Use Stories to Communicate Information

Last time I asked, what is a story? Here is a story based on a recent experience. How does it communicate information and what information does it communicate?

In April this year, I attended a funeral.  The woman who died was not close, she chaired a voluntary organisation where I was treasurer.  The last time I saw her was when she stepped down in May last year.

Nevertheless, I was deeply moved.  She was 49 years old and had many plans.  Imagine her on New Year’s Eve, looking forward to what 2019 would bring.  Her diagnosis and the disease that overwhelmed her happened between February and April.  After she died her family heard she had qualified for her degree.  It seems utterly pointless and puts all our achievements in perspective.

My father used to say, “You always have 10 years to live.”  Obviously, that is not true for many who read this or indeed perhaps for the author.  We simply don’t know.  The point my father made was we should live as if we have time to complete our plans.  The woman who died had great plans and her mourners were a part of them and saw her plans die with her.

I’ve already lived 15 years longer than she did.  I am in good health and have loads of plans.  I sometimes wish I was 15 years younger because I sense I need more time.  It does run out but also we cannot be certain.  Wouldn’t it be ironic if I gave up for reasons of age and then lived another 3 decades?

Stories Entertain

Perhaps reading this story, you don’t feel entertained.  It’s not a happy story.  But ask yourself these questions.  Did you read through to the end?  Were you moved by the story?  I deliberately held back a lot of detail because you don’t need it. 

Entertainment is not necessarily pleasurable; there is something compelling about a sad story.  A funeral is an ending as well as the beginning of many peoples’ stories.  Her family have much to look forward to, they grieve and move on, perhaps inspired by her example, to build on her story.

We all try to make sense of our lives.  What is the point of a degree I’ll never use?  What is the point of plans that never bear fruit?  We need stories to show us endings are also new beginnings.  We explore these issues because we all make plans. If we give in because one day we’ll die, the world becomes a less colourful place.

Stories Educate

This story aims to educate without hard evidence.  It aims to encourage thinking about mortality.  We face certainty, one day our friends will awake and find we’re no longer with them.  How do we face up to that?  In one sense there is always time and in another it runs out unexpectedly.  How do we respond?  My father’s view is one response.  Does it work for you?

Stories help communicate learning and facts.  Indeed, it is hard to communicate without stories.  If you use statistics to communicate, you project a graph onto a screen but then what?  You can’t leave the audience to draw their own conclusions.  You must point them in some direction.  

Facts delivered as stories are more likely to be remembered and if a story engages the audience, it encourages them to think around your topic.  Whether they pick holes in it or conclude they agree with you, they are likely to interact.  Interaction is much more valuable than agreement.  Don’t believe me?  When did you last share a carefully crafted social media or blog post and receive no feedback at all?  Stories don’t guarantee feedback but increase the possibility you hold attention until the end and help the audience process and raise questions.

Can stories undermine your talk, by taking a topic and making it seem less serious?  If you begin with research and show evidence for your argument, the story reinforces your message.  Back up your story with evidence, even by circulating a fact sheet.

Stories are Emotional

Emotion is a pitfall if you feel too strongly about your story.  Decide what you want your audience to feel and feel that emotion as you tell the story. 

The story may be happy or sad, even traumatic but mostly, especially for business, leave the audience hopeful.  Show there is reason to hope and your audience is moved and inclined to hear your message.

Bring the audience to a point where they see how to address a problem and you bring them to a buying state.  Finish with a call to action and they are likely to follow it if they are moved.

Stories communicate information effectively precisely because they generate positive emotion.  Communicate information in an entertaining story and it is more likely to be remembered. With emotional impact, it is likely to be acted upon, through a call to action.

To achieve this, you must understand plotting, so that is the topic next time.

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About the Author

I've been a community development worker since the early 1980s in Tyneside, Teesside and South Yorkshire. I've also worked nationally for the Methodist Church for eight years supporting community projects through the church's grants programme. These days I am developing an online community development practice combining non-directive consultancy, strategic management, participatory methods and development work online and offline. If you're interested contact me for a free consultation.

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