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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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    Published on September 23, 2020

    6 Effective Negotiation Skills to Master

    6 Effective Negotiation Skills to Master

    I don’t know about you, but many times when I hear the word negotiate I think of lawyers working out a business deal or having to do battle with a car salesman to try to get a lower price. Since I am in recruiting, the term “negotiation” comes up when someone is attempting to get a higher compensation package.

    If we think about it, we tend to negotiate almost every day in a wide variety of things we do. Getting a handle on the important negotiation skills can be incredibly beneficial in many parts of our lives. Let’s take a look at 6 effective negotiation skills to master.

    What is Negotiation?

    First, let’s take a look at what negotiation is. Put simply, negotiation is a method by which people settle their differences. It is a process in which compromise or agreement can be reached without argument or dispute.

    Anytime two people or sides disagree on something, they are almost always looking for the best possible outcome for their side. This could be from an individual’s perspective or someone representing an organization.

    In reality, it’s rare that one side gets everything they want and the other side gets nothing that they are seeking. Seeking to reach a common ground of sorts where both sides feel like they are getting most of what they want is the key to being successful and maintaining the relationship.

    Places We Negotiate

    I’ve mentioned that we negotiate in just about all phases of our life. For those of you who are shaking your head no, I invite you to think about the following:

    1. Work/Business

    This one is the most obvious and it’s what naturally comes to mind when we think of the word “negotiate”.

    When you first started at your current job, you might have asked for a higher salary. It could be that you delivered a huge new client to your company and used this as leverage in your most recent evaluation for more compensation. If you work with vendors (and just about every company does), maybe you worked them to a lower price or better contract terms.

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    In recruiting, I negotiate with candidates and hiring managers all the time to land the best talent I can find. It’s very common to accept additional work with the (sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken) agreement that it will benefit your career in the future.

    Recently, I took over a project that was my boss was working on so that I would be able to attend a conference later in the year. And so it goes, we do this all day long at work.

    2. Personal

    I don’t know about you, but I negotiate with my spouse all the time. I’ll cook dinner with the understanding that she does the dishes. Who wants to mow the lawn and who wants to vacuum and dust the house?

    I think we should save 10% for retirement, but she thinks 5% is plenty. Therefore, we save 8%. And don’t even get me started with my kids. My older daughter can borrow my car as soon as she finishes her chores. My younger daughter can go hang out with her friends when her homework is done.

    Then, there are all those interactions in our personal lives outside our homes. The carpenter wants to charge me $12,000 to build a new deck. I think $10,000 is plenty so we agree on $11,000. I ask my neighbor if I can borrow his snowblower in the winter if I invite him over the next time I grill steak. And so on.

    3. Ourselves

    You didn’t expect this one, did you? We negotiate with ourselves all day long.

    I’ll make sure I don’t skip my workout tomorrow since I’m going to have that extra piece of pizza. My spouse has been quiet the last few days, is it worth me asking her about, or should I leave it alone? I think the car place charged me for some repairs that weren’t needed, should I say something or just let it go? I know my friend has been having some personal challenges, should I check in with him? We’ve been friends for a long time, I’m sure he’d come to me if he needed help. I’ve got the #4 pick in this year’s Fantasy Football draft, should I choose a running back or a wide receiver?

    Think about that non-stop voice inside your head. It always seems to be chattering away about something and many times, it’s us negotiating with ourselves. I’ll finish up that report that the boss needs before I turn on the football game.

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    Why Negotiation Skills Are So Important

    Put simply, negotiation skills are important because we all interact with other people, and not only other people but other organizations and groups of people as well.

    We all rarely want the same thing or outcome. Most of the time a vendor is looking at getting you to pay a higher price for something than you want to spend. Therefore, it’s important to negotiate to some middle ground that works well for both sides.

    My wife and I disagree on how much to save for retirement. If we weren’t married it wouldn’t be an issue. We’d each contribute how much we wanted to on our retirement funds. We choose to be married, so we have to come to some agreement that we both feel comfortable with. We have to compromise. Therefore, we have to negotiate.

    If we each lived on a planet by ourselves, we would be free to do just about anything we wanted to. We wouldn’t have to compromise with anyone because we wouldn’t interact with anyone. We would make every choice unilaterally the way we wanted to.

