Once upon a time, a caveman named Brad was out hunting with his buddy, another caveman named Craig. They'd been out a few days targeting wooly mammoths and were getting pretty hungry.
"Brad, I'm starving, and these look super tasty," said Craig, pointing to the mushrooms on the ground. He bent over, picked a few, brushed off the dirt, and munched on them happily.
"Yummy!" said Craig. It would be the last word he would ever speak.
Within minutes Craig was dead, by way of a most gruesome, painful, and upsetting process that Brad witnessed firsthand. After the shock and sadness subsided, Brad shuddered with fear. What if his children made the same mistake? The thought of it alone was enough to send him racing back to the village to warn them.
Upon his return, Brad described his friend's unfortunate death in explicit detail, showing his family and his tribe samples of the deadly mushrooms he collected to make his point. He stressed to his tribe and especially to his children, NEVER EAT THESE MUSHROOMS. And from then on, no one in the tribe died from eating those mushrooms.
In short, Brad told a story. And I'm telling you a story right now. And I'lI bet I had you listening from the moment you read "once upon a time." Brad's deadly mushroom samples were a form of data that helped make his teachings more effective, but they weren't the story. The unfortunate and gruesome death of Craig was the story, and when combined with the mushroom samples, the village was informed AND compelled enough by Brad's story to avoid that kind of mushroom ever after - the action he wanted them to take.
Recent neuroscience has shown that compelling readers to pay attention and take action after being inspired with narrative isn't magic or witchcraft. We can all use that science in our daily lives to help our audiences understand and be compelled by our data analysis so they will take the actions needed to affect the situation they're in.
Even YOUR Boss (Client, Prospect, Investor, Dad) is Hardwired For Story
Since long before the time of caveman Brad and the unfortunate Craig, storytelling has been baked into our DNA. PowerPoint, on the other hand, is only 30 years old. Charts and Graphs weren’t in common usage until about the same time. We need to use those tools, but when you don’t use stories with them, you’re fighting millennia of evolution in the mind.
In other words, no matter how “objective” or engineering-focused your audience, no matter how linear or data driven they seem to be, everyone in your company has the DNA to respond to stories. After all, the average American spends FIVE hours a day engaging with stories. This isn’t just television and movies and books, it’s the way they read about their friends on Facebook, or follow a story in the news media. Pro wrestling tells stories about its performers to excite the audience, the Olympics has backstories, and defense attorneys weave tales to help their clients. Presidential candidates say “Yes We Can” or “Make America Great Again” - and our brains respond.
We are all awash in stories every day of our lives. Let’s say your target audience avoids ALL media. They’re STILL storytelling. Two-Thirds of our day is spent in a fantasy or reverie of some kind, for example:
“What would it feel like if I punched that bad driver?”
“If I had a million dollars. . . “
"I wish I hadn't said that to my friend."
“What would it be like to have sex with that person?”
“I hope my mom’s test results come back ok. “
We can’t help it. That’s how we’re made.
Ask yourself, what does every single toddler do once they are able to talk? They start making up stories. They ask why. They beg to hear stories.
Now that you understand how everyone is a sophisticated consumer of stories, here’s why and how stories that engage us help our work, especially those of us who have to tell stories with data:
Experiments show that character-driven stories with emotional content result in a better understanding of the key points a speaker wishes to make and enable better recall of these points weeks later. Human narratives with tension increase oxytocin, and that oxytocin makes it more likely people will work together to find solutions to problems. Exactly what we’re hoping for when we present all that data, right?
Our brains are especially receptive to stories where a hero struggles with adversity and is able to overcome. This is a great tactic to use when discussing customers, or even your own mission. When others empathize with our subject, they feel the pleasure of seeing them resolve the conflict, especially if the person had to be a hero either by struggling or by getting extraordinary joy.
Despite the tech industry’s belief that data is objective, science shows people who lack the ability to process emotions can’t make decisions. Emotion actually plays an essential role in helping our brains to navigate the alternatives and arrive at a timely decision.
Donations to Save The Children more than doubled when using a story vs data alone; combining the two didn’t improve the data-only version’s performance as much as the story-only version.
Researchers also discovered people enter into a trance-like state, where they drop their intellectual guard and are less critical and skeptical. Rather than nitpicking over the details, the audience wants to see where the story leads them. As mathematician John Allen Paulos observed, “In listening to stories we tend to suspend disbelief in order to be entertained, whereas in evaluating statistics we generally have an opposite inclination to suspend belief in order not to be beguiled.”
Study after study shows that fictional stories are a form of “empathy gym” that make us better able to change our behavior, from becoming less homophobic by watching “Ellen” to taking action on climate change after watching “An Inconvenient Truth”
I’ll be speaking about how to apply this information to data presentations on June 28th, at the B2B Growth Conference in San Francisco. I hope to see you there, but if not, watch this blog for details on how to apply this knowledge in your presentations.