If we think “Story” is a passing fad we can ignore, we haven’t just lost the plot. We never grasped it in the first place.
Two days ago, a colleague of mine sent me a video of a communications consultant describing the four basic communication preferences that make us different. The idea was a useful spin off Myers Briggs and it was well presented – clear, simple, engaging and memorable. One part of the consultant’s message bothered me though because it was flat out wrong. It’s also something I have been hearing over and over for the more than 10 years that I have been working in storytelling and communications. The communications consultant in the video told his listeners that for one communication preference, the analyzer, telling stories was a waste of time because the analyzer wants data and facts and hard evidence. The consultant smirked a little as he dismissed story as a useless tool in this case, something you can just set aside and save for your listeners who prefer stories, your listeners who aren’t analyzers.
Now if you know Myers Briggs and are certified in that assessment, you might be thinking, “That’s not wrong! That’s exactly what MBTI tells us. We are either feelers or thinkers. We are either intuitive or judging when it comes to making decisions.” Sure, okay, but Carl Jung called these preferences. Does having a preference mean a good sized number of us don’t use or appreciate story? Not at all. In fact, exactly the opposite.
When I went to Journalism school I learned to gather up data, facts, and evidence and turn all of that information into a readable story. Not for one or two communication preferences, but for all of them. I wasn’t writing for my intuitive feelers, I was writing for human beings. Gathering up data and facts, deciding which pieces to pay attention to, and creating a story to pull those pieces together into something understandable and usable is what human beings do all day long. From the moment you open your eyes in the morning to the moment you close them at night, your brain is using emotional markers, reasoning and interpretation to select what you pay attention to, and how to use what you’ve selected. There are so many parts of the brain that automatically kick in to make this work. Just to scratch the surface, your limbic system lets you feel good or bad or indifferent about things, your prefontal cortext does the sophisticated work of making meaningful connections between data points, your perception centers perform nothing short of sheer magic by not only allowing you to see and ignore what is right in front of you, but also allowing you to see what isn’t there, to imagine a story that hasn’t happened yet. All of these functions and more help humans to create stories about their world and, ultimately, to select and interpret, make decisions, and to communicate in a coherent way. Without this selection and interpretation, your brain would literally be overwhelmed by everything around you and all of the possible data points, and you would be paralyzed. Unable to make a decision and, as a result, to function.
And all of that selection and interpretation is storytelling. Humans have been using storytelling since we first dipped our hand in cherry juice to paint a buffalo on a rock cave wall. You don’t erase an entire physiological system for understanding our natural world just because you like spreadsheets and studied engineering in school.
So why did the consultant get it wrong? And why do so many people misuse the word “story” and, as a result, fail to use it to its full effect in business? The problem, I believe, is how we are interpreting the word “story.” The problem is literally the story we are telling about this storytelling function. Storytelling, in the version we sometimes tell ourselves, is when we stand in front of an audience, or sit at the boardroom table, or look the person we’re speaking to in the eye and say, “Once upon a time…” and we tell a little story about ourselves to highlight a point, or get a laugh, or give an example. Yes, these are stories but they are only one example of storytelling and I believe if we keep thinking of storytelling in those narrow terms, we will fail to use storytelling to full effect in our businesses. We’ll tell ourselves that storytelling is “something marketing does,” or “not useful in REAL business presentations” or, fatally worse, “not what our technical audience wants.”
Storytelling isn’t a jar sitting on the corner of your desk that you can reach into when the mood strikes, or when the situation calls for it. That analogy implies that you can choose NOT to reach into that jar, that you can leave story out of your presentation, or your meeting, or your sales call that day. This simply isn’t true. Whether you consciously decide to use storytelling or not, it is already happening in every communication scenario you’re in.
When you’re presenting data, your audience – and yes, even your analyzers! – are telling an internal story about your data so they can understand it. That story is influenced by their past experiences, by what they expected to see in your presentation and by their current needs and goals. And that story could be very different than the one you believe you are telling. When you’re in conversation with someone who disagrees with you, they could be dismissing your evidence out of hand if that evidence doesn’t support their internal story about what they believe about the world. When you’re pitching your latest product by listing features to your would-be client, they are interpreting that vague marketing language in ways you might never guess. Because their story is different. And because you are not acknowledging and working with a good understanding of story, you may end any of these scenarios never knowing what went wrong.
Carl Jung helped us understand why some people will happily pore over spreadsheets while others want to poke their eye out after only a few minutes. He helped us understand why some of us will do most of the talking in the meeting while others quietly observe. But all of Jung’s people are using storytelling to understand, interpret and take action in the world around them.
Story isn’t just “Once upon a time…”. It’s a structure. It’s a way of organizing the data points you have selected to communicate so your listener can more easily absorb, interpret and use those data points to make decisions. Story devices help to make your message have clarity and impact, when you understand how to use them. Learning about story and structure and devices can help you spot shallow ideas, shaky evidence, or outright lies.
There is no jar. Story has spilled onto the desk, all over the floor and creeped up the walls. It’s all around every day. Story isn’t a fad you can move on from and choose to ignore. It’s the fundamental way we humans understand each other and when you understand that, you can learn to use it to connect the people you need to your business. Even – yes, it’s true – the analyzers.