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How to Get People to Do Stuff: The Power of Stories

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Our stories about ourselves deeply affect how we think and behave. If you can change someone’s story, you can change behavior.
This chapter is from the book

NO IDEA IN this book is more powerful than the idea of using stories to affect behavior. Everything we do is related to a story we have about who we are and how we relate to others. A lot of these stories are unconscious. Whether conscious or unconscious, our stories about ourselves deeply affect how we think and behave. If you can change someone’s story, you can change behavior.

I remember a moment many years ago when I was having a series of crises. I was 30 years old. A long-term relationship had just ended in a difficult way. I had moved to a new city where I did not know anyone. I had started a job I wasn’t sure I liked. I had rented a place to live that I couldn’t really afford, and I was sleeping on a mattress on the floor because I didn’t have the money to buy furniture. Then I discovered my new home was infested with fleas.

I took all my clothes to the laundromat a few blocks from where my new job was located and put them in a washing machine. I ran out of my office an hour later and put my clothes in the dryer, then ran back to the office. When I went out again an hour later to get my clothes out of the dryer, I discovered that someone had stolen them.

I still remember, many years later, what it felt like going back to work. I sat quietly in my office at the company I had joined less than a week ago. My head was in my hands. I had no friends or family for hundreds of miles. I felt very vulnerable and very alone. I had to figure out on my own why all these things were happening and what to do about them. Why did I seem to be making a series of bad decisions? Should I have taken the job? Should I have moved so far from friends and family? Why did I rent such an expensive place to live in when I couldn’t afford it?

Then I had an a-ha moment.

In the 10 years before the current crisis, I had some tough times, including both of my parents dying. I had to be strong and independent and take care of myself. I had a belief that said, “I am a strong person. I can handle any crisis.” I realized that I was (unconsciously) making decisions that would eventually cause more crises, at least partly so I could overcome them to prove to myself that I was strong. I had a belief that I was a strong person who could overcome all obstacles. I had a persona of a strong, independent person. That persona had been helpful and useful. I’d had a series of setbacks and I needed to think of myself as strong in order to make it through.

But the persona and the story around it had outlived its usefulness. The story and persona had become problems. I realized that I needed to change the story so I could change my persona. I knew that if I could change both my story and my persona, then I would start to make different decisions. And, in turn, those decisions would result in an easier life with fewer obstacles. I would find myself making decisions that resulted in easier and more pleasant outcomes.

I said out loud, “My life is easy and graceful.” I took a few minutes and wrote down how my life was going to be different, about the type of person I would need to be in order for my life to be easy and graceful, about the things I would do differently if I were the kind of person who had an easy and graceful life. I would ask people for help—not just friends and family, but even people I didn’t know well. I wrote a new story for my new persona.

One of my new coworkers walked by my office, leaned her head in and said, “How’s it going?” The old persona would have put on a brave face and said, “Great, it’s all great!” But the new persona said, “Well, actually, not so well.”

I proceeded to tell her the story of the fleas and the laundromat. It turned out that she had an extra bedroom in her apartment, and she invited me to stay there while I got everything sorted out. I called my landlord. He tried fumigating the place while I stayed with my coworker. When he wasn’t successful in getting rid of the fleas, I talked him into letting me out of the lease. My coworker became a friend, and suggested that I move in with her instead of looking for another place. I saved money and gained a new friend. She helped me adjust to my new city, and introduced me to her friends. I began to make decisions that would make my life easier. And, in fact, my life turned around and did get a lot easier. I learned how to ask for help and rely on others. I had changed my story. I had changed my persona. I was no longer a “strong person ready to handle crises.” I was a “person ready to accept help and depend on friends.”

Now there’s research that proves the power of stories to shape personal stories, personas, and, by extension, to change beliefs, behaviors, and lives. In his book Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change (Wilson 2011), Timothy Wilson talks about the research on “story editing.” Here’s the definition from his book:

a set of techniques designed to redirect people’s narratives about themselves and the social world in a way that leads to lasting changes in behavior.

I didn’t realize it when I was going through my experience with the fleas and the laundromat, but I was using story editing to change my behavior. I had used story editing on myself.

