I’ll probably never marry a German guy. And one story is to blame for this. The story implanted long time ago. It was a tale my mom used to read me when I was about six. The story of proud Princess Wanda sticked to me like glue. Why? For the reasons some stories are made to stick. They are simple, unexpected, credible, concrete, emotional and… they take a form of a story.
Princess Wanda (reputedly lived in 8th century Poland) was the daughter of Krakus, legendary founder of Kraków. Upon her father’s death, she became queen of the Poles, but committed suicide to avoid an unwanted marriage. To a German guy, obviously. Rytygier the German leader, first wanted to marry Wanda and invaded her lands only when she refused. Here, he died during the ensuing battle, while it was Wanda who afterward committed suicide, as a thanks and a sacrifice to the pagan gods who gave her victory. In yet other versions of the story, Wanda commits suicide, by throwing herself into the Vistula river, because she knows that as long as she is alive, there will be future potential suitors who will use her refusal to marry as a pretext for an invasion.
Even now when I read the circulating versions of the legend, I find it amazing how little I really remembered. Only the crucial facts and strong emotions. Now wonder. This is exactly the way stories work. By implanting strong neurobiological patterns into our brain. The simpler and more credible the story the better. Aristotle – the ancient genius philosopher who set standards for modern day rhetoric insisted the story should firmly rest on three touchstones: ethos (credibility of the speaker), logos (data and facts presented in context) and pathos (the passion of the speaker and emotions the story evokes). My mom surely was credible to me at that time, the facts were clear and concrete (war, death and stuff) and emotions were strong. The story stuck.
Why use stories?
Stories explain the world. They teach us right from wrong. They help us shape who we are and how we function in the society. But most of all and most importantly they are the perfect tool to communicate the things that matter most. They are after all data with soul. And that soul part is important. The way our brains respond to stories clearly shows that there is no better tool out there to use. Brain scans reveal that stories stimulate and engage the human brain, helping the speaker connect with the audience and making it much more likely that the audience will agree with the speaker’s point of you. If you give people raw data, they will either agree or disagree (if they pay attention at all). If you give them stories the audience will participate.
The great truths and mechanisms this world operates upon have often been coached in fascinating stories. The ability to tell stories and to understand them is universal. Now we have science to prove that there is no better way to sell ideas to others. One of the pioneers working of discovering the neuronal patterns underlying the mechanism behind stories that work is Uri Hasson, assistant professor of Princeton University. His experiments include activities such as listening to stories and watching movies and visual stories while his subjects’ brains are scanned with fMRI machines to determine how our brains processes the informations in a form of a story. What they have discovered proves that not only stories work better than powerpoint slides and excel spreadsheets but they actually can help captivate attention and persuade others.
Hasson and his colleagues have discovered that personal stories actually cause the brains of both storyteller and listener to sync up. Professor calls this phenomena „brain-to-brain coupling”. Meaning that the speaker’s and the listener’s brain exhibit joint, temporally coupled response patterns. It’s like a mind-meld between the speaker and the listener. That is why the stories work. What is more – our brains are more active when we hear stories. A PowerPoint slide with bullet points activates the language processing center: Wernicke’s area and Broka’s area. The stories activate the whole brain: the sensory cortex, the olfactory cortex, the motor cortex, the visual… Basically your brain on good stories lights up like Christmas tree.
Personal struggles that work and… don’t
If stories trigger brain-to-brain „coupling”, then part of the solution to winning people over to your argument is to tell more stories. Remembering that when it comes to pitching stories must be not only crafted perfectly but they have to support our idea, without shifting the focus. When I had a privilege of working with the second batch of startups participating in ABC Accelerator program in Ljubljana I had a chance to listen to one truly emotional survival story.
My name is Jovan and some time ago I started experiencing intense headaches. They were excruciating. I could not sleep. I could not work. I lost the energy to go on. Looking for the right diagnosis I spent countless hours banging on the wrong doors, waiting the lines and loosing hope. Finally with the help of friends and family and needless to say, private connections, I was diagnosed. I had a rare case of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I survived. The many friends and acquaintances I met during the road through hell of medical services did not.
The story served as the intro for the 8-minute pitch, presenting Vismedic – the telemedicine platform making it easier and faster for patients find the right diagnosis, connecting them with established, global network of professionals. The only problem was that the story so strong and so personal directed the attention and shadowed the whole presentation with one type of patient – cancer one. And that was not the intention. We added tweaks to quickly move from the moving (and great story) to a more broad spectrum. What you need to understand that sometimes the story becomes so dominant that in a pitch it totally shadows the rest of the narrative.
Stories about other people
Personal stories work miracles but sometimes we need to explain the scheme or pattern that we cannot find the right personal story to illustrate with. That is when stories about other people come handy. And they work as well. Only when told the right way. Sir Ken Robinson, the world know leader in the area of creativity and innovation once wanted to prove his point that schools kill creativity. During his most popular TED talk of all time (nearly 37 million views at the time of this writing) he uses the story to address the issue.
However his story is not about himself. It revolves around a central character of Gillian Lynne – a world known choreographer behind Cats and Phantom of the Opera. When you listen to Robins you will see the story is credible, concrete and emotion but most of all it serves as the best tool to prove his point. He reinforces the story by the great conclusion. And that is the way to tell stories about other people. just like personal ones they need to fit the pattern and reinforce our theses.
When working with Slovenian startups I also had a chance to practice one pitch that initially contained a story about other people. It was a presentation by MoneyRebel: an app that is so much more than just a money tracer. It is a solution that helps people be better with their finances by offering them the knowledge they need in the world where 67% are diagnosed as financial illiterates. They initially wanted to include the story of Zvedlana – a real character enduring horrible struggles with finances. It was a dramatic story that proved to be to dramatic after all. And again it shifted the focus, making the audiences think that the app would serve the extreme cases like people loosing homes and ending up on the street. In this case we used impressive and shocking data instead of the story. Sometimes the story is just too much.
What’s your story?
Dale Carnegie says that the truthful, inside story of almost any man’s life–if told modestly and without offering egotism–is most entertaining. He adds that it is almost sure-fire speech material. When preparing for your next pitch, business presentation and lecture think of a story you could use to make the intro better, to captivate attention and to make the brain sync. After all that is what you want and the stories (good ones) will help you get there. You can find out more about storytelling from the books I mention in this post. Enjoy. And… do not hesitate to marry the German guys if they are the right ones. I’ll surely give them a try.