Andy Goodman’s story: The importance of communicating through storytelling

February 17, 2010 | By | 4 Replies More

A few weeks ago, I attended the True Spin Conference in Denver.  There were plenty of thoughtful presenters, but my favorite was Andy Goodman, author of a blog called Free Range Journal. Andy has latched onto an extraordinarily powerful theme: Telling stories is the most powerful communication tool there is.  Andy earns his living by teaching people how to convey the purposes and functions of their organizations by telling stories.  Over the years, he has assembled an impressive repertoire of ideas all based on the power of story telling.

To be sure, the importance of telling stories has been recognized by numerous other people, including several other speakers at True Spin.  It is often claimed that through story-telling, one frames one’s message in a way that makes it memorable.  It is also widely recognized that communicating through story-telling allows one to package arguments in such a way that they look like mere information rather than lecturing.  How powerful is story telling?  Consider this quote:

“If you can control a nation’s stories, you need not worry about who writes the nation’s laws.”

The author of this intriguing idea was Adolf Hitler.

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Andy Goodman (Photo by Erich Vieth)

Building upon an entertaining blend of common sense and cognitive science, Andy Goodman takes story-telling to new heights.  He has worked hard to become quite a storyteller about storytelling. In this post, I will recap some of the ideas he presented during his keynote talk.

According to Andy, we all want to tell the truth, but in order to do this, we first need an operative definition for “truth” in order to give ourselves focus. “The truth isn’t just what happened, but how we felt about it when it happened and how we feel about it now.”  As you might imagine, Andy has little patience for the dry presentations of facts that we often find on the websites of do-gooder organizations.  For an example, take a look at this jargon-laden blurb offered by the American Cancer Society:

The American Cancer Society’s international mission concentrates on capacity building in developing cancer societies and on collaboration with other cancer-related organizations throughout the world in carrying out shared strategic directions.

This is not an unusual example.  As part of his presentation, Goodman displayed the websites of several of the organizations in attendance at True Spin, pointing out the bureaucratese.  This tactic drew a mixture of embarrassed groans (by those belonging to the organizations responsible for the websites) and nervous chuckles (by those who worried that their own websites would be featured next).  He warned that those who run organizations must be careful to not allow “mission-speak get in the way of your mission.”

What is the alternative to presenting dry “factual” information?  As you might expect, the solution involves a conscious and careful use of narrative–storytelling. Narrative is so incredibly powerful because it sets forth our history, our identity, how are remember, why we give, and to whom we give.  These emotionally charged ideas don’t readily sink in without the use of stories.  In fact, without the power to tell its own stories, a culture has no opportunity to “grow up.” Goodman made reference to the children’s classic, Peter Pan, asking the audience why Peter didn’t grow up.  According to the story, Peter’s answer was, “I don’t know any stories.”

As we grow up to become adults, most of us stop telling stories.  Becoming a grown-up in modern culture too often means that we are taught to communicate with technical jargon in order to be “serious.” It is a travesty that so many of us get caught up like this.  We are told to be more like “adults” and this is a shame because our stories effectively tell others (and ourselves) who we actually are.

Stories allow us to remember who we are.  Andy strongly suggested this exercise:  Take the time to brainstorm to come up with a list the top ten stories you commonly tell about yourself.  For example, consider stories such as the “How we met” story and the “Why I do what I do” story.  Each of us has lots of stories that we could tell, but we self-filter mostof our own stories because others don’t usually want to take the time to hear them.  What we are left with are the stories we DO tell, and the aggregate of those stories is “YOU,” your identity.  Storytelling gets to our personal core so well that some therapists have even developed “narrative therapy” because their patients “are trapped in that stories.”

It seems that we are biologically programmed to utilize storytelling as a memory enhancing technique. Goodman described a study involving five-year-olds who were asked to remember random-paired items either with or without an attempt to use narrative. Using only bare memory, the five-year-old children remembered an average of only one out of twenty-one random pairs.  When they were asked to create a sentence that used both of the items of the random pair (prior to the recall phase), they remembered 16 of the 21 random pairs.  Andy’s point was that humans appear to be biologically rigged to store and retrieve information in the form of stories.

The bottom line:

  • Numbers numb.
  • Jargon jars.
  • Stories stick.

Therefore, if you want people to remember your facts, don’t talk at them.  Instead, tell them a story. This is why advertisers so often ask questions to the viewers during commercials—asking the questions provoked an internal memory-embedding narrative response.  Andy cited another study indicating that telling a story about a particularly desperate little girl doubled the amount the average person contributed to the cause (compared to a version of the charity page that only cited statistics regarding the problem.

What are the time-tested elements of stories? They include details, emotion, truth and meaning. Typically, the protagonist encounters an inciting incident, faces barriers (this adds tension and causes the audience to ask “what happened next?), and then resolves the situation (but the story might not resolve in a satisfying way).

With regard to organizations, Andy presented a storytelling alternative for organizations.   This approach will help organizations avoid falling into the jargon trap.  Step one is to identify the organization’s “core stories,” and to make sure every staff member knows these stories by heart.  The story should concern each of the following:

1. Stories illustrating the nature of the organizations challenge. Why does our organization exist? Why does the world need us?  Tell me about “someone in pain.”  These stories need to be told about particular people, “because organizations themselves have no memorable aspect, and human beings “can only relate to human conditions.”

2. How did we get started?  This should be the organizations “creation story.”

3. List some emblematic success stories. Tell stories about how your organization stands out from the others.

4. Tell performance stories. Tell stories about the remarkable people who work for you; these are stories to show that your people are living your values.

5. The striving-to-improve story. Have the courage to tell stories about how you sometimes screwed up, but you learned from it.

6. The where-we-are-going story. Tell stories about what the world will look like if we keep at it and do a good job.

In reaction to a question from an audience member, Andy offered the caveat that “You can’t tell a story in 140 characters or less.”   In response to another audience question, He warned that when making a charity webpage, one needs to avoid presentations that appear (even unintentionally) to exploit victims, because people are “inured to this technique.”

Andy offers his ideas on the power of story-telling in his monthly newsletter. Consider this sample newsletter, where Andy offers straightforward suggestions on how to tell your stories effectively using website videos (this is a clickable pdf).

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Category: advertising, Communication

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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