By Kirsty Costa
John Montagu spent a lot of his free time playing cards but didn’t want to interrupt a game when hunger struck. So, in order to keep one hand free, he came up with the idea to eat beef between two slices of toast. The year was 1748 and John was a British politician, the 4th Earl of Sandwich. His newly invented dish became one of the most popular meal inventions in the Western World.
I can’t remember who told me this story but it has helped me remember how the sandwich was invented. Stories are much more memorable than bullet points, statistics or simple anecdotes.
Sharing stories is fundamental to the way we communicate and has been proven to be one of the most powerful ways to get people on board with your ideas and projects. It’s time to choose stories over bullet points!
Why is storytelling so effective? When we read bullet points and decode words into meaning, the language processing parts in the brain are stimulated. And that’s about it. Nothing much else happens. When we are being told a story, however, a lot more parts of the brain are activated. As we listen and process a story we are more likely to turn it into our own experience and transform it into own ideas. For example, if someone is telling us about a delicious meal, the sensory part of the brain is stimulated. In fact, the activity in the brains of a storyteller and their listeners can synchronise through this shared experience.
Furthermore, storytelling reflects how we think – connecting cause and effect. A common format used by big business and not-for-profits alike is the ‘Here is How I Struggled with the Problem and Here’s How I Overcame it Story’ (a.k.a. ‘Proof Story’). I still get goose bumps listening to Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk about “fake it til you make it”.
Stories like Amy’s are one of the best tools for people trying to create social or environmental change. They allow a storyteller to recommend an outcome without having to suggest it directly. This is a technique that more and more sustainable schools are adopting.
A secondary school I worked with a few years ago was having trouble engaging students in reducing litter. The story I told them was about how students from another school dressed up as local animal, the platypus, and walked around the school giving high-fives to students who put their rubbish in the bin. It was totally daggy but it got people laughing and started a story about how litter ends up in the local creek. In order to convince their principal, students then retold my story in their own words and the campaign went ahead.
You don’t have to know everything about everything, you just need to know how to retell good stories.
Another approach when trying to create change is to source authentic storytellers in your community. Les Robinson proposes, “Let people hear the voices of farmers, parents or executives who’ve seen a solution work in their own lives… and are happy to share their stories. So hand them the microphone” (read more in his book ‘Changeology‘). Stories serve as glue to unify communities. They spread from staff to staff member, parent to parent and student to student. Strong stories can be told and retold. They become infectious.
A 2012 Twitter campaign backfired on McDonald’s when it tweeted, “When u make something w/ pride, people can taste it – McD potato supplier #McDstories”. People were quick to judge the tweet as inauthentic and took the hashtag to start trash-talking McDonald’s food. 1600 tweets later and the damage was done – McDonald’s quickly pulled their campaign. If you aren’t genuine or your message seems manufactured, your audience will see right through you.
One way to do this is to share your ‘This is Why I Do What I Do’ story. Your stories of personal passion and commitment can connect with your audience and gives a clear context for your ideas. This type of story is a great way to start a speech or a presentation.
Storytelling is more than just a tool. It is an instrument of change because it draws on the active participation of individuals. It dwells in the experience of its tellers and listeners — sparking, creating, energizing, unifying, generating emergent truths, celebrating the complexity, the fuzziness and the messiness of living.
Read other CERES Education Our Say articles at http://dev.sustainability.ceres.org.au/project/our-say/ and join the conversation on social media.