Stories are a Powerful Way to Communicate: Here’s Why, and How You Can Get Started

Think about the last policy presentation you attended: how many bullet points from the deck can you remember?

Chances are, not many. Lists of information can be effective, succinct ways of referencing or working through information in the moment. But they’re also difficult for most people to remember.

Now, think of a story you heard recently. Maybe a colleague told you about their car breaking down on 66, a friend told you about a personal experience they had with the issue you’re working on - or maybe you just watched an episode of a television show you enjoy.

You may not remember everything about that story, but you likely remember who was involved, the plot, and the big lessons. You might even still feel a twinge of emotion.

That’s because your brain is wired for stories. Over the last decade, neuroscience researchers have been taking a closer look at what has made stories such a powerful, lasting force in the way we interact with one another. What they’ve found has been remarkable. Stories trigger real biological responses in our brains that focus our attention, improve our memory, and drop our guard. For instance, we focus our attention when we reach a conflict in a story because it causes our bodies to produce more of the cortisol hormone. (Interested in more of the science? Check out these pieces from Lifehacker and The New York Times for short surveys of some of the recent scientific literature.)

Finally, think about a Hill staffer. Imagine the time they’ve spent that day in meetings, briefings, and presentations. Earning their attention and getting them to remember your points can be a real challenge.

It’s no surprise then that many advocacy organizations in Washington have found stories to be powerful advocacy tools: they are memorable, they earn the attention of your listeners, and can even help you build rapport with your audience.

Stories Are Narratives, But Narratives Aren’t Always Stories. That Matters.

Stories and narratives are not the same thing. A narrative is an account of a series of events, each one connected to the next. But story is a type of narrative with a unique 5-part structure. Every story has a character, a goal, conflict, plot, and resolution, as you can see in the graphic on the right.

That structure matters - a lot - because story structure is what triggers many of the biological responses in listeners that make them so uniquely powerful. For instance, the conflict is what makes a story so good at capturing someone’s attention.

Take a look at Hollywood, which has mastered the storytelling structure. Not only do all their movies and television shows follow this format, even individual scenes do. A character enters the setting (an archaeologist wearing a fedora), they have a goal or a motivation (take the idol), someone or something stands in their way (a booby trapped temple), they try to achieve the goal another way (slips the bag of sand on the pedestal…), and they or their situation changes as a result of their actions (run from the giant rolling stone!).

Or think about the cliffhangers of your favorite television show. Before every commercial and at the end of every season, the story reaches a conflict. This gets your attention and ratchets up the tension to make sure that you’ll come back after the commercial break or summer vacation.

Still, we often conflate story with other forms of narrative and discourse, as seen on the left. For instance, in Washington we frequently say “story” when we’re really talking about an argument. But an argument, which we’ll define here as a series of logical reasons and evidence used to persuade, isn’t necessarily made out of the same components as a story.

Stories still have an important role to play in arguments. A compelling story inserted into an argument can make it more engaging. Consider how an attorney inserts stories into their opening statements. Or how a salesperson presents their argument through the structure of a story: context, a goal, the obstacle, and a solution only offered by the salesperson (see The Challenger Sale).

Two Approaches to Find and Use Stories More in Your Communications

If you’re having trouble figuring out how to communicate in story form, one strong approach is to begin by finding your conflict, or obstacle. That’s because the anchor to any story is its conflict. Every other element of the structure flows from or builds on top of the conflict. Conflict opposes the goal, is made significant by the character and context, sets the contours for the plot, and inspires or triggers the resolution.

Once you have your conflict, you can work backwards to find the other elements of your story. What goals does the conflict stand in the way of? Who would this conflict be meaningful for? How does the character move around the conflict? How does the conflict change the character or their situation?

Another popular approach comes from (now-former) Pixar story artist Emma Coats. In her list of “22 Rules of Storytelling” she developed while at Pixar, Coats offers a mad lib approach to finding a story’s structure:

“Once upon a time there was _____. Every day, _____. One day, _____. Because of that, _____. Because of that, _____. Until finally, _____.”

This simple exercise is an effective method for defining the major steps in your story. With the framework in place, you can focus on getting the details right and practicing your delivery.

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