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To Persuade People, Tell Them a Story (wsj.com)
111 points by rubikscube on Nov 10, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 37 comments

When I started to realize the value of storytelling, I gathered a group of friends to meet regularly to improve our storytelling. I read a bunch of books on storytelling and distilled their essence into a few parts -- mainly characters, conflict, struggle, and goal, which I memorize as CCSG. All the books I read described these four elements as the most important, which my experience confirms.

I wrote a few posts on the basics of storytelling (not all independent). While no substitute for practice, observing, and reading comprehensive books, people have told me they helped improve their storytelling. Storytelling improves persuasion and a lot more.




Speaking of practice, look up http://themoth.org for great storytelling events and podcasts. The Moth is amazing. (If you search my blog you can find video of me telling stories at the Moth).

> When I started to realize the value of storytelling, I gathered a group of friends to meet regularly to improve our storytelling.

I see what you did there

But wait! There was a challenge that was overcome...

I think this also depends on the purpose and the audience of the presentation. If someone were to drift into stories of the kind described in the article (the one this thread is about) I'd get restless quickly and keep thinking "Why doesn't this person get to the point?"

I want the facts and I want them presented plainly and simply. I want to be able to go through relevant things quickly.

So, I definitely can't relate to this 'story'.

I guess I should put role playing and game mastering back on the CV... :)

Seriously though, role playing is a very efficient training and collaborative brainstorming strategy. Which is one reason why both the military and police use it as an almost exclusive training focus (exercises).

This American Life is another great source of stories: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/

> I read a bunch of books on storytelling and distilled their essence into a few parts

Care to share which books you read on storytelling? I'd love to read them.

FWIW, I've found these books really helpful*

> For non-fiction storytelling

- Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers' Guide from the Nieman Foundation, http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0452287553/ref=nosim/...

- The Art and Craft of Feature Writing: Based on The Wall Street Journal Guide, http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0452261589/ref=nosim/...

> For fiction storytelling:

- Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York's Acclaimed Creative Writing School, http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1582343306/ref=nosim/...

- The Modern Library Writer's Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction, http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0375755586/ref=nosim/...

* Disclaimer: I am a professional journalist, but I believe that the fundamentals of telling a good story are universal.

Correspondingly, when you're being told a story, bear in mind that your rational thought is essentially being compromised, because we really do have enormous reactions to stories. Our brain's reaction to stories have little to do with whether they are true, or whether they are pushing a moral or idea that is beneficial to you or anyone else.

Also, consider why religious texts prefer to resort to stories rather than analytics.

Because it's an effective means of communication? You seem to be implying a nefarious agenda that's not warranted.

I don't know whether he was suggesting a nefarious agenda, but I do get discouraged when I see people accepting something as true at least in part because it gets communicated to them with a good story. People are better than that, need to realize that the tendency to accept stories is a cognitive bias that we need to fight against. I've seen people seem to accept the truth of something that's perhaps plausible, but completely without evidence, just because it's presented with a good story. See, e.g, Kahneman's little clip on "Stories" and 'wysiati' here: http://www.inc.com/daniel-kahneman/idea-lab-personal-stories... (I think Kahneman's 'wysiati' explains how a false truth can get accepted by one person, then it gets spread b/c of the story behind it.)

>I don't know whether he was suggesting a nefarious agenda, but I do get discouraged when I see people accepting something as true at least in part because it gets communicated to them with a good story.

Not very different than when people accept something as true in part because it gets communicated to them with nice sounding numbers, stats and figures.


Some arguments/explanations are inherently operational, and do not lend themselves into stories. Take the argument of creationism vs self organization and evolution. I am pretty sure that many people still don't really understand how evolution could lead to the complex life that we are observing now, and creation by intelligent designer argument joyfully fills this mental gap. The attempts to poorly convert the evolution into a story leads to misunderstandings such as people come from apes, or worse that evolution has a goal and humans are at the apex, or yet worse that some people are just less than others.

Nope. See my comment above.

The question is why story telling often works so well. This wsj.com article answers it: it's about emotion.

It's important to evoke emotion in your story. To be able to evoke emotion, you must do your homework. You must learn what makes your audience tick. What do they care about. Create a story that hooks into their world. You need to create a bridge between their and your world.

