Oct 9, 2010

Stories: They Take You There

Stories are told and retold because they have wisdom, the Heath brothers tell us in this week’s book club chapter of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. This week we talk about using stories as a teaching tool—as a way to make our message stick.

This past week, some of us from TheHighCalling have been sharing our stories about the time we spent together at Laity Lodge in Texas. It’s our hope that the sharing of these stories will make our message real to you. We believe in the power of community to transform lives. As we go through the growing pains of moving this community to a new space, the story of our relationship with you is more important to us than ever. We are glad you are walking through this transition with us, adding another chapter to our story.

So, what’s the big deal with stories?

The Un-Passive Audience

Research by psychologists indicates that when hearing a story, rather than simply visualizing it, people simulate it. When they read a story about a man named John and his sweatshirt, different groups of people took different amounts of time to read the story, based on where John put the sweatshirt.

…we create a kind of geographic simulation of the stories we hear. It’s one thing to say “Reading stories makes us see pictures in our head.” We’d all find that statement intuitive. It’s quite another thing to say that when John left his sweatshirt behind, he left it back at the house in a more remote place in our heads. For that to be true, we cannot simply visualize the story on a movie screen in our heads; we must somehow simulate it, complete with some analogue (however loose) to the spatial relationships described in the story. These studies suggest there’s no such thing as a passive audience. When we hear a story, our minds move from room to room…

When we hear a story, we are not listening passively. We are moving through the story beside the characters. We are mentally simulating the story.

But what does this mean in our context of sticky messages?

A Flight Simulator for the Brain

Heath and Heath say that stories are like flight simulators for the brain. The right kind of story, they say, can trigger simulation.

A story is powerful because it provides the context missing from abstract prose. It’s back to the Velcro theory of memory, the idea that the more hooks we put into our ideas, the better they’ll stick…This is the role that stories play—putting knowledge into a framework that is more lifelike, more true to our day-to-day existence. More like a flight simulator. Being the audience for a story isn’t so passive, after all. Inside, we’re getting ready to act.

So stories are a powerful way to create more hooks for our ideas. But how do we know what kind of story will hook our listeners?

We have to learn the templates that make up a great story, the Heath brothers say.

The Art of Spotting

There are sticky stories all around us. The trick is to spot them. The Heath brothers tell us that there are story templates that have been proven effective. Learning these templates can help us to be on the lookout for sticky stories.

The Challenge Plot

The Challenge plot is the underdog story—the protagonist overcomes what seems to be insurmountable obstacles. Subway’s spokesman Jared Fogle is a good example of a challenge plot. Jared lost 180 pounds by eating Subway sandwiches. When Subway executives spotted this story they hit upon an advertising goldmine.

Challenge plots inspire us by appealing to our perseverance and courage, say the authors.

They make us want to work harder, take on new challenges, overcome obstacles…Challenge plots inspire us to act.

The Connection Plot

Connection plots are about relationships—especially relationships developed between unlikely characters. Think the story of the Good Samaritan here.

…All Connection plots inspire us in social ways. They make us want to help others, be more tolerant of others, work with others, love others…

The Creativity Plot

This type of plot inspires us to be creative, try a different approach, or experiment.

The Creativity plot involves someone making a mental breakthrough, solving a long-standing puzzle, or attacking a problem in an innovative way. It’s the MacGyver plot.

If we learn to be on the lookout for stories that utilize these different plots we will be ahead of the game in the sticky business.

The Power of Story

The Heath brothers conclude by telling us that if we can find the right story, we may have found the key to incorporating all the qualities of a sticky message.

Stories can almost single-handedly defeat the Curse of Knowledge. In fact, they naturally embody most of the SUCCESSs framework. Stories are almost always Concrete. Most of them have Emotional and Unexpected elements. The hardest part of using stories effectively is making sure that they’re Simple—that they reflect your core message. It’s not enough to tell a great story; the story has to reflect your agenda…

The moral of the—er—story?  Hone your storytelling skills, friend. Start collecting those sticky plot tales. The right story might just have all the characteristics of a sticky message wrapped up in a neat little package.

Next week we discuss the Epilogue: Sticky Advice. And one more chapter after that. Thanks for joining us.

Photo by ELK, used with permission. Post by Laura Boggess.

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