There is a wonderful story about Earnest Hemmingway. He was having lunch with a group of writers and they placed a bet about who could write the shortest story. Hemmingway quickly jotted on a napkin: “For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never worn.”
Not even 140 characters were required and he won the bet.
A vast tragic narrative explodes with six well-chosen words. It’s genius. It’s startling. And it’s untrue.
Plenty of investigative reporting has proven this story apocryphal with evidence that this clipped narrative ran in a newspaper as an ad when Hemmingway was only a child. Despite the crookedness of this narrative and the cracked, porous foundation on which it stands, we love a good story so deeply we covet it and share it even if it’s not true.
Much evidence has established the impact storytelling has on the brain from Uri Hassan’s research at Princeton to Paul Zak’s work in the Moral Molecule, and so much more. Storytelling influences our beliefs and even our behavior and the better we are able to harness its power, the more powerful and influential we become.
You only need to look at the viral speed of a well-constructed meme to understand that information is secondary to narrative in its capacity to persuade. For better and sometimes worse storytelling is able to move us in a way that raw, naked facts cannot. Aristotle’s schematic of persuasion includes ethos (authority), pathos (emotions) and Logos (Logic). Storytelling is capable of hitting each of these elements in a way that data cannot. Belief affirming memes and anecdotes trigger an emotional response while peer reviewed studies or decades of research are impotent to change our minds.
If we really want to change how people think or behave we have to become masters at telling a good story. I was at a conference where someone said, “We had stories before we lived in houses or planted crops.” Stories are as old as the human experience and we vastly underestimate its currency.
It doesn’t really matter if your audience is a sophisticated wealth strategist, a teenager, or a jury or an attorney for that matter. Your ability to wrap your facts in a well-crafted story is the locus of your power. Most presentations or arguments are built on the specious notion that more information or better facts will move an audience.
But it is the story that is remembered that is repeated and passed on like a precious heirloom. It is the story that compels us to agree and take action.
The tale about Hemmingway has outlived him because it has all of the elements of a great story. Hemmingway is a great central character. He’s a literary giant whose life is as rich as his fiction. He takes a bet and through his mastery of language he astonishes his competitors and of course he writes it on a napkin! The hero is triumphant and the six-word story is a masterpiece of depth, breadth, and brevity all at once. He is a master demonstrating his extraordinary skill under pressure, who doesn’t want to be able to deliver excellence on demand and be immortalized for the effort?
In business, I recommend that you only tell true stories, of course. A well told story about your work builds your credibility, increase trust and influence your client to act. Our story hungry brains love narrative. Whether you are delivering a presentation, meeting a client for the first time or speaking to a crowd of three thousand, find the story and you will build a bond.
Well-crafted business stories are not self-centered tales about success. But rather, they are thoughtful stories about beginnings, failures, deep truths and magnificent battles. We remember stories. They seep into our being and make a home.
If you want to be truly memorable and make an impact, you must learn how to share your story with heart, humanity and dignity. Humans do business with human and there is nothing more human than storytelling.
Ann marie Houghtailing is an expert in revenue generation and teaches businesses and individuals how to leverage storytelling to increase conversion rates. Houghtailing is a speaker, coach, and trainer. Her writing has appeared in Washington Post, Huffington Post, XO Jane, Thought Catalog, Yahoo! Finance, Daily Worth. and San Diego Business Journal. You can learn more about working with Ann marie at annmariehoughtailing.com