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Prompt a New Story

In the beginning of this chapter I related my experience with how I changed my story of being a “strong survivor” to someone who has an “easy and graceful” life. In his book Redirect, Timothy Wilson describes a large body of impressive research on how stories can change behavior in the long term. Wilson calls this technique “story editing.”

If you can get people to rewrite their story related to what it is you want them to do, this is likely to result in large and long-term change. Story editing has been used to help with post-traumatic stress disorder, and with teens at risk. But it can also be effective in getting an employee to come in to work on time, or to switch from being a solo “hot dog” to being a collaborative team player.

The technique of story editing is so simple that it doesn’t seem possible that it can result in such deep and profound change. In other chapters I describe some strategies for getting people to do stuff that are a lot of work, even to change a somewhat simple behavior. If it’s that much work to change a simple behavior, then how can it be easy to change a whole life in a few minutes?

Story editing is so powerful that it can seem like magic, but it’s not. When we write a new story that describes who we are, why we behave as we do, and how we relate to others, that story changes our persona, and we will, consciously and unconsciously, start to make decisions and act in ways that are consistent with that story. You also now know that it’s even more powerful if you can get someone to write out the story on paper, in longhand.

But what if you can’t get someone to stop, think, and write out a new story? Does that mean that you can’t use the powerful effect of stories? Luckily the answer is you still can use stories to change behavior. Even if you can’t get someone to sit down and write out a new story, you can provide a story for them, and that’s almost as good.

Here’s an example from Wilson’s research on college students:

Some college students were not doing well in their first year of school. The students were getting low grades on one or more tests, and had started thinking things like “I’m in over my head,” “Maybe I don’t belong at this college,” or “I’m not smart enough.”

The students were falling into a self-defeating story about themselves. Because they began to believe that they were in over their heads, they started behaving that way. They stopped studying and started skipping classes. This, of course, resulted in more low grades, and convinced them further that they couldn’t be successful.

Not all students react this way when they have trouble. Some students might create a different story, for example: “This course is harder than I thought it would be,” “I guess my high school work didn’t prepare me well enough for this class,” or “I’m going to have to work harder, study more, maybe get a tutor.” These students’ stories led to more studying and getting more help, and therefore better grades.

But here’s the question. Without asking students to write out a new story for themselves, can you quickly prompt a story for the “self-defeating” students that is more empowering and hopeful?

Wilson had the students with the self-defeating stories come in to participate in an experiment. They thought they were being asked to take a survey of first year students’ attitudes about college life. Wilson told them that they would see the results from earlier surveys of older students, so they would know what kind of questions would be on their survey. In actuality Wilson was showing them the previous survey results in order to prompt them with a new story.

The student participants then saw survey results of these older students that showed that many of the students had problems with grades during their first year, but that their grades improved over time. They watched video interviews of four older students who told the story about how they realized that the course work was harder than they thought it would be, and that they had to work harder, study more, and get help.

The students in the videos talked about their grades steadily increasing over time.

Altogether the participants spent 30 minutes hearing from other students who had problems with low grades, but then improved their grades. That was all they did. They didn’t get any counseling or learn about better study habits. They just heard a different story.

The participants didn’t know that the purpose of the study was to improve their grades. What Wilson hoped was that he had prompted a new story, even if the participants were not aware of it. He hoped that he had prompted a story such as “Maybe it’s not hopeless. Maybe I’m like those other students. They tried harder and were able to raise their grades. Maybe I can, too.”

The story prompting worked. Wilson reports that the participants achieved better grades in the following year than a randomly assigned control group who did not get the story prompting. The participants were also less likely to drop out of college.

Thirty minutes of reading and watching videos resulted in students working harder, improving their grades, and staying in school.

You can get people to change their behavior in big ways, and with a small amount of effort, if you can do a reasonably good job at

  • Guessing the current story that is currently operating and currently influencing their behavior
  • Coming up with an alternate story
  • Figuring out a way to expose them to the new story

With story prompting, Wilson doesn’t talk about the difference between telling people a new story versus letting them “discover” the story on their own. But my sense is that the latter is better. The key is that people have to change their own story. If you just give them another story and say, “Here’s the story you have and here’s the story you should have,” it likely has less impact than letting them discover a new story for themselves and comparing it to a story they may not even realize they have. With story prompting, it’s more effective to tell them a story about someone else and let them draw the parallels. Sometimes less is more!

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