This Post Will Make You Rethink Your Ambivalence for Storytelling

Photo by Annie Spratt

Are you sick of hearing about storytelling yet? Isn’t it all about sad faces of puppies and how a $1 a day can save all of them? What about the data, the real proof of making a difference?

I grew up in a logic-minded household. If A > B and B > C, then A > C. These are useful skills and many nonprofits are excelling at them daily. However, during my 15+ years in the product design world, my logical brain was forced to flip back and forth between logic – part A needs to fit into part B – and appealing to people’s emotional desires. You don’t need a soft touch razor blade, but doesn’t it feel so much nicer to hold? During this time, I began to see that there is a time for logic and a time for emotional appeal. Whether we like it or not, humans are emotion animals and good stories stick in our brains. Good stories can overwrite logical appeals, be passed on, and create change.

I’m writing these thoughts as a mash-up of a few books I have read recently, Made to Stick, Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, by Chip and Dan Heath and The Storytelling Animal, How Stories Make Us Human, by Jonathan Gottschall, as well as Vu Le’s recent post We Need Fewer Theories of Change and More Community Organizing. What I took broadly from Vu Le’s article relative to my work and these books is that nonprofits need to find a better balance between the logic and emotional if they want to engage people in meaningful ways.

‘The Storytelling Animal’ made it very clear to me with this visualization;

“Imagine that there are just two human tribes living side by side in some African valley. They are competing for the same finite resources: one tribe will gradually die off, and the other will inherit the earth. One tribe is called the Practical People and one is called the Story People.”

I could go on about what each of the groups do - one logically hunts and prepares for the next day, the other builds passion and fear to motivate the group - but it only took me that line to realize that the Story People are us. Logic will only get us so far, emotions allow us to thrive.

So what does it take to tell a good story? According to Chip and Dan Heath, a good story is made up of many of the 7 Made to Stick elements. It is concrete, unexpected, and emotional. You can’t just synthesize a story’s lessons and share them with people, such as ‘do good to others’, they need to experience the ups and downs of the story themselves.

According to storyteller, Randy Olson, stories fit an ‘And, But, and Therefore’ template that adds suspense (the But…) and conclusions (the Therefore…). For example, a hypothetical museum may have the world’s greatest sugary treats collection, so how might they tell a quick story about a new interactive exhibit?

We have everything - gobstoppers, lemonheads, and lollipops. But, when we spoke to visitors we heard that looking at candy wasn’t enough, Therefore we are adding a new interactive cotton candy exhibit so you can understand how candy is made, make your own, and eat it!

I believe the thing for us logically minded people to remember with data vs. storytelling, is that there is a time and place for each. It is great to have the facts to measure positive change and improve your impacts - but don’t bore the general population with them. They want to know what really matters and the hurdles you have overcome, they want to hear your stories.