In my last newsletter I spoke once more about storytelling. After that some conversations started and one of them was “but that’s a marketing thing”, whatever that means. In other words, storytelling is good for marketers, for selling something and general communication, but if stuff gets serious…
Well, that’s not true, one of the fundamental reasons why storytelling is effective is that it is the way we learn things since ancient times.
As a coincidence I am reading a fantastic book by Daniel Kahneman titled Thinking Fast and Slow. It talks about our brain works and the underlying processes at the roots of our decision making. The author identifies two conceptual blocks in our brain, naming them System 1 and System 2. A simpler explanation is that the former represent our unconscious mind and the latter the conscious one.
On page 28 of the book Kahneman writes: “The use of such language is considered a sin in the professional circles in which I travel because it seems to explain the thoughts and actions of a person by the thoughts and actions of little people inside the person’s head”. On the next page he explains why he is using System 1 and 2 as characters: “A sentence is understood more easily if it describes what an agent does than if it describes what something is, what properties it has”. And then: “The mind – especially System 1 – appears to have a special aptitude for the construction and interpretation of stories about active agents, who have personalities, habits and abilities”. In other words it’s easier for us to understand and memorise concepts if they are expressed as an interaction between subjects, albeit imaginary, rather than a more abstract representation even if this one is closer to reality.
Without dumbing down we can say that is preferable to convey ideas as the storytelling of something happening to somebody. In other words we should try to encapsulate information in a story even when is scientific publication, as is in Thinking Fast and Slow.
What if you don’t do scientific publication?
Let’s go back to our initial assumption, if storytelling is effective only for a specific communication. It’s evidently not like that, because its efficacy lies not in the topic covered but in the way our brain works and it absorbs concepts.
Even if you are not dealing with science it could be that you have to deliver technical presentation, or similar contexts, where you may be lead to believe that storytelling may not be appropriate. It is not true. Using stories is not reducing the importance of your talk or bringing it down to pub talk. Rather it means shaping your content in a way is more accessible and digestible by your audience. Furthermore stories are more mnemonic, they are easier to remember. An important aim of every speakers, we don’t talk before a group so that they can easily forget our ideas!