    As we all know, this isn’t how things are. We are constantly interacting with other people and organizations, each one with their own agenda’s, viewpoints, and opinions. Therefore, we have to be able to work together.

    6 Negotiation Skills to Master

    Having strong negotiation skills helps us create win-win situations with others, allowing us to get most of what we want in conjunction with others around us.

    Now, let’s look at 6 effective negotiation skills to master.

    1. Preparation

    Preparation is a key place to start with when getting ready to negotiate. Being prepared means having a clear vision of what you want and how you’d go about achieving it. It means knowing what the end goal looks like and also what you are willing to give to get it.

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    It also means knowing who you are negotiating with and what areas they might be willing to compromise on. You should also know what your “bottom line” is. By “bottom line” I mean what is the most you are willing to give up to get what you want.

    For instance, several years ago, I decided it was time to get a newer car. I say newer because I wanted a “new to me” car, not a brand new car. I did my research and figured out what type of car I wanted. I decided on what must-have items on the car I wanted, the highest amount of miles that would already be on it, the colors I was willing to get it in, and the highest amount of money I was willing to pay.

    After visiting numerous car dealerships I was able to negotiate buying a car. I knew what I was willing to give up (amount of money) and what I was willing to accept, things like the color, amount of miles, etc. I came prepared. This is critical.

    2. Clear Communication

    The next key skill you need to be an effective negotiator is clear communication. You have to be able to clearly articulate what you want to the other party. This means both clear verbal and written communication.

    If you can’t clearly tell the other person what you want, how do you expect to get it? Have you ever worked through something with a vendor or someone else only to learn of a surprise right at the end that wasn’t talked about before? This is not what you would call clear communication. It’s essential to be able to share a coherent and logical vision with the person you are working with.

    3. Active Listening

    Let’s do a quick review of active listening. This is when you are completely focused on the speaker, understand their message, comprehend the information, and respond appropriately. This is a necessary ingredient to be able to negotiate successfully. You must be able to fully focus on the other person’s wants to completely understand them.

    If you aren’t giving them your full attention, you may miss some major points or details. This leads to frustration down the road on both sides. Ensure you are employing your active listening skills when in arbitration mode.

    4. Teamwork and Collaboration

    To be able to get to a place of common ground and a win-win scenario, you have to have a sense of teamwork and collaboration.

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    If you are only thinking about yourself and what you want without giving much care to what the other person is wanting, you are bound to wind up without a solution. The other person may get frustrated and give up if they see you are unwilling to meet them halfway or care little for what they want.

    When you collaborate, you are working together to help each other get what is most important to you. The other upside to negotiating with a sense of teamwork and collaboration is that it helps create a sense of trust, which, in turn, helps provide positive energy for working to a successful conclusion.

    5. Problem Solving

    Problem-solving is another key negotiation skill. When you are working with the other person to get the deal done many times you’ll face new challenges along the way.

    Maybe you want a new vendor to provide training on the software they are selling you but they say it’s going to cost an additional $20,000 to provide this service. If you don’t have the additional $20,000 in the budget to spend on the software but you feel the training is critical, how are you going to solve that problem?

    From what I’ve seen, most vendors aren’t willing to provide additional services without getting paid for them. This is where problem-solving skills will help continue the discussions. You might suggest to the vendor that your company will also be looking to replace their financial software next year, and you’d be happy to ensure they get one of the first seats at the table when the time comes if they could perhaps lower the pricing on their training.

    There’s a solution to most challenges, but it takes problem-solving skills to work through them effectively.

    6. Decision-Making Ability

    Finally, having strong decision-making ability will help you seal the deal when you get to a place where everyone feels like they are getting what works for them. Each step of the way you can cross off the list when you get what you are looking for and decide to move onto the next item. Then, once you have all of your must-have boxes checked and the other side feels good about things, it’s time to shake hands and sign on the dotted line. Powerful decision-making ability will help you get to the finish line together.

    Conclusion

    There you have it, 6 effective negotiation skills to master to lead a more fulfilling life. Once we realize that we negotiate in one form or another almost every day in every phase of our lives, we realize how critical a skill it is.

    Possessing strong negotiation skills will help you in nearly every one of your relationships at both the workplace and in your personal life. If you feel your arbitration tools could use some sharpening, try some of the 6 effective negotiation skills to master that we’ve talked about.

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    Featured photo credit: Windows via unsplash.com

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