“If you don’t feel it, you won’t remember it.” Author and executive coach Bob Dickman made this provocative statement during a recent conversation, and it has stuck with me ever since. My assumption has always been that an effective argument–especially in the business world–involves a clear, logical presentation of facts delivered in a relatively engaging manner. But research shows that embedding information in the context of a story makes it more memorable and, ultimately, more powerful.
In A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink states, “Stories are easier to remember–because in many ways, stories are how we remember.” Psychologist Jerome Bruner has found that people are 20 times more likely to remember a fact if it is part of a story than not. This is one of the reasons Pink identifies “Story” as one of six aptitudes that are crucial for professional success and personal satisfaction in the world of the near future.
But framing material in terms of a dramatic plot with compelling twists and unexpected turns is only part of the picture. The other element that plays a role in making a tale “sticky” is emotion–hence Dickman’s quotable quote at the beginning of this posting. In their book, The Elements of Persuasion, Dickman and Richard Maxwell use the following definition: “A story is a fact wrapped in an emotion that compels us to take any action that transforms our world.”
Dickman and Maxwell pointed out that most Americans vividly recall when and where they were when they first heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center because it was such a shocking and painful event. (I still have a crystal-clear image in my mind of holding my infant son in our backyard and looking up at a brilliant blue sky, silent and still because all air traffic had been grounded.) Researchers have documented many of the biological and chemical processes through which strong emotion makes a memory stand out.
The tricky part, of course, is applying these principles in the hard-boiled world of organizational life. Maxwell and Dickman sum up the business case for storytelling: “Telling them [customers, colleagues, bosses] stories, and listening to theirs, is the best way to promote your products, services, and ideas. . . . Stories are the irreducible core, the fire, inside every business.” The key is that, by punctuating our talks and writing with heartfelt examples that illustrate key points, we ensure that the important messages we want to share are understood, absorbed–and unforgettable.