To be Remembered, Tell a Story and Forgo the Numbers

By Vladimir Shvorin

Written by Stanford professor Chip Heath and his equally accomplished brother Dan Heath, “Made to Stick” looks at the factors that influence whether an idea will flourish or vanish into irrelevance. One of the stories the authors shared recounts an event where a sampling of Stanford students were asked to recall speeches following a short waiting period — about 10 minutes long in this case. Of the students in question, about 5 percent were able to recall any statistic mentioned in a given speech. In contrast, when the speaker elected to tell a story, 63 percent of students were able to remember it.

Allegoric examples of the power of stories are everywhere. Asked to recite the last memorable story you heard, you’d likely only have to jog your memory briefly. Apply that same standard to statistics and you’re likely to get a lengthier span.

Statistics don’t lie. But they can be used to tell a story that suits an agenda. Why not take a more direct route and make your agenda transparent? Tell the story that you want to tell.

The case for storytelling isn’t limited to the written word, either. As the experiment involving the Stanford student conveys, presenters can clearly benefit, too. The simplicity of storytelling makes it easy to pepper a presentation with a metaphor or two, or perhaps share an experience. Ditto for your writing. These options allow you to disseminate your message by harnessing the principles that make stories effective and irresistible to audiences.

The fault in our statistics

A statistic is a cold truth of sorts. Few people will ever bemoan the fact that there aren’t more statistics in the world. The human condition, as I understand it, simply prevents them from doing it. People prefer the warmth of a good story. If you’ll excuse the generalities to come (as well as the ones that led us here), it’s important that we cover the wondrous potential a story has. For example, why not use stories to simplify complex concepts? The two are often kept separate, likely because statistics are the de facto choice when dealing with anything that requires an appendix or a lengthy catalog of citations. When you consider the way your audience is likely to perceive your information, it simply makes sense to tell a story.

What if I told you that, to some, crunching numbers is tantamount to a physically painful experience. That’s exactly what was discovered in a study conducted by Sian Beilock and a team from the University of Chicago. Brain scans of people that were averse to math (a phenomenon known as “math anxiety”) showed that the study participants’ responses overlapped with the area of the brain that’s associated with bodily harm. Needless to say, if you resort to using statistics or worse yet — arithmetic — you’re going to instantly disillusion a portion of your audience.

Using stories to your advantage

If you have something to gain from your audience buying into your message, and you can safely assume that your audience will be wary of you or your sales pitch, then there’s an important lesson here for you. Storytelling can be highly persuasive.

Here’s a quote on persuasion from Robert McKee, a screenwriter and lecturer whose students have gone on to amass countless accolades for contributing to titles such as “Forrest Gump,” “Erin Brockovich,” “The Color Purple” and many others:

“There are two ways to persuade people,” McKee begins. “The first is by using conventional rhetoric, which is what most executives are trained in. It’s an intellectual process, and in the business world it usually consists of a PowerPoint slide presentation in which you say, ‘Here is our company’s biggest challenge, and here is what we need to do to prosper.’ And you build your case by giving statistics and facts and quotes from authorities. But there are two problems with rhetoric. First, the people you’re talking to have their own set of authorities, statistics, and experiences. While you’re trying to persuade them, they are arguing with you in their heads. Second, if you do succeed in persuading them, you’ve done so only on an intellectual basis. That’s not good enough, because people are not inspired to act by reason alone. The other way to persuade people — and ultimately a much more powerful way — is by uniting an idea with an emotion.”

And how do you suppose one unites ideas with emotions? You guessed it: storytelling.

Personally and professionally, I innately find myself gravitating toward stories, whether I’m speaking or listening. There’s no denying or escaping the fundamental allure of a good story. And therein is the lesson; master the art of storytelling and your audience will become a willing passenger en route to the destination of your choosing.