Why a story beats facts every time

I’ve been reading – and been thoroughly blown away by – Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Overstory* this January.

It interweaves the stories of nine different people who become linked as a result of a natural catastrophe – it’s very much a story of our time, but I was struck by the following quote contained within.

“The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

Those two sentences seem to sum up much that’s taking place in today’s world.

The ‘story’ of climate change

As the bushfires rage in Australia, the debate about climate still doesn’t appear to have been won. In fact, the climate change deniers incredibly still seem to be making things work to their own advantage.

Which is why the quote from The Overstory resonated so much. It came hot on the heels of an excellent episode of Michael Rosen’s BBC Radio 4 programme Word of Mouth, that focusses specifically on how to best communicate the concept climate change to a wider audience and why telling the right stories about climate is the way to make people understand what’s happening.

Ultimately – and it’s a well-worn trope and one which I’ve used many times myself – it’s a story’s influence on someone’s emotions and feelings that really changes how they think.

The reason that fake news often works is because it taps into something far deeper than the plain facts. Fake news is designed to ‘push your buttons’, to arouse a strong feeling, one that will stay with you long after a specific piece of information.

Use emotion to motivate

But storyelling and feelings aren’t just used for negative purposes. They can motivate too.

Psychologist Adam Grant carried out an experiment back in 2007 (detailed in his excellent book Give and Take*), where he and his team arranged for a team of call centre workers to meet (for just 5 minutes) a scholarship student at the university who benefited from their fundraising efforts. The workers were able to hear the student’s story of her studies.

A month later, callers who had interacted with the scholarship student spent more than two times as many minutes on the phone, and brought in vastly more money.

So when you next start arguing with someone, reeling off facts in an effort to convince them of something, think about trying a different approach. Tell a story and make them ‘feel’.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”
Maya Angelou

– o O o –

* This is one of those affiliate links which means that should you decide my recommendation is worth more than a grain of salt and you buy ‘said item’, I end up earning a pittance of money in return. It costs you nothing in return, by the way.

The 10 Principles of Storytelling

I recently finished a great little book called How to tell your story so the world listens by Bobette Buster.

It’s a short, yet affecting book, looking at how we can all tell our stories better, and Bobette reduces the art of storytelling to 10 basic principles. Here are a few of them below…

1. Tell your story as If you’re telling it to a friend.

I think this is so important. Writing something so that it can be easily understood is a fundamental. You can use all the long words you like, but if your audience doesn’t get the message, you’ve failed.

2. Set the GPS

Even sci-fi has an element of reality and sets its story in a relevant context. Think time, place and context

4. Juxtapose

You want to wake your audience up and keep them interested, so putting two opposing ideas next to each other will hopefully achieve that.

5. Gleaming detail

Pick up a copy of a real-life stories magazine, such as Chat, and pay close attention to the writing. They’ll always include something small that really stands out. Like the song that was playing at a crucial moment, an item of clothing, or a a particular smell. It’s that detail that truly captures the essence of a story.

7. Be vulnerable: dare to share the emotion of your story

This comes back to the belief angle. Readers have to tap into your story and that means how you feel. Don’t be scared to ‘fess up.

10. Let go

Don’t try to overthink. If you allow your story to end where it feels it should, you’re almost definitely right. Let your audience do some thinking and wondering – it’ll make them remember your story even more.

It’s a great book and it certainly got me thinking. Definitely worth getting hold of.

Why the Breaking Bad finale broke new ground for ‘event TV’ (spoiler free)

Breaking BadAlong with tens of thousands of people in the UK, I watched the finale of Breaking Bad on Monday.

Without spoiling anything for those still working their way through earlier series, I can say that it was unanimously ackowledged to be a thoroughly satisfying ending for a popular and critically-acclaimed show.

But – in the UK at least – what made this different was how and when people watched the finale.

You see, unlike amc’s 8pm timeslot in the US, in Britain, we chose exactly when we watched it because we were using Netflix.

A new watercooler moment

Although it was shown on a cable TV network in America, you had to watch the final series in the UK via the web.

Netflix made the episode available to watch at 9am on Monday morning – and I have some friends who indulged before lunch – allowing anyone to watch it whenever they wanted.

Breaking Bad is groundbreaking because we didn’t all sit down and watch it at 9pm together, which historically was how we all experienced the end of a TV show.

In this instance, everyone made their own personal choice of starting time: be it 8.01pm, 8.46pm, 9.22pm… you get my drift. And this is the radical change that has been brought about by the way we now consume TV.

Remember Sky Plus?

The arrival of Sky Plus in the UK back in 2002 allowed us to do radical things. Quite aside from recording programmes on 2 different channels, while you watched a 3rd, you could pause live TV, set up instant series links and choose to start watching something from the beginning even before it had finished.

This was the beginning of what we now know as ‘timeshifting’ – watching TV at a time of one’s own choosing, also allowing you to skip the ad breaks.

This has become so endemic that BARB statistics from 2011 suggested that around 15% of viewing was timeshifted – a figure that is bound to have increased since.

The arrival of Netflix has moved things on again. Imagine telling someone 10 years ago, you were going to watch the most talked-about TV show “on Netflix, through your Wii”. Utter gobbledy-gook to someone in 2003, yet it emphasises how much change has occurred in a short space of time.