100 Things You Should Know About People: #56: People Process Information Best In Story Form

Picture of a storybook
Stories capture and hold attention

One day, many years ago, when I was early in my career, I found myself in front of a classroom full of people who did not want to be there. Their boss had told them they had to attend the class I was giving. I knew that many, even most, of them thought the class was a waste of their time, and knowing that was making me nervous. I decided to be brave and forge ahead. Certainly my great content would grab their attention, right?

I took a deep breath, smiled, and with a strong voice, I started the session with a big “Hello Everyone. I’m certainly glad to be here.” More than half the class weren’t even looking at me. They were reading their emails and writing out to do lists. One guy had the morning newspaper open and was reading that. It was one of those moments where seconds seem like hours. I thought to myself in panic, What am I going to do?

Then I had an idea. “Let me tell you a story”, I said. At the word “story” everyone’s head jerked up and all eyes were on me. I knew I only had a few seconds to start a story that would hold their attention. “It was 1988 and a team of Navy officers on the USS Vincennes in the Persian Gulf, were staring at a computer screen.  Something had just appeared on the radar in protected air space. They had orders to shoot down any hostile aircraft. Was this a hostile aircraft? Was it a military plane? Was it a commercial airliner? They had 2 minutes to decide what to do.”

I had them! Everyone was interested and riveted. I finished the story, which nicely made my point about why it’s important to design usable computer interfaces, and we were off to a great start. The rest of the day flew by, everyone was interested and engaged, and I got some of my best teacher evaluations ever. Now I make sure to use that magic phrase, “Let me tell you a story” at least once in every talk I give, or class I teach.

Stories are very powerful — They grab and hold attention.  But they do more than that. They also help people process information and they imply causation.

Tried and true story formats — Aristotle identified the basic structure of stories, and many people have expounded on his ideas since. One model is the basic three act structure: Beginning, Middle and the End. This may not sound very unusual, but when Aristotle came up with it over 2000 years ago it was probably pretty radical.

In the Beginning you introduce your audience to the setting, the characters and the situation or conflict. In the story above I introduced you to the setting (I had to give a class), the characters (me and students), and the conflict (the students don’t want to be there.

My story was very short, so the Middle part was short too. In the middle part of a story, there are typically obstacles and conflicts that the main character has to triumph over. These are usually somewhat resolved, but not completely resolved. In my story above the main character tried her usual opening and it failed Then she started to panic.

In the End of the story the obstacles come to a peak and then are resolved. In my story above I thought of what to do (tell a story to the class), which I did, and which succeeded.

This is just a basic outline. There are many variations and plots that can be added and woven in.

Classic stories — There are many stories that appear over and over in literature and in movies. Here are some of the popular themes that have been identified:

The Great Journey

Coming of Age

The Sacrifice

The Epic Battle

The Fall From Grace




The Trick


Stories can be used to imply causation — Stories imply causation. Because stories usually involve some form of chronological narrative (first this happens, next this happens), they can imply causation even if it is not there. People are quick to assign causality. The human brain is always looking for causation. Stories make it even easier to make this causal leap. (Chabris and Simon, 2010)

Stories are important in all communications — Sometimes I hear people say, “Stories are fine for some communications, but not the one I’m working on now. I’m designing the website for the Annual Report of the company. Stories aren’t appropriate there; it’s just financial information.” Not true. There are always appropriate stories you can use any time you are trying to communicate.

How do you use stories in your communication? How could you use them more effectively?

For reading about how stories imply causation, see the book, The Invisible Gorilla, by Chabris and Simon, 2010. For a whole chapter on why stories are important in communication, and the research on this topic, see my book: Neuro Web Design: What makes them click?

100 Things You Should Know About People: #57 -- There Are 4 Types Of Creativity
100 Things You Should Know About People: #55 - During Sleep You Consolidate Learnings and Memories

11 Replies to “100 Things You Should Know About People: #56: People Process Information Best In Story Form”

  1. Pingback: Great Mystery Stories
  2. I love stories. Who doesn’t? I agree with everything in this article. It gives life to otherwise mundane information. It’s not a simple statement anymore, but it becomes somewhat humanized. It’s amazing how much more of an impact stories can give rather than regurtating data.

    I haven’t finished reading this book, but I highly recommend it: Storytelling for User Experience http://rosenfeldmedia.com/books/storytelling/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.