Telling stories that 'stick'

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Everyone knows that oral and written traditions of storytelling are the most effective ways to pass on values. The modern marketplace is no different

By Malavika Varadan, Managing Director, The Hive

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Published: Thu 15 Oct 2020, 4:00 PM

Last updated: Thu 15 Oct 2020, 6:42 PM

I watched "Inside Bill's Brain" on Netflix recently. A film about Bill Gates, and all that happens inside the brain of the world's smartest man.
They told a story of how Bill and Melinda Gates opened their newspapers up one morning and read a story written by New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof about a family who lived in Maharashtra, India. No complicated words, no graphs or statistics, no numbers and calculations - quite simply, this was a story that detailed what it was like to be poor in India. This was the story of a boy who lived by the sewage lines, had limited access to clean drinking water, whose mother would have to decide whether she would feed him and make him stronger or buy him shoes and prevent him getting hook worms.
This moved Bill and Melinda Gates. "How can children still be dying of diarrhoea?" they thought. And what was a simple one-page story became the driving force behind the Gates Foundation's focus on global health.
This got me thinking about the power of stories. In a world where information is all around us - where any fact, any piece of data is only a click away - it is still stories that truly move us enough to take action.
We tell stories every day and we consume stories all the time. Stories about why we are late to a meeting, about who we are and where we find ourselves, stories about the values we uphold, stories about what we are trying to sell, stories on social media platforms and stories in performance appraisals. If ever you should find yourself in a situation where you must convince someone of an idea in a short time - your best bet is to tell them a story.
Science tells us that the brain releases dopamine, oxytocin and cortisol when listening to stories. When you hear an emotionally engaging story, your brain releases dopamine. When you make a memory, it's cortisol that's in action and when you empathise with a character in the story, it is oxytocin that is at play. Storytelling is words and chemicals.
If you think about it, the reason that stories work is that they are sticky. You may not remember a moral, a learning or a statistical detail shared with you today a month from now - but stories are memorable, and a well-told story sticks.
Religions and mythology across the globe stand testimony to the fact that it is the oral and written tradition of storytelling that is most effective when it comes to passing on and passing down culture and values. The modern workplace or marketplace is no different.
One of the reasons that stories work so well is that they take you on an emotional journey. No more are you simply using your thinking mind to absorb information, but you are now further imprinting that into your heart with emotion.
So, how do we tell a good story? I believe it's down to a few simple tips and tricks.
1. Ask yourself why you need to tell this story in the first place. A "moral of the story", a controlling "why" is what defines the fabric of the story. For example, the story you would tell to convince someone to buy a car and the story you would tell to convince someone to buy a million-dirham car are very different.
2. Meet your listener where they are, and bring them to where the story is: As speakers, writers and storytellers, we often forget that not everyone has the same knowledge or understands the context of our story in the same way that we do. Simultaneously, over explaining what we already know is a sure way to bore your listener. The trick is to find the right setup that both sets the mood, yet doesn't give too much away.
3. Allow your listener to empathise. One of the reasons I find myself rooting for Harry Potter when he fights Voldemort is because enough time was invested in telling me just how miserable Harry's life was before he discovered magic. The more I know about your struggles, the more I want you to win.
4. The beauty is in the details. Never underestimate the power of description in transporting your audience into another world. Too often, we skip the descriptions and only tell our stories as a series of events. Think of your favourite story. Would you enjoy it as much if it were shown to you as a flowchart? Exactly why we need the details!
The next time you find yourself in a position where you have to engage someone, convince someone, or pass on a crucial value, I would suggest you use a well-crafted, sticky, detailed story.

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