left me overwhelmed and unfulfilled.

    It took a long while but I learned the art of saying no. Saying ‘no’ meant I no longer catered fully to everyone else’s needs and could make more room for what I really wanted to do. Instead of cramming too much in, I chose to pursue what really mattered. I started to manage my time more around my own needs and interests. When that happened, I became a lot happier. And guess what? I hardly disappointed anyone.

    The Importance of Saying No

    When you learn the art of saying ‘no,’ you begin to look at the world differently. Rather than seeing all of the things you could or should be doing (and aren’t doing), you start to look at how to say yes to what’s important.

    In other words, you aren’t just reacting to what life throws at you. You seek the opportunities that move you to where you want to be.

    Successful people aren’t afraid to say no. Oprah Winfrey considered one of the most successful women in the world confessed that it was much later in life when she learned how to say no. Even after she had become internationally famous, she felt she had to say yes to virtually everything. It was only when she realized that after years of struggling with saying no, I finally got to this question: “What do I want?”

    Being able to say no also helps you manage your time better.

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    Warren Buffett views no as essential to his success. He said,

    “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

    When I made ‘no’ a part of my toolbox, I drove more of my own success focusing on fewer things and doing them well.

    How We Are Pressured to Say Yes

    It’s no wonder a lot of us find it hard to say ‘no.’

    From an early age, we are conditioned to say ‘yes.’ We said yes probably hundreds of time in order to graduate from high school and then get into college. We said yes to find work. We said yes get a promotion. We said yes to find love and then yes again to stay in a relationship. We said yes to find and keep friends.

    We say yes because it feels better to help someone. We say yes because it can seem like the right thing to do. We say yes because we think that is key to success. And we say yes because the request might come from someone who is hard to resist like the boss.

    And that’s not all. The pressure to say yes doesn’t just come from others. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves. At work, we say yes because we compare ourselves to others who seem to be doing more than we are. Outside of work, we say yes because we feel guilty we aren’t doing enough to spend time with family or friends.

    The message no matter where we turn is nearly always, “You really could be doing more.” The result? When people ask us for our time, we are heavily conditioned to say yes.

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    How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty

    Deciding to add the word ‘no’ to your toolbox is no small thing. Perhaps you already say ‘no’ but not as much as you would like. Maybe you have an instinct that if you were to learn the art of ‘no’ that you could finally create more time for things you care about. But let’s be honest, using the word ‘no’ doesn’t come easily for many people.

    The 3 Rules of Thumbs for Saying No

    1. You Need to Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

    Let’s face it. It is hard to say no. Setting boundaries around your time especially you haven’t done it much in the past will feel awkward.

    2. You Are the Air Traffic Controller of Your Time

    Remember that you are the only one who understands the demands for your time. Think about it, who else knows about all of the demands on your time? No one. Only you are at the center of all of these requests. are the only one that understands what time you really have.

    3. Saying ‘No’ Means Saying ‘Yes’ to Something That Matters

    When we decide not to do something, it means we can say yes to something else. You have a unique opportunity to decide how you spend your precious time.

    6 Ways to Start Saying No

    Incorporating that little word ‘no’ into your life can be transformational. Turning some things down will mean you can open doors to what really matters. Here are some essential tips to learn the art of no:

    1. Check in With Your Obligation Meter

    One of the biggest challenges to saying ‘no’ is a feeling of obligation. Do you feel you have a responsibility to say yes and worry that saying no reflect poorly on you?

    Ask yourself whether you truly have the duty to say yes. Check your assumptions or beliefs about whether you carry the responsibility to say yes. Turn it around and instead ask what duty you owe to yourself.

    2. Resist the Fear of Missing out (FOMO)

    Do you have a fear of missing out (FOMO)? FOMO can follow us around in so many ways. At work, we volunteer our time because we fear we won’t move ahead. In our personal lives, we agree to join the crowd because FOMO even while we ourselves aren’t enjoying the fun.

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    Check in with yourself. Are you saying yes because of FOMO or because you really want to say yes? More often than not, running after fear doesn’t make us feel better.

    3. Check Your Assumptions About What It Means to Say ‘No’

    Do you dread the reaction you will get if you say no? Often, we say ‘yes’ because we worry about how others will respond or the consequences of saying no or because of the consequences. We may be afraid to disappoint others or think we will lose respect from others. We often forget how much we are disappointing ourselves along the way.

    Keep in mind that saying ‘no’ can be exactly what is needed to send the right message that you have limited time. In the tips below, you will see how to communicate your no in a gentle and loving way. You might disappoint someone initially but drawing a boundary can bring you the freedom you need so that you can give freely of yourself when you truly want to.

    4. When the Request Comes In, Sit on It

    Sometimes, when we are in the moment, we instinctively agree. The request might make sense at first. Or we typically have said yes to this request in the past.

    Give yourself a little time to reflect on whether you really have the time, or can do the task properly. You may decide the best option is to say ‘no.’ There is no harm in giving yourself the time to decide.

    5. Communicate Your ‘No’ with Transparency and Kindness

    When you are ready to tell someone no, communicate your decision clearly. The message can be open and honest to ensure the recipient that your reasons have to do with your limited time.

    Resist the temptation not to respond or communicate all. But do not feel obligated to provide a lengthy account about why you are saying no.

    A clear communication with a short explanation is all that is needed. I have found it useful to tell people that I have many demands and need to be careful with how I allocate my time. I will sometimes say I really appreciate that they came to me and for them to check in again if the opportunity arises another time.

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    6. Consider How to Use a Modified ‘No’

    If you are under pressure to say yes but want to say no, you may want to consider downgrading a “yes” to a “yes but…” giving you an opportunity to condition your agreement to what works best for you.

    Sometimes, the condition can be to do the task but not in the time frame that was originally requested. Or perhaps you can do part of what has been asked.

    Final Thoughts

    Beginning right now, you can change how you respond to requests for your time. When the request comes in, take yourself off autopilot where you might normally say yes.

    Use the request as a fresh request to draw a healthy boundary around your time. Pay particular attention to when you place certain demands on yourself. If you are the one placing the demand on yourself, try to evaluate the demand as if it were coming from somewhere else.

    Try it now. Say no to a friend who continues to take advantage of your goodwill. Or, draw the line with a workaholic colleague and tell them you will complete the project but not by working all weekend. Or, tell someone in your family you can’t loan them money again because they never paid you back the last time. You’ll find yourself much happier.

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    Featured photo credit: Chris Ainsworth via unsplash.com

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