Maybe I myself don't have a story to tell right now, but I want to say that I believe that emotion is vital. Much of my guidance and initial decision making is often based on (gut) feeling. My emotions tell me that I'm not on the right track, forcing me to think and reason why I feel this way and figure the reasons out cognitively.

Narrative, it's all about the narrative!

As an educator, I don't teach the book, I don't teach the chapter, I don't teach the lesson. Because that's not what you remember. What you remember is the story. It's about big stories, small stories, stories that link together in a narrative. That's what sticks.

Before humans learned to write, and before the scientific method, stories and songs were the method that knowledge was passed on from generation to generation. Memorization was the storage medium, and since there was no controlled experimentation, that knowledge was always of the form "Once, X happened, and then Y happened."--in other words, a story.

Thus, humans evolved to hook into storytelling very readily--especially aural storytelling. This American Life is perhaps the best example of this medium.

In one of the 'Science of Discworld' books, there's a half-joking suggestion that the human species should be called Pan narrans - the storytelling chimpanzee - instead of Homo sapiens, because of how important stories are to us.

This is very evident when you start watching TED Talks.

Nearly every single one starts with a personal story, which probably means they are trained to use this technique.

I love TED talks as well, and like everyone most talks leave me with a whoa! But TED talks aren't a good model to emulate for formal presentations. It's great if you have an awesome punchline with a jaw dropping assertion, but most presentations don't. Just think about it how much of the details from the TED talks you have watched do you really remmember. That's not what TED talks are for. They are meant to push the viewers into deeper self research by attracting them with just a tiny dose of hyperbole.

And frankly most day-to-day presentations and even most pitches understandably don't have something jaw-dropping to talk about, or else they would attract a TED talk, no? If you're giving a pitch, chances are you have to convince the investor/audience with an almost complete narrative. Having a story framework is useful, but it has to have enough information that backs your assertions, which is not true for a TED talk. Data is important, but the art is in the way you present them. Having no data might point that you don't have a strong case, or just didn't care. So have one or two convincing data representations.

And slides are important, to help you say what you wont be able to say verbally and the second to guide the audience about the structure of your presentation. Most people aren't great story tellers. It's an art which few can be trained in. In those cases you need to use your slides to complement what you are saying and keep the audience engaged.

I find many TED talks creepy.

That's the key to the "Robin Hood Morality Test":


(Read the disclaimer on the website, and also this one here: It's not a real test, it's just a neat idea that sometimes gives insightful answers)

It's a TEDx link. Which I knew before I clicked it, because this stuff is 'gefundenes Fressen' for that crowd.


I only realized this truth within the past couple of months. It has absolutely transformed the way I communicate not only with groups of people but also with individuals. I think framing advice in stories based on personal experience causes people to be much more receptive once you provide a call to action.

I think this "tell a story" has been extremely generalized, it will work in some cases, it won't in some other cases. Stories are good to get attention and for entertainment (blogs/seminars/presentations), but there are not too many who are able to sell their product just on the basis of story. Telling stories is nice as long as you have something solid to back it up.

we noticed a sharp improvement in our sales process when we introduced detailed case studies into our marketing literature.

It is through storytelling that we teach children to read, write, think and learn. All of us owe our education to storytelling and I don't know what it is that makes people suddenly think storytelling is the new big thing.

Careful though, it is important to distinguish between storytelling about actual figures versus fictional or fantasy figures: Overall, children were more likely to solve the problem when it was told about a real child than when it was told about a fantasy character [1].


Truth/facts in a engaging or engrossing way is the key.

If you tell a story which is not true i.e if you gas around, you loose credibility. True story gives credibility and BS would put the other person off totally, so be careful.

I remember reading about this in Paul Smith's 'Lead with a Story' book. It genuinely makes a lot of difference to make people listen to you.

Great, now everyone in sillicon valley will pitch by awkwardly telling a story. But it's still less pathetic than the Steve Jobs imitators.

OTOH, whenever somebody tries to tell me a story, I know (s)he's selling something and automatically get turned off.

I suspect that the story trick (as all tricks that appeal to anything other than critical thinking) will backfire soon enough.

Would appreciate a comment from whoever down-voted. I recognize/appreciate the effectiveness/power of story telling, especially to convey intangibles/teachings. I (maybe others too) just have an aversion to the story telling in politics and commercial products.

I wrote an article on story telling too. http://blog.krmmalik.com/its-the-story-you-tell-not-the-prod...

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