Posted on February 9, 2021
I’m on the phone with my dad. Again. We’re discussing the dilemma of whether to leave or stay in my Ph.D. program. Well, really I’m discussing it out loud to myself while he graciously stays on the line.
I’ve been seeking answers for months. Desperate for the perfect piece of advice that will magically clarify everything and point me in the right direction. I haven’t yet figured out how to listen to my intuition and not outward noise.
Presumably exhausted with my circular thinking, my dad eventually cuts in.
“Did I ever tell you about when I switched careers from broadcast journalism to finance?” he asks.
I pause. He proceeds to describe his early years of being overworked and underpaid, worrying about financial stability, questioning the vitality of the industry, and ultimately taking on a chance on his side hobby (the stock market).
He says only in retrospect is it clear that what we leave behind can serve us well in the next thing. For example, those journalism skills (research, writing, and speaking) landed him a radio show about investments that helped grow his client base.
Not once did my dad suggest I leave the Ph.D. program. He simply told a story and let me choose what I took away from it. Exactly like what I just did here with you.
So, is it true that stories resonate more with us than facts or advice? And if so, why?
Psychologist Jerome Bruner found that facts are 22% more likely to be remembered if they are part of a story. This is because our brains store and retrieve memories easier when there is emotion attached to the memory.
Effective storytelling elicits emotions such as sadness, joy, anger, surprise and stirs up virtues like hope and curiosity. Stories move us and even compel us toward action. They might influence, inspire, or inform. In my opinion, the most memorable stories do all three.
Emotions are critical in decision-making. Indeed, one study found that patients with damage to the part of the brain responsible for processing emotion had significant impairments in decision-making. It seems facts and advice alone won’t do much to move the needle.
Kendall Haven, an expert in the science of story structure, writes: “Your goal in every communication is to influence your target audience (change their current attitudes, belief, knowledge, and behavior). Information alone rarely changes any of these.”
I’d go a step further to say that your intention as the speaker or writer also impacts how well it sticks. My dad had no stake in the game when he shared his career change journey with me. It was simply an offering of empathy and support.
Have you ever shared a personal struggle with someone and they used it as an opportunity to air their grievances? Maybe you sought advice about work from someone who just got fired from the company or about martial struggles from someone newly divorced.
Stories stick when they’re told from healed scars not open wounds. Pay attention to the storyteller’s intention. The best ones will guide from love, not instruct from pain.
As Maya Angelou so famously wrote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Another reason stories work better than advice is that they disarm the listener by taking down their defenses. We might not even know we have walls up when we ask for advice, but we often do.
When sharing my graduate school dilemma with a friend, he said, “You could pick a different research area” or “Maybe give it another year and then decide.”
These were valid suggestions. But since I already found myself wanting to withdraw, I subconsciously disregarded any advice on staying. I might have been more receptive had he shared a time when he felt disillusioned at work, sought support from a supervisor, implemented some changes, and decided that staying paid off.
Research conducted with experienced lawyers and judges showed that stories (and the emotions they evoked) were more persuasive in their rulings than the facts of the case alone.
But unlike the courtroom pursuit of objective truth and justice, our daily lives are full of ambiguity. We seek advice for issues that rarely have one “right” answer. A well-told story leaves space for the listener to interpret their own meaning or course of action.
This is why stories have such persuasive power. One study argues stories disrupt “the ability to evaluate facts, rather than just biasing a person to think positively.”
This isn’t to suggest we avoid advice altogether. Sometimes honest feedback or data-driven arguments are exactly what someone needs. But there are additional ways to help others like asking how you can best be supportive, offering a past struggle as guidance, or simply listening.
Anyone can share facts. Sally can tell you that 40 million adults struggle with anxiety disorders nationwide. But what if she tells you what it feels like to have a panic attack, the inability to get a good breath, and the physical sensation of being in fight-or-flight mode?
Maybe you can relate or utilize it to relate to others. She stops becoming a statistic and starts becoming a human. There is more emotion and vulnerability attached to one’s testimony than expertise alone.
Credibility matters. We find people more credible if they can demonstrate they’ve walked in our shoes. The benefit of receiving empathy is that we feel less alone. Stories allow the personal to become the universal. They help us normalize experiences that otherwise feel abnormal.
As Glennon Doyle wrote in Untamed, “Imagination is the first step on the bridge of compassion. It is the shortest distance between two people, two cultures, two ideologies, two experiences.”
Unlike advice to be followed or discarded, stories allow the listener to approach it from where they currently are. The listener can consider their call to action on their own terms. They might wonder: What resonated most with me? Would I have responded similarly? What would I have done differently in that scenario?
My dad’s story about changing careers illustrated that he could understand my predicament because he went through something similar decades ago. It also provided me a tangible way to envision solutions and find hope in unexpected directions.
So, how might you tell a story the next time someone asks for your advice?
My dad didn’t begin with “I think you should leave your Ph.D. program because I left journalism and it turned out great…” No. He let his experience speak for itself.
Malcolm Gladwell is a master nonfiction writer, weaving story within story like a Russian nesting doll to build suspense and drive home a point.
Think about why your favorite novels resonate with you. They make you feel something without the narrator telling you how to feel.
This is most applicable in job interviews or large-scale presentations, but the STAR method (situation, task, action, resolution) provides a framework for responding to a question with a meaningful story.
Make sure the problematic situation(s) is apparent, especially if there is more than one. What made it so challenging? Did you have the tools or resources to address the situation? If not, how did you find them?
Failure is our receipt for courage. Our failures show the world: “Hey, here is something or someone I took a bold chance on!” Not everything in life has to work out how we planned for the risk to have been worth it.
Failure forces a reset and encourages self-reflection, innovative ideas, and recalibrated goals. The only successful people I trust are those who know failure personally and don’t fear discussing it.
Samuel Smiles wrote, “We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success…and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery.”
The next time you find yourself in a position to advise a friend, family member, or colleague, tap into your storybook reservoir. What have you experienced — or failed at — that might help them? If you have a beating heart, chances are you have plenty of material.