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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 21, 2020

    How to Motivate People Around You and Inspire Them

    How to Motivate People Around You and Inspire Them

    If I was a super hero I’d want my super power to be the ability to motivate everyone around me. Think of how many problems you could solve just by being able to motivate people towards their goals. You wouldn’t be frustrated by lazy co-workers. You wouldn’t be mad at your partner for wasting the weekend in front of the TV. Also, the more people around you are motivated toward their dreams, the more you can capitalize off their successes.

    Being able to motivate people is key to your success at work, at home, and in the future because no one can achieve anything alone. We all need the help of others.

    So, how to motivate people? Here are 7 ways to motivate others even you can do.

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    1. Listen

    Most people start out trying to motivate someone by giving them a lengthy speech, but this rarely works because motivation has to start inside others. The best way to motivate others is to start by listening to what they want to do. Find out what the person’s goals and dreams are. If it’s something you want to encourage, then continue through these steps.

    2. Ask Open-Ended Questions

    Open-ended questions are the best way to figure out what someone’s dreams are. If you can’t think of anything to ask, start with, “What have you always wanted to do?”

    “Why do you want to do that?”

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    “What makes you so excited about it?”

    “How long has that been your dream?”

    You need this information the help you with the following steps.

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    3. Encourage

    This is the most important step, because starting a dream is scary. People are so scared they will fail or look stupid, many never try to reach their goals, so this is where you come in. You must encourage them. Say things like, “I think you will be great at that.” Better yet, say, “I think your skills in X will help you succeed.” For example if you have a friend who wants to own a pet store, say, “You are so great with animals, I think you will be excellent at running a pet store.”

    4. Ask About What the First Step Will Be

    After you’ve encouraged them, find how they will start. If they don’t know, you can make suggestions, but it’s better to let the person figure out the first step themselves so they can be committed to the process.

    5. Dream

    This is the most fun step, because you can dream about success. Say things like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if your business took off, and you didn’t have to work at that job you hate?” By allowing others to dream, you solidify the motivation in place and connect their dreams to a future reality.

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    6. Ask How You Can Help

    Most of the time, others won’t need anything from you, but it’s always good to offer. Just letting the person know you’re there will help motivate them to start. And, who knows, maybe your skills can help.

    7. Follow Up

    Periodically, over the course of the next year, ask them how their goal is going. This way you can find out what progress has been made. You may need to do the seven steps again, or they may need motivation in another area of their life.

    Final Thoughts

    By following these seven steps, you’ll be able to encourage the people around you to achieve their dreams and goals. In return, you’ll be more passionate about getting to your goals, you’ll be surrounded by successful people, and others will want to help you reach your dreams …

    Oh, and you’ll become a motivational super hero. Time to get a cape!

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