What about with other people? Can you use story editing with other people to get them to do stuff? The answer is yes.

In this chapter we’ll talk about how to use story editing, as well as another technique, story prompting, to get people to do stuff. You’ll learn about how to use stories to influence people and why stories are so powerful. We’ll also talk about personas—self-descriptions that are intertwined with the stories we tell about ourselves to ourselves and to others. You’ll learn how to work with existing personas to get people to do stuff, and how to get people to change their personas.

It’s hard to change behavior when you’re working against someone’s existing persona. In many of the chapters in this book you’re working to get people to do stuff with methods that don’t actually change the person’s own view of who he or she is. But the strategies in this chapter will help you activate or even change an existing persona to get people to take certain actions. The easiest way by far to get people to do stuff is to get them to change their own story. Getting people to change their story, and thereby change their persona, is the most powerful and long-lasting way to get people to do stuff.

I Feel Your Pain (Literally!)

When we read or hear a story, our brains react partly as though we’re experiencing the story ourselves.

A story contains a large amount of information in digestible chunks. Stories break down events into smaller units so we can better understand the information being communicated.

When you hear the word “storyteller,” you might think of some overly dramatic person telling a story to children using different voices. But everyone is a storyteller.

Think about your communication with other people throughout a typical day. You wake up in the morning and tell your family about a dream you had (story). At work you tell a coworker about what happened at the new product design meeting the day before (story). At lunch you tell your friend about a family reunion you have coming up and your plans to take time off to go (story). After work you speak with your neighbor about the dog you encountered while you were on your evening walk (story).

Most of the communication in our daily lives is in the form of a story. Yet we rarely stop and think about stories and storytelling. Storytelling is so ubiquitous that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. If someone at work suggested you attend a workshop on how to communicate clearly at work, you might be interested. But you might scoff if someone suggested that you attend a workshop on storytelling. It’s interesting how unaware and unappreciative most people are about the major way we communicate.

Stories involve many parts of the brain. When we’re reading or listening to a story, there are many parts of our brain that are active:

  • The auditory part of the new brain that deciphers sound (if the story is being listened to)
  • Vision and text processing (if the story is being read)
  • All the visual parts of the brain (as we imagine the characters in the story)
  • And, often, the emotional part of the midbrain.

A story not only conveys information, it allows us to feel what the character in the story feels. Tania Singer’s research on empathy (Singer 2004) studied the parts of the brain that react to pain.

First, she used fMRI scans to see what parts of the brain were active when participants experienced pain. She discovered that there were some parts of the brain that processed where the pain came from and how intense the pain really was. Other parts of the brain separately processed how unpleasant the pain felt and how much the pain bothered the person feeling it.

Then she asked participants to read stories about people experiencing pain. When participants read stories about someone in pain, the parts of the brain that processed where the pain comes from and how intense it is were not active, but the other areas that process how unpleasant the pain is were active.

We literally experience at least a part of other people’s pain when we hear a story about pain. Likewise, we experience at least a part of other people’s joy, sadness, confusion, and knowledge.

Stories are how we understand each other’s experience.

Anecdotes versus Stories

Because of the way our brains react to stories, stories are the best way to communicate information. We’re more likely to be committed, take action, and make a decision if we’ve experienced something concretely ourselves. Stories simulate actual experience. If you tell people a story, they’re more likely to be willing to take action on the information than if you just present data.

Let’s say you have to make a presentation to the department heads at work about your latest conversations with your customers. You want the group to agree to fund a new project based on the data. You interviewed 25 customers and surveyed another 100, and have lots of important data to share. Then you’re going to ask for funding.

Your first thought might be to present a summary of the data in a numerical/statistical/data-driven format, for example:

  • 75 percent of the customers we interviewed...
  • Only 15 percent of the customers responding to the survey indicated...

But this data-based approach will be less persuasive than stories and anecdotes. You may want to include the data, but your presentation will be more powerful if you focus on one or more anecdotes, such as, “Mary M from San Francisco shared the following story about how she uses our product”; and then go on to tell Mary’s story.

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