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.

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