Speak in Stories

I still remember the first time a girl I liked passed me a note in high school. We were in math class. I can still see our seats at the front of the room near the teacher's desk. I have a vivid memory of what the students around us were doing at that moment. One thing I don't remember is what the lesson was that day. In fact, I don't remember almost any trigonometry at all. This is a common human story and it teaches us about memory. It also teaches us why I'm so bad at math.

Studies have shown that emotion is critical to memory. Given two stories with the same facts, we remember the more emotionally evocative story far longer. One thing that's amazing is that memory isn't zero sum. If we heard ten good stories today we could remember them all better than we would remember even one list of facts.

Organizations succeed or fail depending on the skill with which their people communicate. As teams scale, communication modes start to fail. Pairwise conversation is the first to fail as it requires quadratic connectivity and there are only so many hours in the day. Broadcast channels become noisy and irrelevant. This is why large organizations are full of people who spend all day in meetings. Managing the transfer of information is a full time job.

How can any individual hope to have an impact beyond their immediate scope if information flow is so mediated? One popular option is to become one of the mediators. If sitting in meetings is your life's ambition then that’s a pretty good option. For many this choice will reduce their happiness even if it does grow their influence.

There is a better option. We can make our information rise above the noise around it. What people hear is important. What they remember is more important. What they can repeat to others is most important of all.

Too often we present our work as a series of facts. The sad truth is that most humans are bad at remembering facts. When our audience is in a related conversation days later the data we shared isn't likely to be top of mind anymore. Our impact remains localized.

But humans are amazing at remembering stories. We are suckers for anything with narrative context, dramatic tension, and a satisfying or poignant resolution. I motivated this post with the importance of communication. I introduced tension between the transfer of information and the growth of an organization. And I’ve resolved it by suggesting you tell stories of your own. It also helps that I opened with an anecdote and at least took a shot at a joke.

The good news if you want to learn about storytelling is that there are examples of it all around you. Marketers earn their living telling stories and you can judge for yourself which are effective. Techniques like catchy sound bites and repetition work on the same principles as storytelling: they make a message memorable. What memorable stories have you heard recently?

To be clear, this is not an invitation to exaggerate the truth. Putting too much polish on a presentation is as likely to make it insincere as it is memorable. I’m just saying that style becomes a meaningful part of substance as organizations scale. The next time you talk to someone you need to think about how to make your story stick. If they can't tell someone else the same story later with high fidelity then you’ve probably missed the mark.