We all know that people respond better to stories than to abstract ideas. But that knowledge doesn't change our behavior. We still tend to tackle complex and abstract stories with yet more conceptual thinking. Why is that?
Let me start with a story. One of the ideas that I have been championing recently is the concept of "Knowledge Stewardship." I was asked to give a TED-style talk about the idea and began preparing my presentation. I had definitions and diagrams galore, but what I didn't have was a powerful story that highlighted what stewarding knowledge looked like. That was until I decided to use a 60 Minutes story about Father Patrick Desbois; a man driven to document the mass graves of the Holocaust.
He was a powerful example of a man stewarding knowledge for the benefit of humanity. So my preparation moved away from generic concepts and centered on what Father Desbois set about to do and what it looked like for him to act as a steward if this important information. And people responded to his story. Instead of this abstract concept, they could related to Father Desbois and what he was striving to do. Then they could apply it in their own lives and identify where they had the opportunity to be knowledge stewards.
So back to our question. Why did I start with the abstract rather than immediately turn to a story? Well, part of it is that I am a big-picture thinker that likes abstract ideas. But it is more than that. I think that most ideas come to us in fuzzy, generic forms. Whether it is retirement savings, weather patterns, marketing strategies or philosophy, we receive generic and broad ideas because it is easier to over-simplify rather than push through the complexity to a profound simplicity.
Yes, it comes down to intellectual laziness. We don't do the hard work to make it personal, simple and compelling. We figure that the other person will do the work if they want the information badly enough.
But in today's information saturated world, we figure wrong. Unless they are particularly driven, people who receive our fuzzy, over-simplified ideas will simply let them hang out there like the wash on an old-fashioned clothes line. "Let someone else bring in those clothes," they will say.
That is why Jeff Bezos and others have moved from traditional bullet point presentations to narrative style communication. They realize that the bullet points will fly by and little will stick. But a story goes deep within us and has the chance to really change our thinking unlike any propositional quip.
While the point about narrative sticking gets all the attention. I think the main reason a story is a more powerful method of communication is that stories about real people, situations and scenarios are immediately concrete. A person does something and things happen to them. There is a clarity to a story that gets quickly lost when we bring out the Venn Diagrams.
Recently, I put on an online event called Innovation In Mission. The focus of the event was the process of developing a culture of innovation in organizations. As I designed the event, I realized that we couldn't make it all concepts and theory. So we designed it to be rich with narrative. Our Keynote speaker integrated examples of innovations. I presented an analysis of Fast Companies' 50 Most Innovative Companies; using real companies and their stories as the centerpiece of the talk. Then we had an interview with an author of an innovation book who shared stories in a conversational approach. Instead of a focus on models, tips and steps, we kept people engaged as they worked through how these stories related to their life and work.
So here is my challenge to you. Next time you present information, start with a story and allow that story to bring your ideas into sharp perspective.